Conflict Management: Go Big or Go Home

31 July 2018   ·   Wolfgang Ischinger

If Germany wants to address current conflicts around the world, half-hearted efforts will not do. After all, effective crisis management requires both civilian and military means. Germany should therefore increase its budget for diplomacy, defence and development assistance to three percent of its gross domestic product and transform the Federal Security Council into a comprehensive coordinating body for foreign and security policy.

November 21, 1995 in Dayton, Ohio: At the time, I had spent three weeks in gruelling negotiations, as an arbitrator together with my international colleagues, to finally persuade the parties in the Bosnian War to sign a peace treaty. Now, the deal was finally done, and after three and a half years of a brutal war the guns were finally laid down – at least in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A success of diplomacy? Without a doubt!

But the negotiations had only become possible due to military pressure, which had forced the warring parties, especially the Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, to the negotiating table. No UN-mandated ‘Safe Areas’, no diplomatic negotiations, no economic sanctions had on their own been able to halt the bloodshed. Only the combination of all instruments – political and military – succeeded in ending the violent conflict. To me, the Bosnian War was a formative experience and had a lasting influence on my approach to what makes for good conflict management.

Intervention: Civilian, military – but above all with plan

Due to its history, Germany has made it its mission to promote peace primarily by civilian means and to use military force only as a last resort and only within a multilateral framework. This is not just historically the right thing to do, but also practically. Even the best trained soldiers cannot create lasting, positive peace on their own. Moreover, mediation, sanctions and other civilian instruments can even help to prevent the violent escalation of conflicts from the outset.

However, it is also a fact that most wars do not arise from misunderstandings that are just waiting to be resolved. Most of the time, they stem from tangible interests colliding. Anyone who wants to create peace must also have the ability to step in where interests are being pursued with military means. The civilian toolkit is not always sufficient for that. On the contrary: Ruling out the use of military force from the outset can exacerbate a conflict. Actors may feel encouraged to use violence if they believe they can do so without consequence. Tragically, we had to witness the terrible result in Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered in 1995. Sometimes it takes arms to prevent the worst outcomes and to create the pressure that brings conflict parties to the table.

Even more importantly, however, the use of all instruments – civilian or military – must be embedded in a political strategy for conflict resolution. For peace is always the result of a negotiation process and therefore political in the deepest sense. Any outside intervention interferes with the power structure on the ground and thus with said negotiation process. Germany should therefore examine each and every measure through the lens of whether it supports the overall political strategy.

White Paper and Guidelines provide the framework

On paper, Germany is now well positioned to assume more responsibility for peace and security: Alongside the 2016 “White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr”, the German government’s guidelines on “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Promoting Peace” form the basis for Germany's crisis action. They couple civilian and military approaches and link them to political objectives. The use of "military force admissible under international law" is rightly referred to as a means of last resort. But it is also seen as a legitimate tool not to be ruled out categorically. The guidelines also clearly set out that solutions to armed conflicts are not found easily. In many cases we are faced with dilemmas that are difficult to resolve – because sometimes in crises and conflicts one only has a choice between bad options: bad, very bad, and catastrophically bad.

However, there is still much to be done toward putting these insights into practice: The Bundeswehr currently has only limited operational capability and is therefore unable to credibly threaten the use of military force; the Federal Foreign Office does not have the number of diplomats it would need to negotiate political solutions; and disputes within and between ministries hinder joint approaches to specific crises. That is not to downplay the progress made in recent years: Germany has become one of the world's largest humanitarian donors and the German defence budget is expected to rise to at least 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024 – but that is simply not enough in view of the enormous challenges.

Ducking out is no solution

Not only do we often simply lack the equipment to intervene – worse yet, we lack the will. Too often us Germans prefer to leave interventions to others. However, this is no longer viable in a world from which the United States – not just since Donald Trump was elected – is withdrawing further and further as a guarantor of order. In the Bosnian War, the US was still the driving force behind the international community's involvement – both on the diplomatic and the military side. The case of Syria, on the other hand, made glaringly clear what happens when the United States holds back and Europeans do not fill the gap. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, dozens of poison gas attacks, and millions of refugees later, we are faced with a country and international norms in ruins. Our failure to help robustly protect the Syrian civilian population when it was perhaps still possible remains a disgraceful stain on German and European foreign policy.

