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Book Review
Last Updated: 12/08/2004
The Power of Timely Intervention
Reviewed by Norman Sixth Wokoma

Michael S Lund, Preventing Violent Conflicts: A Strategy for Preventive Diplomacy, USIP Press, 1996

Preventive diplomacy is not novel to conflict prevention, but its methodical application is only beginning to assume wider acceptance by a growing number of actors in a post-Cold War world. With the end of Cold War rivalries and the attendant cessation of big power confrontations, the world is increasingly experiencing more intra-state and regional conflicts with their widening impacts and accumulating costs for everyone. From experience, it is more cost-effective to employ proactive measures to deal with conflict than manage a post conflict situation. Therein lies the necessity to strategize preventive diplomacy as a viable proactive conflict prevention measure.


Michael Lund is a strong advocate of preventive diplomacy as a viable option for conflict prevention. He elaborated the seeming global interest in preventive diplomacy and examined the conceptualization and practicalisation of the notion within the framework of a multilateral preventive regime that seeks to harmonize the comparative advantages of respective local, state, regional and international actors. In doing this, the author examined the costs of inaction on the part of actors and posed preventive diplomacy as cost effective strategy. He thereafter outlines the practical strategy for preventive diplomacy and sets out the conditions for successful preventive action.


Given the adverse views on preventive diplomacy, Lund sought to provide a less ambiguous and concise definition that will serve an operational purpose. He defined preventive diplomacy as:


“Action taken in vulnerable places and times to avoid the threat or use of armed force and related forms of coercion by states or groups to settle the political disputes that can arise from the destabilizing effects of economic, social, political and international change.”[i]



Lund acknowledged the fact that not all disputes can be prevented from degenerating into open violence, but that a well thought, timely and methodical political intervention by third party multiactors can diffuse rising tension and create the appropriate environment for the disputants to engage in peaceful resolution. He demonstrated this fact by evaluating recent conflicts in which third party actor(s)’ involvement resulted either in success or failure, as proof of the efficacy of preventive diplomacy.


The author also elaborated on the problem of intelligence gathering and analysis that form the basis of early warning upon which preventive diplomacy can be situated. Against this background, Lund’s “Life History of a Conflict”, streamlining stages of peace or conflict, becomes relevant. The author identified these stages as Durable Peace (just order), Stable Peace (basic order), Unstable Peace, Crisis and War. Preventive diplomacy, according to Lund is only necessary at the stage of unstable peace, which he described as “a situation in which tension and suspicion among parties run high but violence is either absent or only sporadic”.[ii]  Burma in 1995 was cited as a classic example of this stage.


In conclusion, Lund examined several existing systems for organizing a preventive regime, including a UN-centered system, regionally-based system, an NGO preventive network and one that is focused on individual states. He, however, came to the conclusion that a multilateral preventive regime that seeks to link the respective virtues of various international actors in more formal and deliberate preventive strategies would best serve the interest of preventive diplomacy. He added that the basic structure of the system would have to be organized by dividing up tasks both vertically and horizontally.


Lund’s book has done a good job of systematizing the idea of preventive diplomacy, which until now was practiced without a clear-cut conceptualization by the actors. He provided clarity to the confusing use of terms such as preventive action, preventive engagement, preventive deployment, conflict prevention and crisis prevention. Perhaps more important is the clear distinction Lund provided between the concepts of preventive diplomacy, peacetime diplomacy and crisis management.


This distinction has helped to facilitate a better appreciation of the cost-effective nature of preventive diplomacy by actors and the attendant desirability of its deployment as a viable conflict prevention strategy. Lund also made a good job of demonstrating why the United Nations is more akin to intervening in conflicts at stages when violence has occurred. He opined that UN is under serious strain due to overloading agenda and limited resources, therefore is only able to focus chiefly on major world problems that have already reached crisis stage.


In holistic terms, Lund’s postulations, particularly from the point of view of a pioneering work, has provided far-reaching and detailed analytical approach, not only to the conceptualization of preventive diplomacy but its operationalisation. But as with any other pioneering work, Lund has raised many issues that will stimulate further discourse on the subject matter.


Firstly, his delineation of the stages of peace or conflict into five relatively distinct stages is problematic even as it provided a good measure of clarity on the entire project of conflict prevention. The stages appear to represent a continuum of fluid stages that, in practical terms, could be quite problematic to delineate, thereby creating the problem of possible wrong deployment of preventive diplomacy.


The author may also have overstated the problem of intelligence gathering and analysis without pin-pointing where the actual problems lie. While Lund focused on the stereotypical approach of the traditional intelligence services and their failure to adapt to the new global changes as the problem, he clearly ignored the fact that newly emerging leaders in post-Cold War world have a tendency to be led by the proliferation of information available from non-professional sources, lacking in analytical capacity and sound interpretation.


Finally, even though Lund’s argument about a multilateral preventive regime was strong, the practical steps to bringing together the varying actors lacked conviction. Further studies must be carried out bearing in mind the varying interests of the actors and their strong incentive to stick to them.


Nonetheless, the ideas espoused in Lund’s book will serve as a useful guide to international relations practitioners, diplomats, policy makers, scholars and post-graduate students focusing on peace and conflict studies.



[i] Lund, M (1996), “Preventing Violent Conflicts: A Strategy for Preventive Diplomacy” p.37

[ii] ibid

Reviewed by Norman Sixth Wokoma. The reviewer is on sabbatical from the Nigerian Diplomatic Service doing postgraduate work in peace and conflict studies.