The military’s role in preventing violent conflict is often misunderstood. Civilians, policymakers, and practitioners have argued that the military should have little to no role in prevention, a perspective that reflects concerns about the continued imbalance in resources between the Departments of Defense and State, as well as the potential militarization of US foreign policy. These concerns are legitimate, but they fail to appreciate the very real role the military has and can play in prevention activities and thus dismiss a key element in the diplomat’s toolkit. The military need not lead an integrated approach to prevention, but it is a crucial aspect of it. The responsibility to protect often requires real military options, as part of the bargaining kit and as the last resort to stopping the killing. This article builds on John Agoglia’s call for a more holistic approach to conflict prevention and suggests how the military can be better integrated into more enlightened strategies for preventing conflict and instability.
Traditionally, the military’s role in prevention was to be ready to prevail in all-out war. This was the essence of classic Cold War deterrence, in which the United States’ lethal nuclear arsenal, capable of ensuring the near-total destruction of the Soviet Union, was kept on constant alert to prevent the Soviets from conducting a first strike. Interagency coordination for this arrangement meant letting diplomats talk about how ready the military was while the military trained and positioned itself overtly for retaliation. The very last line of diplomacy was the president’s red phone, through which, it was hoped, the leaders of the two superpowers might avoid miscalculation and lower tensions at the eleventh hour. In this tense but stable arrangement, the diplomatic toolkit was contingent on the military one, and the civilians in charge intimately understood military capabilities and plans.
The military understands that there are no easy military tactics for stopping genocide in its tracks or reversing a spiral of violent instability. In such missions, the enemy is not always clearly identifiable and is often chaos itself.
Today, although deterrence is still at play against threats such as North Korea and Iran, evolving norms and the changing nature of war mean an additional focus on preventing general instability and mass atrocities against civilians. The military understands that there are no easy military tactics for stopping genocide in its tracks or reversing a spiral of violent instability. In such missions, the enemy is not always clearly identifiable and is often chaos itself. Experts still debate over the point at which an intervening force might have prevented the Rwandan genocide, but military planners generally feel that the longer one waits, the harder and bloodier the solution might be.
For a holistic approach to prevention, civilian and military planners should consider the following roles the military might constructively play in prevention.
As Neil Levine discussed in the first issue of Building Peace, the US government has begun to develop more systematic processes for identifying potential crisis spots to inform decision making. For Levine’s “extended warning list” of countries where crisis is not imminent, the military’s existing planning and war-gaming processes could be of great value if implemented through a more systematic interagency planning group. In the current process, which is implemented only occasionally for highly sensitive threats, military planners develop worst-case scenarios well in advance of the outbreak of hostilities and present them to decision makers as table-top exercises. This methodology allows planners and policymakers to think through the potential paths to conflict and identify prevention and response options. It can also help senior leaders prepare for crisis decision making by prodding them to think through various options calmly.
When conflict breaks out in a country, poorly trained and unprofessional security forces can enflame the violence or commit atrocities. Thus military-to-military engagement is key to extended prevention. The US military’s approach has evolved greatly since the Cold War, during which US trained militaries were accused of atrocities and coup attempts. Although it is probably impossible to guarantee that every troop or aid worker will behave impeccably, long-term engagement can spread shared norms concerning professional civilian-led militaries that respect human rights and the rule of law. Today, military officers from around the world attend the US Naval Postgraduate School and the National War College, where the curriculum focuses on professionalization and civil-military relations. These values are evident in Chile and El Salvador, which are now said to be “security exporters” in multinational peacekeeping missions abroad.
In some countries, military officers may have a more prominent political status vis-à-vis civilian leadership, compared with our own democratic models. In such cases, US military officers may have more influence engaging their counterparts than US civilian officials might with theirs. The military-to-military engagement discussed above also can forge professional relationships among officers who serve as lines of communication in impending crises. During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, senior US military officers engaged directly with Egyptian military leadership to encourage protection of civilians. Of course military relationships alone cannot guarantee long-term democratic transitions or perfect outcomes, but from a crisis prevention perspective, they offer valuable leverage.
As hostilities become imminent, prevention options become limited. When forces are already on the move, as they were in Benghazi, they may be stopped only through force or the threat of force. Thus, diplomats attempting to convince aggressors to turn back need to understand and update Cold War theories of deterrence, and civilians engaged in such messaging at the highest level need to clearly comprehend realistic military options. Practicing scenarios in table-top exercises will pay off, as forces will have been prepositioned for maximum and realistic effect to present a credible threat and decision makers will have already thought through options.
If the military is brought into the game only after guns have been raised and bullets have begun to fly, intervention will be bloody and success will be uncertain.
Actually deploying the military is the last and worst option. If the military is brought into the game only after guns have been raised and bullets have begun to fly, intervention will be bloody and success will be uncertain. The military will argue, rightly, against a small-footprint deployment to limit risk. If an intervention scenario has not been run in civil-military table-top exercises, that option might seem extreme to civilians who hope to avoid large military interventions. But we cannot be naïve about the numbers of troops and lethal tactics needed to stabilize chaos and stop violent actors.
The military can and should have a role in prevention well before a conflict begins. Rather than separating civilian from military means, good civil-military planning for prevention should consider military processes and capabilities in all phases.