Moreover, it is not just morally wrong to stand and watch global crisis management from the side-lines – it is also fatal in terms of Realpolitik. Peter Struck, the late former Defence Minister, took some flak in 2002 when he said, "Germany's security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush." But he was right. As the refugee crisis of 2015 demonstrated, in a globalised world, inaction has immediate consequences for Germany. I'm afraid we Germans still haven't fully understood that.

3% for diplomacy, defence and development spending – EU-wide

Today we find ourselves in a fundamentally changed world. The current sequence of crises is not a phase that will run its course within a few years. Half-hearted engagement will not suffice for Germany to overcome current conflicts and certainly not to cope with future ones. So what do we have to do?

We often hear that the German public cannot be convinced that more money should be spent on tanks, when at the same time there is a shortage of daycares. Indeed, citizens should not have the impression of having to choose between internal prosperity and external security. If we cannot pay for both, then it is time to the raise the budget. Future generations will not profit from balancing the budget today if the most important foundation of our prosperity is eroded: a peaceful and prosperous Europe. The goal of the German government should therefore be: Three percent of GDP for diplomacy, defence, and development assistance – not only in Germany, but as far as possible throughout the European Union.

Upgrading the Federal Security Council

An increased budget for peace and security has to be accompanied by comprehensive political action. A proposal for how to achieve this has been around for decades: transforming the existing German Federal Security Council into a comprehensive coordination body for foreign and security policy decisions. The head of the Federal Chancellery’s “Division 2 for Foreign, Security and Development Policy” would act as its secretariat, supported by the relevant ministries.

The members of the Federal Security Council would then jointly develop proposals on how to align German action in specific crises. The cabinet would approve those proposals. Instead of ministries going it alone without linking their policies to an overall political strategy, there would finally be fixed common goals that would subsequently be implemented in the subordinate bodies.

Qualified majority voting in the CSDP

What is true for Germany on a small scale is true also for Europe on a larger scale: We have to work together. In addition to developing military and civilian capabilities within the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU must above all achieve one thing: quick action on foreign policy matters. To this end, decisions in the CSDP should be taken by qualified majority rather than by consensus. Until this comes to fruition, Germany could start by unilaterally renouncing its de-facto veto right, which all EU states effectively have when decisions require unanimity.

We need more public debate

My last recommendation – or rather a request – is directed less at my old colleagues in the Federal Government than at my new, non-state comrades-in-arms from the peace and security sector: In any given foreign crisis, the lack of political will is often – and rightly so – cited as the main reason why Germany will not intervene more substantially. As we all know, public attention is needed to generate that political will. We should take a stand for that – together! Let us experts work together towards putting international crises on the public agenda and towards a well-informed debate on whether and how Germany should commit itself to tackling those crises. 

More than 20 years have passed since the Dayton Agreement was concluded. I very much take a critical view of what we have achieved since then – and what we haven’t. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the weapons remain silent, but the political situation is in disorder. And that is – not only, but also – a result of Dayton. I still believe this agreement was the best one possible at the time. The stakes were ending a war that had claimed around 100,000 lives by then. In that we succeeded, but it was far from enough. We were not able to prevent the subsequent escalation of the Kosovo conflict, nor did we provide the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina with sufficient political support to build a just post-war order. Dayton should have been the beginning of a political process, not the end. Let that serve us as a lesson for the future.

Leitbild English Frieden & Sicherheit

Wolfgang Ischinger

Wolfgang Ischinger is the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) and Senior Professor for Security Policy and Diplomatic Practice at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Previously, he worked as a diplomat in the Foreign Service, including as State Secretary (1998-2001) and Ambassador to the United States (2001-2006) and the United Kingdom (2006-2008).