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Policy Paper 27: Preventive Diplomacy and Ethnic Conflict: Possible, Difficult, Necessary

  • Author(s): Jentleson, Bruce
  • et al.

The track record of "preventive diplomacy" in the first years of the post-Cold War era is not particularly encouraging. Croatia, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Tajikistan, “Kurdistan”—the list goes on to include over 90 armed conflicts since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vast majority of which have been ethnic conflicts. Indeed, in the view of U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, it is ethnic conflict that is driving “much of the need for military forces in the world today” (Defense Department 1994).

Some have questioned whether the whole concept of preventive diplomacy is yet another false and misleading “alchemy for a new world order” (Stedman 1995). That it has been “oversold,” its difficulties underestimated and its risks undervalued is a fair criticism. But to simply write it off would be to commit the mirror-image mistake of those too eager and uncritical in their embrace. Instead, in my view we need to proceed from three basic postulates: a) Preventive diplomacy is possible. b) Preventive diplomacy is difficult. c) Preventive diplomacy is necessary.

The purpose of this paper is to develop and support these postulates as a step towards refining the concept of preventive diplomacy, de-reifying any remaining promises of panacea and otherwise moving from appealing idea to usable foreign policy strategies. After first developing a working definition for the term preventive diplomacy, I address each of the postulates, drawing both on theoretical-conceptual arguments and empirical evidence from recent major cases.

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