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When and why are warnings about violent conflict heeded?

Observing the media’s coverage of major disasters, Professor Christoph Meyer, Professor of European & International Politics at King's College, noticed the frequent claim that high quality early warnings are often available but disregarded by those with the power to prevent the disaster. One of the most striking examples of this was the Rwandan genocide.

These frequent claims puzzled Professor Meyer. If warnings were really that plentiful, high quality and timely, could it be true that they completely ignored? And if so, for what reason? Is it possible that the literature exaggerates the quality of warning supply and underestimates the difficulties for decision-makers in whom to listen to and believe?  

With the goal of testing this conventional wisdom about the “warning-response-problem”, Professor Meyer was able to assemble a research team, supported by a major grant by the European Research Council for the FORESIGHT project and hosted by the War Studies Department. 

Professor Meyer presented some of the key findings from the book Warning about War: Conflict, Persuasion and Foreign Policy  (co-authored with Chiara De Franco and Florian Otto) to students and fellow researchers at an event in the War Studies Department this month. 

Our study challenges conventional accounts that tend to blame decision-makers’ lack of receptivity and political will.– Professor Meyer

Instead, the book offers a new theoretical framework to explain how a small number of factors shape distinct “paths of persuasion”, including conflict characteristics, political contexts, and source-recipient relations.

Professor Meyer explained that warnings and their persuasiveness vary greatly between cases, political contexts and organisational settings because there are so many kinds of warning signs given. They come from the inside of the political system – diplomats on the ground, country desk officers and intelligence analysts – as well as those who warn from the outside, such as foreign correspondents and NGO staff.

Professor Meyer argues that lessons learned from this research could improve how people communicate warning claims, as well as “increase the probability that decision-makers would take some kind of preventive action, or if they don’t, can be held accountable for not accepting some of the warning claims if they were from trustworthy and authoritative sources.”

Undergraduate students taking European foreign policy and foreign policy analysis modules are already benefiting from insights gleaned from this research. Students in a final year module have studied forecasting and the European Union’s role in foreign affairs and, for the International School of Government, Professor Meyer has developed a new module on Foresight and Horizon-scanning in Policy planning. In the future, these insights could also be featured in modules dealing with conflict prevention in peace studies or strategic surprise in intelligence studies.

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