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Conflict Research Consortium ARTICLE SUMMARY

"Lessons on Intervention"

by

Chester Crocker

Citation: Chester Crocker, "Lessons on Intervention," in Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War World: The Role of Intervention. Report of the Aspen Institute Conference,August 2-6, 1995, (Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Institute, 1996) pp.77-88.


This article summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium.

Traditional, interstate conflicts are on the decline. Internal conflicts such as civil wars or ethnic conflicts are increasing. Internal conflicts have proven to be difficult to resolve by intervention. Still, the cost of letting such conflicts go unchecked is often very high, and so effective means of intervention must be developed.

Deciding Whether to Intervene

Opponents of intervention typically raise two points. First, they argue that ethnic conflicts are often too intense for effective intervention. The combatants should be allowed to exhaust each other, and so their desire for peace to grow, before intervention is attempted. Second, intervention in internal conflicts violates the target nation's sovereignty. Outsiders lack a clear mandate to justify their intervention. They often lack the skills and knowledge to intervene effectively.

Still, there have been some significant and successful interventions into internal conflicts. The UN oversight of the decolonization of Namibia, and the Cambodian elections are two notable examples. Crocker asks, when then should intervention be attempted or avoided?

He suggests that in general "we probably should avoid military entanglement in nationalist revolutions and civil wars pitting whole groups and classes against one another."[p. 79] Crocker notes two exceptions to this generalization. First, we may intervene militarily if there are overarching strategic reasons to do so. Second, we may intervene if the issue is important, and success at a reasonable cost seems likely.

Preemptive Intervention

In response to the claim that ethnic conflicts are too intense for effective intervention, Crocker concedes that "it may be that internal wars based on primordial sentiments tend toward zero-sum thinking and the progressive elimination of neutral or common ground."[p. 79] However, very few conflicts are in fact based purely on such primordial sentiments. The author argues that ethnic conflicts are shaped by a number of factors. These factors include the actions of foreign powers, the current balance of power and potential for change, the leader's goals and opportunities, and access to appropriate military hardware.

So-called ethnic conflicts are precipitated by a number of other factors also. The collapse of a nation's basic institutions, holding faulty or premature elections, politicians who exploit ethnicity to promote their own agendas, the availability of the means and resources to wage war: such situations can set the spark which erupts into ethnic conflict.

Crocker argues that the most effective way of dealing with violent internal conflicts is preemptively--by acting early before the violence becomes severe. Nations undergoing repression or violent upheaval should be encouraged to pursue negotiated alternatives. Arranging a face-saving exit for soon to be deposed leaders can also be an effective way of preventing further violence.

Generally, preemptive intervention should focus on those conditions which shape and spark ethnic conflicts. Crocker argues that the key to identifying and understanding those conditions is to understand "the process by which politicized conflicts become militarized."[p. 80] Militarized conflicts are more complex and more costly to deal with. The goal then is to intervene preemptively to prevent political conflicts from becoming militarized.

Crocker describes three examples of such preemptive intervention. First, nations may seek to avoid premature and possibly polarizing elections. Second, nations should be more vigorous in their attempts to disarm and reintegrate former combatants into civil society. Third, Crocker argues that simple secession is unlikely to put an end to internal conflicts. If a nation is to break-up, the international community must insist on an agreed, negotiated separation.

Forms of Intervention

If intervention is indicated, a further question arises: what kind of intervention should be used? Generally nations decide how to intervene based on three factors. The first consideration is the intervening nation's own capabilities and connection to the conflict. Second, they consider the status and ripeness of the conflict for resolution. Third, intervention is influenced by the characters of the parties and their decision-making systems. Crocker argues that a fourth factor should be given increased attention; Nations should compare the cost of intervention to the cost of doing nothing.

Intervention may be military or diplomatic. Currently, military intervention is not the most typical form used, although it is called for on occasion. Diplomatic intervention may be sustained and strategic or it may be episodic. The United States has pursued long-term strategic diplomatic intervention in the Middle East. Strategic diplomatic intervention remains fairly uncommon, however. Episodic, crisis-driven interventions are the most common form of diplomatic intervention. Such interventions can be effective at containing violence, but alone do not tend to produce settlements or resolutions.

Interventions by nongovernmental organization are new, and on the increase. The author estimates that NGO interventions are likely more effective than governments give them credit for, but somewhat less effective than they themselves claim.

Successful Interventions

What exactly constitutes a successful intervention is itself a matter of much debate. For some conflicts, merely avoiding even greater tragedy may count as a success. In defining success, Crocker argues that "the important point is that those who decide to intervene...have an obligation to develop their own definition of success, and to keep it firmly in mind while laboring to avoid becoming part of the problem and making things worse."[p. 83]

Whatever standard of success is adopted, certain general considerations apply. The intervention operation itself must have an efficient, responsive decision-making system. Decision-makers must be held accountable for their decisions. The operation must take measures to insure that its forces are not taken hostage or targeted directly by the combatants. The intervening group must retain and exercise consistent control over the nature and timing of the intervention. Interventions tend to fail if the intervening group loses the initiative. The intervention must be backed up by adequate information about the situation. Often the particular characters of the key players makes a crucial difference in the outcome of an intervention. Successful UN interventions tend to exhibit these features.

In terms of strategy, the international community must be willing to support intervention into some internal conflicts. However, we should not seek to thrust the UN, or the United States, into every internal conflict. Engaging in interventions which are unlikely to have some measure of success is ultimately counter-productive. Interventions must also plan for success. They must follow through with plans to implement any peace settlement which may be reached. Successful interventions will understand and exploit the link between diplomacy and military force. Diplomatic interventions gain their force from military backing; military force requires diplomacy to articulate its goals and interests. For this reason military intervention is most effective when employed in the context of an ongoing political peace process. In fact, linking military intervention to a larger peace process is often the key to a developing a successful exit strategy.



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