Project Overview

Since the end of the Cold War, the academic field of Conflict Management – aimed at preventing and mitigating violent civil conflict – has flourished, revealing important insights. Regrettably, much of this wisdom has yet to be incorporated into foreign policy. Thus, diplomatic and foreign-assistance efforts often miss opportunities for peacefully managing foreign conflicts, or even worse may exacerbate them.  This project aims to help bridge that gap.

Our project started by interviewing dozens of U.S. officials at USAID, the State Department, the Defense Department, and federal contractors about how their work is guided by two factors: (1) existing US government guidance documents on conflict, and (2) their past education and training on conflict.  Our findings are compiled in the report “Insights from Practitioners” and reveal that the vast majority of U.S. officials working on international diplomacy, development, and security appear to lack significant practical training on strategies to prevent and de-escalate civil wars.  Moreover, current U.S. government guidance documents on this topic, such as conflict assessment frameworks, focus mainly on describing the contentious politics of countries, rather than formulating policy responses to minimize violence.

To help educate busy officials who have limited time for classroom study, we compiled a 350-page mini-“Curriculum” comprising 40 edited readings, divided into seven modules: Civil War Roots, Prevention, Constitutional Design, Peace Processes, Peacebuilding, Backfire Risks, and Case Studies. The curriculum may be taught by the U.S. government itself or a partner institution.

We also summarized the lessons in a 20-page “Guidebook for Policymakers” that is divided into the same seven modules. It may be used independently or in conjunction with the curriculum.

Our project aims to inform foreign policy to help prevent civil war.  However, that objective can be achieved only if the U.S. government provides such training widely, beyond specialist offices, to personnel ranging from those making policy at the top to those implementing it on the front lines.  In light of the potential consequences of civil wars – including regional insecurity, refugee flows, violent extremism, weapons proliferation, economic decline, humanitarian suffering, and deployment of U.S. forces – such an investment in prevention could yield large returns.

Briefing for U.S. officials, May 4, 2021