June 2022

Nuances of peacebuilding

Tanya Vatsa appraises a book offering an in-depth analysis of global conflicts and why nations so often fail to establish lasting, consolidated peace

The power to hurt is bargaining power, to exploit it is diplomacy’ – Thomas Schelling

Geopolitics today is governed by two major tools which shape the interactions of nation states: diplomacy and deterrence. They are employed as means to an end, which is the maintenance of peace and security. Post-World War II, proponents of the UN swore they would ensure that no war would again ravage on such a massive scale. While they may have succeeded so far with the larger goal, they could not prevent local and regional conflicts from taking a huge toll on human life and harmony.

Diplomacy advocates tactful communication among parties. Deterrence, according to the late US foreign policy and national security expert Thomas Schelling, is the ‘diplomatic use of coercion/violence as a way to change the behaviour of adversaries’. Scholars have agreed that deterrence demands a nuanced shaping of an opponent’s perception so that they see the alternative to aggression as more attractive than war. For it to work, the fear of potential retaliation demands an illusion of ‘persuasive’ use of force.

Geopolitics in its inherent architecture, however, is a lot more complex. Schelling reminds us that nations are known to bluff and we need to understand the intention behind their moves. History suggests that aggressor motivations are often grounded in ‘aggressive opportunism’, wherein there is a desperate sense of the need to act. These kinds of knee-jerk invasions have been witnessed under the garb of ideological battles, wars on terror, special military operations, nuclear non-proliferation, and so on.

When both the master tools fail to prevent an aggressor from acting, the result is an unwarranted conflict which brings chaos and deterioration of a city/country/region. Many regions have been flattened to rubble as a consequence of such conflicts. In the African continent and the Middle East, for example, ‘conflict contagion’ (the spreading of disorder to adjacent areas) has prevented development and economic rebuilding. The oppressors vary, from governments to non-state actors, militant outfits and rebellious disturbed civilian outfits.

Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices and Politics by Richard Caplan, OUP Oxford; 1st edition (15 Jun. 2021)

Some of the dominant drivers of conflict, as widely witnessed, have been unresolved regional tensions, illicit political and economic interests, absent or co-opted state institutions, power poles competing for greater political and military dominance, the need to secure control over scarce valuable resources, and ideological differences.

The interventionist strategy changes as the conflict progresses from one stage to another. Routine diplomacy is modified into preventive diplomacy when tensions begin to surface. As the brewing conflict escalates to violent armed clashes, nations launch into the crisis diplomacy phase. Like most exercises, conflicts have a peak phase with aggravated confrontations, which then dips to ceasefire talks or international intervention to minimise the brunt of wartime atrocities.

Apart from the nations embroiled directly, there are numerous players involved behind the scenes. Today’s conflicts are fuelled by imported arms and ammunitions from state actors, fragmented factions of native militant groups, off-shoots of major terrorist outfits and civil organisations. Most 21st century conflicts have been protracted over lengthy periods of time. This has been perpetuated by the mushrooming of warring parties in an attempt to claim a piece of the divided pie.

There is a high rate of conflict relapse among countries emerging from violent conflict

Dynamics of post-conflict peacebuilding

The conflict resolution process has many stages: getting the combatants to the negotiating table, to agree upon a ceasefire.Then begins the crucial phase of ‘building peace,’ and finally establishing a sustainable, durable and ‘stable’ peace.

Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices and Politics, the most recent book by Oxford Professor Richard Caplan, is concerned with assessing the quality of the peace that ‘peacebuilders’ endeavour to establish in conflict-affected societies, whether they are multilateral organisations, non-governmental organisations or local parties.

Caplan reflects on the idea of ‘stable peace’, one of the many dimensions of quality of peace. He notes there is a high rate of conflict relapse among countries emerging from violent conflict: peace ‘survives’ in only about half of all cases where it has been established following a civil war. It is important, therefore, to be able to gauge how stable the peace is.

Quality of peace can be affected by several factors – for instance, who is invited to, or excluded from, the negotiating table can have very significant implications for how durable a peace may be. Similarly, whether external actors engaged in mediation seek particular outcomes (eg power-sharing agreements, elections), without sufficient regard for cultivating genuine interest in these outcomes among the parties to a conflict, can also affect the durability of a peace.

Peacebuilding is an intricately nuanced process. One of the major challenges, Caplan points out, is establishing peace in divided, polarised societies, which conflict-affected countries often are. Different actors may hold very different views about the fundamental questions of how their society should be organised. There is a tendency on the part of peacebuilders to assume an underlying ‘harmony of interests’ among members of conflict-affected communities and a corresponding failure to appreciate that the desire for peace may not always be shared.

Understanding peace requires a know-how of the minute details driving the conflict

Understanding stable peace

There is no general agreement among scholars as to a general formula for the establishment of lasting peace. Understanding peace requires a know-how of the minute details driving the conflict. Caplan calls this the ‘ethnographic approach’. It has both an empirical and a normative dimension. The empirical dimension requires an insight into the local history and culture, and the specific factors that sustain a conflict. A good example is Timor-Leste, where the United Nations authorised the deployment of an intervention force in September 1999 to restore peace and security and then, from 2000, established a series of peace operations to administer the territory, pending its independence in 2002, and to support the consolidation of peace following independence. UN efforts in East Timor were widely viewed as a success in terms of establishing and maintaining a secure environment, at least until the outbreak of renewed violence in April 2006.

Peace is elastic (although not infinitely so). On the normative front, whether to prosecute atrocities or to eschew accountability will largely depend on local historical experiences and value systems. Societies may be divided on the fundamental questions of peacebuilding, which becomes detrimental to the entire process.

The Angolan civil war in the late 1980s is deemed a successful example of conflict resolution
Effectiveness of brokered peace

There are many successful examples of conflict resolution around the world: the Angolan civil war in the late 1980s, Namibia’s struggle against the apartheid regime, Rhodesia and the birth of Zimbabwe, etc, where peace led to credible elections and subsequently what can be termed as relatively stable peace. Similarly, Kosovo can be termed a success.  On the other hand, international and UN efforts in DRC, Somalia, African Sahel and several Middle Eastern countries have not entirely succeeded. Caplan points out that there is a tendency by mediators to focus on the achievement of particular outcomes that they seek (such as elections), rather than on building trust among the parties through the process of dialogue, which cannot be achieved in a short timeframe. Without trust, a peace agreement may fail to be implemented or respected. It is therefore important that mediators endeavour to foster ownership of the conflict resolution process among the key local parties. This might strengthen the capacity of local political leaders to work together to achieve sustainable peace.

Despite several peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, there are numerous frozen and forgotten conflicts around the world. The future of Ukraine, currently under Russian invasion, remains indecisive,as one cannot tell if it is possible to restore the country to its former sovereign status. If so, the question remains: how soon? Will the map be permanently redrawn, or will Russia cede the captured territories? If and when Kyiv finds its way to peace, will it be long lived, or will some territories remain chaotic for decades to come? Whatever the conclusion, the life of millions will remain altered.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow, and a former assistant advocate, is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti