Summary of "Managing Conflicts in the Post-Cold War Era"

Summary of

Managing Conflicts in the Post-Cold War Era

by Mohamed Sahnoun

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Managing Conflicts in the Post-Cold War Era," in Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War World: The Role of Intervention. Report of the Aspen Institute Conference, August 2-6, 1995, (Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Institute, 1996) pp. 89-96.

Sahnoun explores issues surrounding military and humanitarian interventions in internal national conflicts. The author hopes that a better understanding of the sources and catalysts of internal conflicts will make us better able to craft effective preventative strategies. Presently, military intervention is widely accepted in two cases. The first is in cases of blatant aggression. Military intervention is appropriate when the conflicting parties consent to it. Sahnoun notes however that some nations fear that powerful members of the U.N. Security Council tend to overlook aggression when it is in their interests to do so.

There is less agreement on humanitarian intervention. Recent U.N. interventions have suffered from a lack of clear goals. Is the goal of humanitarian intervention to offer humanitarian relief, or to end human rights violations, and to establish peace? Sahnoun argues that specific moral goals cannot be formulated in advance of the situation. Each situation is unique and complex, and sometimes conflicting moral consideration will come into play.

While we cannot make detailed advance plans, however, we can and should work on our basic psychological and political preparedness, and cultivate basic tools to deal with conflict. We can also further develop our understanding of internal conflicts, and formulate a suitably general approach to managing such conflicts.

Sources of Post-Cold War Conflict

Sahnoun explains that internal conflicts find their common root in insecurity. Insecurity based on factors such as "the perceived threat of starvation or the prospect of exclusion and fragility through the diminishing access to resources," is most often the deep cause of internal conflicts. Sahnoun warns that, given current rates of population growth and resource loss, insecurity is likely to become increasingly widespread and acute.

This basic insecurity can give rise to a variety of types of conflict. In states which lack a strong sense of national unity insecurity may coalesce around ethnic divisions, and give rise to ethnic conflicts. Issues left over from the Cold War, or from a colonial past, often provide crises around which larger conflicts develop. Insecurities may become focused along religious differences, sparking religious conflict. Finally some insecurities express themselves directly as socioeconomic grievances, and demands for social justice. In a perceived absence of non-violent avenues for change demands for justice may turn violent.

Much may be done in terms of conflict prevention and resolution by better understanding how insecurity develops into overt conflict. Another fruitful approach is to limit external aggravating factors such as the export of military arms to potentially troubled areas, foreign interference, or the erosion of traditional conflict resolution strategies.

Sahnoun stresses however that the basic root of internal conflicts is insecurity. And the increasing tendency of such insecurity to erupt into overt conflict itself points to a "governance deficit." Governments at both the local and global level are unable or unwilling to adequately respond to issues of insecurity. Often governments actually aggravate insecurity, as for instance when "the power elite and their friends in the North seek to protect particular economic and political interests, even if this should result in the increase of existing local ethnic, religious, or social tensions."[p. 93]

New Approaches to Managing Conflict

Effective long-term conflict prevention and resolution requires addressing issues of insecurity -- the root of conflicts. Sahnoun says, however, "let us discard the belief that this can be done from one central point in the U.N. or elsewhere."[p. 93] Decentralization and empowerment are the key concepts in the author's new approach to international cooperation in conflict management.

Conflict management structures must be located at a more grassroots level, closer to the people they serve. To this end Sahnoun advocates development of more regional organizations. Regional organizations should be the front line of conflict management. The U.N. should offer support, expertise, and resources to the regional bodies.

Regional bodies should focus on "long-term, discreet, grassroots-based, and multidimensional" approaches to conflict management.[p. 94] In particular, they should seek to foster intercommunity dialogue in areas of potential conflict. The author describes a number of approaches, many of which have already been used successfully. Diplomatic pressure is more effective if its various sources coordinate to present one clear message. Use of mediation and conciliation techniques should be broadened to include spiritual, economic, traditional and social elements, and should be undertaken as a long-term process. Merchants and businesses are often eager to invest in peace, and represent an often overlooked resource. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer valuable resources and skills. In addition they have needed flexibility that the U.N. often lacks. Humanitarian intervention should be coordinated and focus on the goal of revitalizing local civil society. Fostering intercommunity dialogue is a key element in revitalizing civil societies.

Finally, actors at every level should seek to develop what UNESCO (United Nations Economic Scientific and Cultural Organization) calls a "culture of peace." Culture of peace programs spread mediation training. They promote democratic processes, cultural pluralism and dialogue, and advocate the protection of human rights. They also support education in nonviolence and tolerance.

Sahnoun concludes that effective conflict management in the post-Cold War era requires both an emphasis on long-term sustainable development at the global level and an emphasis on grassroots empowerment and dialogue at the local level.