The Political Realities of Preventive Diplomacy

Commentary | January 07, 2011

From escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula to Sudan’s upcoming referendum, foreign flashpoints are popping up on Washington’s radar screen – just as the new Congress is facing painful spending decisions. The last thing Congress wants are more costly foreign entanglements, which would seem to justify more modest, strategic spending to help stop new conflicts before they erupt. But can we really expect preventive action from Washington?

Funding for preventive diplomacy is notoriously tough to secure, particularly in times of tight budgets. But preventive action can save both lives and money. A war in Sudan would cost the international community an estimated $100 billion, according to a recent report by the Aegis Trust – a great argument for preventive action by the United States and others. But arguing how much money you will save by funding a war that doesn’t happen is a tough political sell for Washington policymakers.

Still, legislators looking to support preventive action can point to retroactive cost-benefit analyses that show just how much money timely spending saves: The First Gulf War cost foreign governments $114 billion, while effective preventive action might have cost between $10 and $30 billion, according to The Costs of Conflict: Prevention and Cure in the Global Arena, from the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.  Conversely, the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force kept the Albanian and Yugoslav crises out of Macedonia from 1995 and 1999 for a mere $300 million -- a drop in the bucket compared to what a full-blown Macedonian crisis could have cost: $140 billion.  According to those calculations, the combined savings for those two conflicts approached $230 billion.

At the EastWest Institute’s First Global Conference on Preventive Action in Brussels last month—in reality, more a mobilization meeting than a conference--global parliamentarians discussed how to build political support for preventive action. Delegates broadly agreed that intergovernmental organizations must spearhead the movement and that greater collaboration is needed between the United Nations, regional organizations and NGOs.  However, the intergovernmental organizations will be hampered by the fact that they are funded by the very states currently cutting their budgets.

The United States government takes the lead in funding the UN, currently assessed at 22% of the UN regular budget, and the Obama Administration is requesting around $500 million from Congress for Fiscal Year 2011. The figure, while substantial, pales in comparison to the American share of the UN peacekeeping budget, which is expected to be almost $2 billion in 2011 or about a quarter of UN peacekeeping funding. As Washington readies itself for a more conservative 112th congress in January, the last thing anyone expects is enthusiasm for upping UN funding.

But despite the obstacles, Washington has acknowledged the importance of preventive diplomacy in some instances. In August 2009, Senator Mark Begich [D-AK] introduced the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs Act. Begich’s Chief of Staff, David Ramseur, told EWI, that it “is an attempt to manage Arctic resources and transportation in the Arctic, both of which are becoming more accessible as a result of global warming.” While violent confrontation between the Arctic states is unlikely, the proposal to appoint an ambassador for the Arctic shows a commitment to preventing any protracted diplomatic or economic stand-offs over resource ownership or shipping rights. The bill has gone nowhere, but it at least signaled an attempt to anticipate and defuse future tensions in an increasingly important area of competing economic activity.   

On the other side of the aisle, the 111th Congress marked the third straight session that Congressman Mac Thornberry [R-TX] introduced legislation titled the Quadrennial Foreign Affairs Review Act (H.R. 490 in 111th Congress), with the intention of obligating “a quadrennial review of the diplomatic strategy and structure of the Department of State…to determine how the Department can best fulfill its mission in the 21st century and meet the challenges of a changing world.” After Congress took the lead, Hillary Clinton announced the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review as an official initiative of the State Department in July of 2009.

Released in December by the Department of State, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) provides some insight into how State and USAID will “determine how to use our resources most efficiently in a time of tight budgets.” The QDDR emphasizes a civilian-based approach to leadership in regards to foreign policy -- more consulates and an enlargement of the foreign service and civil service. Moving forward, the QDDR also calls for the development of a “standing interagency response corps” and “a single planning process for conflict resolution” that will strengthen the capacity of State and USAID “to anticipate crisis, conflict, and potential mass atrocities.”

At EWI, we are strongly positioned to promote preventive diplomacy–in particular, with our active global parliamentarian network working for conflict prevention. We plan to invite more American policymakers into that network. EWI DC will continue to try to keep this issue on the discussion boards in Washington and elsewhere, and work towards tangible, timely and cost-effective results.