Relationship Advice for Crisis Managers

15 September 2016   ·   Richard Gowan

When a crisis looms, relationships with political leaders in countries at risk can tip the scales for or against violence. Germany needs to get better at analyzing what drives decision-makers and urge its diplomats, NGOs and political foundations to build trust and lasting relationships with political leaders in fragile states.

Good crisis management requires good relationship management. While multiple factors may create the conditions for a conflict to arise, from economic stresses to territorial disputes, political leaders and elites still have a decisive role to play in unleashing or avoiding violence. If diplomats and mediators want to stop a crisis from escalating, they need well-established relationships with the decision-makers at its center.

This is one overarching message of Seizing the Moment, a recent report on early warning and early action from the International Crisis Group, to which I was a lead contributor. Based on Crisis Group’s reporting on numerous conflicts over the last five years, the report highlights a series of cases in which individual leaders have made pivotal choices for or against violence.

Individual leaders can make the difference between peace and disaster

One positive example is that of former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, whose rapid decision not to contest his defeat in elections in March 2015 averted potentially serious bloodshed. Another is Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his political reputation on a peace deal with the FARC rebels that is unpopular with many of his compatriots.

A disastrous counter-example is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When Syrian citizens initially took to the streets to protest against Assad’s government in 2011, it was not certain that the country would descend into civil war. But his decision to respond to this challenge with a fierce campaign of repression made a peaceful solution impossible. Some Western observers believed that the ostensibly Westernized Assad would balk at total war. But it is now clear that Assad was personally involved in unleashing terror on his opponents.

We need to know how to gain influence over leaders

Not all leaders who initiate conflicts are as brutal as Mr. Assad. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pushed his country into chaos by grossly miscalculating his ability to play off Russia and the European Union for economic gains. But while some leaders may be bad, some wise and others merely clumsy, diplomats and international officials need to develop a deep understanding of their motivations, their political strengths and weaknesses, and how to gain influence over them if a crisis starts to escalate.

This involves painstaking efforts to build a network of “anticipatory relationships” with leaders, their advisers and allies in fragile states. This means not simply holding formal meetings to swap business cards but also building personal ties with key players, allowing for frank exchanges over political developments.

International actors can nudge leaders away from violence

If concerned international actors can get sufficient access to a leader and his or her inner circle, they may be able to nudge them away from violence as a crisis looms. Goodluck Jonathan’s statesmanlike decision to relinquish power last year followed an extended lobbying campaign by international grandees such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who helped broker an agreement on securing the elections involving Jonathan and other contenders in January 2015.

Chancellor Merkel has demonstrated her own aptitude for relationship management in her dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014. Merkel’s constant phone calls and high-level meetings with Putin have not resolved the crisis, but they have at least helped contain it. The Chancellor’s diplomatic intervention during heavy fighting at the start of 2015, leading to the Minsk II accords, prevented the regional conflict in eastern Ukraine from spreading far more widely.

Relying too heavily on top-level envoys can backfire

Unfortunately, top-level political figures such as Merkel, Kerry and Annan can only devote a limited amount of time and political capital to shuttle diplomacy. Relying too heavily on such senior envoys can backfire. While a group of east African leaders clubbed together in 2014 to mediate an end to the South Sudan conflict, for example, their engagement was intermittent. “Without them,” as Crisis Group reported, “no one was empowered to advance the process, and often little was done for weeks, the parties were left to refocus on the war rather than the peace process.” In most countries at risk of crisis, lower-level officials have to carry the burden of building anticipatory relationships with leaders and elites.

German diplomats, NGOs and political foundations should build anticipatory relationships

What does this mean for diplomatic planners in a country such as Germany that wishes to engage more deeply in early warning and conflict resolution? Three basic principles stand out.

First, invest in detailed qualitative political analysis of countries at risk of conflict. In recent years, political scientists have come up with credible data-based models for predicting political violence. These have a crucial role to play in early warning. But to mount an effective response to a looming conflict, foreign ministries also need detailed information on the personal and political profiles of leaders and other important political actors, based on on-the-ground reporting and historical research on their backgrounds.

Second, give diplomats time and space to build up anticipatory relationships with political actors. Constructing trusting relationships takes time, especially with nervous leaders in fragile states, and the results will not be immediate. Most diplomats are under constant pressure to satisfy their capitals with endless updates. It is necessary to select ambassadors and other senior representatives to fragile states with an eye for their ability to develop bonds with difficult counterparts – then give them time to do so.

Third, look for alternative political channels for relationship-building. In some cases, especially when dealing with turbulent societies, national diplomats may not be best placed to build anticipatory relationships. But there are other, less official channels available, too. NGOs and political foundations, such as those connected to Germany’s main parties, can gain access to political elites through second track dialogues that official representatives cannot. Alternatively, avowedly “international” figures like Kofi Annan can sometimes open channels and strike deals that states cannot.

There is no substitute for knowing what drives decision-makers

Building relationships with leaders and elites may be frustrating and can backfire. Diplomats can grow too enamored of the leaders they want to influence, and end up defending them rather than holding frank discussions. As relationship advisers know, sometimes it is better to walk away from a failing partnership than to keep it going indefinitely. But when dealing with countries in crisis, there is no substitute for knowing what drives the decision-makers – and the best options for talking them back from the brink of disaster.

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Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), teaches conflict resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and is a Non-Resident Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC).