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The UKs Last Gasp on Conflict Prevention Policy?

There were a number of positives flowing from the 2023 Refresh of the Integrated Review. Climate change was retained as a core existential threat. It also put some further meat on the bones of its Indo-Pacific tilt, signalling a thoughtful approach to partner priorities. Meanwhile, the mantra of the previous Review – ‘Global Britain’ – was seemingly retired.

Concerningly though, for the first time in about fifteen years, the UK’s premier national security document no longer includes conflict prevention and peacebuilding as a specific priority.

This departure is made all the more dramatic by the fact that the UK has been a genuine thought leader in this space over the last 20 years.

Britain pioneered innovative approaches like the Conflict Pool (later the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund) and Stabilisation Unit but also put in the hard yards intellectually. DFID-led policy around conflict and fragile states widely influenced thinking in the international development community. Within the EU, under the leadership of Catherine Ashton, then High Representative for the Union on Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the UK was instrumental in embedding conflict, mediation and peacebuilding within the EU’s newly formed diplomatic service. Under the Cameron government, the Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) became one of the first cross-government strategies intended to not only bring greater coherence to the UK’s work on conflict prevention and resolution but also to offer a strategic vision for the application of resources – particularly cross-government funds.

This approach recognised several realities. Firstly, conflict prevention is significantly cheaper than response, whether that be military or humanitarian – the cost of violent conflict stood at $16.5 trillion in 2021, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. Humanitarian assistance has more than doubled since 2006 from $9.2 billion to $31.3 billion, with the UK, US, Germany, Canada and the EU paying almost two-thirds of the total in 2022. And by the end of the Afghan war, it was estimated that ‘rebuilding’ Afghanistan had cost more than rebuilding the whole of Europe after World War II.

Secondly, if we have learned one lesson from the ‘War on Terror’, it is that there is no hard security solution to violent extremism. Successive senior commanders from General John Allen, former leader of the International Coalition against ISIS, to the UK’s own Chief of General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter have acknowledged the need to deal with the underlying drivers of conflict that enable such groups to emerge and flourish. And flourishing they are – rather than defeating ISIS in Syria, it was largely displaced; while the Sahel is now the ‘epicentre’ of global terrorism, according to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index.

Conflict prevention is a tool that will only become more important as climate change compounds and exacerbates conflict across the world, from famer-herder conflicts in the Sahel; to interstate competition over transboundary resources such as water and fisheries; and as subnational level conflict over the minerals needed to drive the green energy transition intensifies in places like the DRC and Myanmar.

From a geopolitical perspective, reducing divisive national narratives and putting in place strategies that promote political and economic inclusion – the central elements of a peacebuilding approach – are key to resisting outside threats, whether that is misinformation or indeed, military intervention. One wonders what could have been had national and international responses to Ukraine centralised a peacebuilding approach after Russia’s initial incursions into Ukraine in 2014.

As for those currently raising the spectre of a ‘flood’ of refugees into the Europe and the UK, the only way to reduce the number of legitimate refugees seeking asylum is to deal with the reasons for their flight, which have overwhelmingly been conflict and state oppression. By contrast, conflict-affected states are good news for organised crime, which has now become part of the fabric of modern conflict.

Many of these considerations were reflected in the 2021 Integrated Review. While the uniting force of a cross-government strategy on conflict prevention and peacebuilding remained absent following the retirement of BSOS under the 2018 National Security Capability Review, it nevertheless identified ‘dealing with the drivers of conflict’ as a key priority for the UK. Reflecting the Government’s newly minted policy note, the prevention of mass atrocities also made its debut. The Review went on to establish the FCDO Centre for Conflict, while also committing to build fragile states resilience to external interference. Taking on board some of the criticisms around the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), it also sought to further focus the Fund on ‘the foundational link between security, stability and resilience’.

So there were few clues that the Refresh would herald conflict prevention’s demise – at least in strategic policy terms. Unsurprisingly, this de-prioritisation was accompanied by resource cuts. Instead of focusing down on the core function of the CSSF as the 2021 Review proposed it radically expanded its scope, to include sanctions related work, while rolling in the responsibilities of other cross-government funds. The modest increase to the overall fund belied previous cuts; and the Refresh also downgraded its emphasis on ‘supporting open societies’, which could otherwise have provided another foothold for the conflict prevention agenda.

So why was this the case? The seductiveness of great power competition – familiar, meaty, with clear ‘bad guys’, lending itself to a hard security agenda – would have been attractive to a fragile government, seeking to project strengthen and certainty. Ergo, contesting Russia and China’s agendas has taken centre stage.

Second, many bureaucrats involved in the Review would probably concede that conflict prevention and peacebuilding should remain a focus for the UK, however they would have been instructed to cut items that didn’t look especially important to the Minister de Jour. Prioritisation and clarity of message seems to be the guiding star of this work. This is unsurprising after the political chaos of the last twelve months; however it doesn’t mesh well with a document that is meant to understand the interconnection between the suite of threats the UK is facing and lay out a nuanced response.

For example, meeting the Russia challenge is not just going to play out on the battle fields of Ukraine. Russia, over the last ten years, has built a cadre of support amongst a number of African states, largely fragile and conflict-affected, propping up dictators and coup leaders. This is an important part of the ‘declinism’ story vis-a-vis the rules-based system. Only 28 African states supported the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and few are observing western imposed sanctions. A failure to build the resilience of fragile states to Russian interference was starkly illustrated by the withdrawal of French and British troops from Mali and Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, the race with China for access to green minerals needed to fuel the energy transition is in large part going to take place in fragile, unstable countries. This is what integrated thinking looks like. To meet the UK’s security ambitions around Russia and China, it will need to scale rather than sacrifice conflict prevention and peacebuilding capability.

While an increased focus on Russia and China is justified there was no need to choose between it and working on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Irrespective of how in tune civil servants are with the conflict prevention agenda, without it being a political priority expressed at the highest level, it will receive neither the resources or attention needed to realise the kind of durable security outcomes the UK is seeking through the Integrated Review. At the end of the day, we don’t get to choose our threats - we only get to choose how we respond to them.

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