To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. In the first article in the series, Alan Whaites team leader, Governance for Peace and Development at the OECD, discusses peace-building and conflict. In a second article on Wednesday, Alan will look more in detail at the role of the state.
In the early summer of 1914 my great grandfather was a poor labourer working in the sprawling docks of the Manchester ship canal. He supported a large family in a tiny slum dwelling in the Hulme area of the city. Within a few months he was a soldier, and by the end of April 1915, after 28 days at the front, he was dead. For him, like millions of others, the political process that transformed civilians into participants in large-scale industrialised warfare was both prolonged and, at the same time, remarkably sudden.
Christopher Clark captured this duality in the title of his book, The Sleepwalkers. The actors in this drama were first lulled by a long sequence of events that slowly created the potential for conflict, and then they were carried along by a sudden chain of events. In the lead-up, the development of two major alliance systems, the purchase of new weapons and the expansion of militaries were seen by many as contributing to reducing risk. But an assassination quickly turned these precautions around, creating a system that propelled Europe towards war.
The consequences of 1914 are embedded in our collective psyche: millions dead, the horror of trench warfare, and a further chain of post-war changes that would play out through the rest of the 20th century. In essence, the fundamental problem that unfolded on a grand scale 100 years ago remains familiar, and continues to characterise many, if not most, conflicts today. Actors take steps in the belief that they are providing protection and security, often in a defensive rather than an offensive frame of mind. Over time, their positions become fixed and mechanisms for dialogue and crisis management are neglected, so that when a political crisis does occur, actions are often based on assumptions (e.g., regarding the motives of others) that may be unfounded. Von Clausewitz said that war is policy conducted by other means; in reality, it is too often an unintended consequence of actions whose repercussions seemed eminently limited and safe at the time.
This can be the case at whatever level conflict occurs. As a professional my focus is predominantly on areas of internal conflict: civil wars, insurgencies, and breakdowns of political systems because of violent competing interests. And as in 1914, the steps that lead people into such conflicts may seem rational. In Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing, Christopher Cramer points out that often there are serious, considered motivations at play. Important factors may include assessments of ideological or communal risks and interests. People think themselves into relational corners – from which conflict becomes a logical step. In 2011 the World Bank’s World Development Report pointed out that the “who” of conflict (including instigators of urban or organised crime) doesn’t necessarily change the strategic dimensions involved; behaviours centred on calculations of risk can be essentially the same.
But if the human dynamics that create the potential for conflict remain stubbornly similar across the decades, is it possible to change the outcomes? Perhaps. The challenge is to change the logic – to move the rationale towards peace, not war. While this theory is nothing new, mechanisms have been elusive. A positive change over the last decade has been the level of engagement and agreement among richer countries and conflict-affected states on collaboration in peace-building. These new approaches to co-operation are encapsulated in the internationally-agreed New Deal for engagement in fragile states.
The New Deal aims to change calculations of risks and the logic of conflict by mutually supporting factors that shift the realities for those involved: justice, legitimate politics, sound economic management, trust and focus on new ways of working. It potentially offers a framework for creating sustained support for peace; building confidence that the future lies in development – not war. Of course, human nature and politics mean that there are no guarantees of success, and changes are unlikely to be trouble-free. Shifting the balance between peace and war is often non-linear, a process of persistence buffeted by crisis and turmoil. But at least the New Deal offers a platform for local and international actors to engage and act – and to do so with fragile states themselves setting the direction.
It is important to stress that a dose of realism is still needed, or “strategic patience” in the words of Helder da Costa (general secretary of the g7+ group of fragile states). There are no miracle solutions and without real political will no approach can work. The New Deal will also come under scrutiny, potentially because of unrealistic expectations and timeframes that are far too short. But the willingness by the international community to engage constructively in these situations has clearly grown. The lessons that enabled the agreement of the New Deal – the hard-won experience of what does and does not work in changing the dynamics of conflict and distrust – offer all stakeholders something to work with when trying to resolve conflict, in whatever region or state.
It was only after a second, even more costly, world war that Europe understood the need to shift incentives to peace, and away from conflict. That of course took considerable investment, trust and new forms of partnership (including the creation of the antecedent to the OECD). The principles and needs have not changed, nor the importance of working toward long-term peace now.