Guidebook for Practitioners

[Full report available here.]


The guidebook, and its associated curriculum, respond to two pressing concerns.  First, the vast majority of U.S. officials who work on international diplomacy, development, and security appear to lack significant practical training on strategies to prevent and deescalate civil wars.  Second, 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.

The University of Texas project on “Preventing Civil Wars: Lessons for Foreign Policy” aims to fill such gaps, as recommended recently by experts inside and outside government.  In 2019, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warned that only a few U.S. officials possess expertise in conflict management, and they are pigeon-holed in specialized offices.  Foreign policy is thus mainly conducted by officials who lack specialized training on how to reduce violent conflict.  CSIS recommended that the U.S. government expand such training to a broad swath of personnel who engage internationally, “moving this from a boutique issue only for some people working only in functional bureaus in some contexts to a core cross-cutting issue that all – whether they are placed in regional or functional bureaus – must acknowledge and appreciate.”

Similarly, the U.S. government, in December 2020, published an interagency “Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability,” which highlighted the government’s dearth of expertise and guidance on policy-making to reduce violence.  Accordingly, the strategy pledged to “expand training and tools for U.S. diplomats engaging in fragile countries and regions.”  It added that, “State, USAID, and DoD will incorporate lessons into agency training curricula … [and] develop a robust evidence base to … determine the effectiveness of policies and interventions across contexts, conditions, and stakeholders groups.”   Though some existing training materials touch on such policy options,  this guidebook aspires to enhance that effort.  Ideally, it could contribute to training a wide range of officials, including those who are in the room when policy decisions are made about foreign civil conflicts.

Over the last three years, the U.S. government has coined a variety of terms for several closely related concepts of preventing violent civil conflict.  These include Stabilization,  Addressing Global Fragility,  Preventing Genocide and Atrocities,  and Countering Violent Extremism.   The motives for each differ slightly, but the strategies overlap significantly.  In every case, the United States advocates a unified, whole-of-government approach to achieving three objectives: prevention prior to violence, mitigation during violence, and peacebuilding after violence.  This guidebook aims to assist all of those goals.

The seven modules of the guidebook provide key insights from recent scholarship on the causes of violent conflict and how foreign policy can reduce or exacerbate it.  Module 1 explains why civil wars ignite and persist longer than seems rational – and the subsequent modules then analyze policy options to address those root causes.  Module 2 examines preventive diplomacy prior to the outbreak of violence.  Module 3 explores how the design of constitutions may prevent or help end civil war.  Module 4 discusses how and why peace processes may succeed, fail, or backfire.  Module 5 examines the challenge of implementing peace agreements.  Module 6 explains how and why well-intentioned intervention may backfire in predictable ways that can and should be avoided.  Lastly, Module 7 offers case studies that illustrate lessons from the preceding modules.  The guidebook may be read on its own, or in conjunction with our project’s 350-page curriculum of edited readings that provide further detail and evidence.

Conflict management is especially challenging because it is rife with dilemmas.   Sometimes it is possible to achieve justice or peace, but rarely both simultaneously.  Mitigating violence in the short run may perpetuate underlying conflict, thereby fostering greater violence in the long run.  Forceful intervention almost inevitably causes collateral damage, raising questions about the ethics of killing some civilians to save others.  Preventive diplomacy, which can avert civil war at low cost, is neglected because foreign policy tends to focus on conflicts that are already violent.  Finally, the responsibility to protect civilians in a foreign country may conflict with the right of people in that country to control their own destiny.  Fortunately, by studying how potential remedies interact with causes of violence, readers of this guidebook may be better equipped to formulate strategies to maximize achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals.

[Full report available here.]