A quiet revolution is rumbling beneath the surface of global politics, a slow-motion upheaval reaching into every society. Politics and culture are being transformed through the spontaneous, worldwide emergence of “civil society,” a powerful reconstruction of social and political relations that affects everything from the way wars end to the way women make decisions about child-bearing.

Though virtually unnoticed by the news media and viewed with a mixture of relief and alarm by governments, in circles of global discourse civil society — the social and political “space” between the family and the state — has become the fashionable concept of the 1990s. It’s an old idea, but one that has gained new momentum with the end of the cold war and the meteoric growth of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. These NGOs give civil society its vitality and political potency. And most remarkable among their activities is the attempt to address another feature of the 1990s: the outbreak of catastrophic wars throughout the world.

The potency of civil society has only recently been demonstrated. The velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe in 1989 were achieved by groups of dissidents, clergy, the underground media, and others driven by universal ideals. The explosive growth of environmental NGOs around the world, so visible in Rio at the 1992 UN conference on sustainability, signaled again the arrival of this new form of politics. Human rights campaigners, women’s groups, humanitarian aid agencies, peace activists, and their vast networks — aided by the communications revolution — suddenly grew and gained unprecedented influence in the international system. Particularly where governments are weak, where they retreat from providing health care, housing, and jobs, where communities are in shambles from the ravages of the global economy or war or refugees or ecological assaults, NGOs often emerge to fill the gap of neediness.

These organizations, which range from one-person shops to $60 million bureaucracies, tend to be free of the state-centered interests and corruption of governments. Their youthful, robust qualities have penetrated the world’s rickety peace-making apparatus, and can be brought to bear on the genocide, tribal combat, religious quarrels, and political seismic shifts we have witnessed over the last decade.

A literature is growing up around the peace-making role of NGOs and their counterparts in officialdom.1 Most prominent perhaps is the series of reports and books produced by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. A creation of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic legacy of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Commission has seized upon the medical metaphor of “prevention” in approaching the new forms of conflict that beset places like West and Central Africa, West and South Asia, and Southeastern Europe.

The Commission, headed by Carnegie Corporation president emeritus David Hamburg and former secretary of state Cyrus Vance, comprises the usual mandarins of the international conference circuit — former ministers of state and a sprinkling of scholars. The work of its Final Report, dozens of short reports, seven published books and a few more forthcoming, was farmed out to an impressive roll of contributors. The books and reports range widely, from the utility of economic sanctions to the role of the news media to the reconciliatory processes of religion, and three specific conflicts — Israeli-Palestinian, Turkish-Kurdish, and Hutu-Tutsi in Rwanda-earned detailed analysis.2

The Commission has generated some gossipy controversy in the foreign-policy community and drew a withering attack from Judith Miller in the New York Times Book Review last winter.3 Miller zeroed in on the large cost of the Commission ($9.5 million), its self-importance, lack of originality, preaching to the converted, shortage of specifics. All true, to some extent. But Miller missed the central significance of the project: prior to the Commission, no one had tried to build a high-profile intellectual platform for the ideas of conflict prevention, or to bring together the scattered collection of researchers and activists working within this framework. The message, of course, is what’s most crucial, and here, too, the Final Report gets a passing grade for devising an entryway to understand the promise of prevention. These volumes provide useful bibliographies and relevant data. The overall impact of the project is certainly salutary. Other books in the Commission’s series, moreover, are very solid pieces of work.

The prevention idea is simple: act early to anticipate the sources and signs of conflict. The tools of prevention are many and varied: get early warning of conflict from aid workers, NGOs, and others “on the ground”; convene dialogues between antagonists; create new media to educate the population in areas at risk of conflict; monitor the tense areas for human-rights violations and other signs of trouble; alert the global news media to incipient conflicts, which may force political leaders to act; utilize the good offices of clergy, most obviously where religion is an ostensible cause of strife; and so on. These emergency responses can and do work, though in many cases they are too little and too late. So more “structural” causes of conflict and remedies should be considered: the economic well-being of societies is paramount, of course, but too little appreciated as a root of war. Likewise, the extent to which a society is democratic and open is an obvious gauge — nations heavily militarized and repressive are far more likely to be aggressors against neighbors or their own people. The strength of civil society, the numbers and varieties of NGOs and a free press in particular, is a strong indicator as well.

Numerous players on the global stage use the “tool kit” of preventive action, often in concert. A good illustration of these mechanisms is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The move toward a peace plan benefited from a dizzying array of actors. Multilateral agencies, particularly the UN, provided essential peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. But for years the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government could not speak with each other; indeed, such communication was a felony in Israel. Intermediaries thereby became crucial: “third parties” who could convene elites from each side to discuss their differences. This function was at times carried out by neutral governments (Norway and the like), but more often by NGOs. Prominent among them were the American Friends Service Committee, the 80-year-old Quaker group, and a project headed by Harvard psychology professor Herbert Kelman, who for twenty years conducted “problem-solving” workshops for Israelis and Palestinians who would later become prominent decision-makers. In countless dialogues, participants searched together for ways to end what had become a “hurting stalemate.”

Advocacy within Israel for a settlement by such groups as Peace Now is also notable, as are projects of many varieties aimed at reconciliation, economic sustainability, human rights, and the like, often supported by private donors — for example, American-based New Israel Fund. The landmark Oslo agreement was actually brought about by a private institute in Norway and a small NGO in Israel, who created a secret forum for final negotiations — talks fruitful because of the cultivation of these very ideas for twenty years.

The peace process in Ireland followed very similar contours, with NGOs plowing the hard soil first. The civil war in Mozambique, a brutal contest in which one million died, was ended by the mediation efforts of the Communita di Sant’Egidio, a Catholic NGO in Rome. Conflicts in West Africa, South Africa, Macedonia, El Salvador, Mexico, and other places have benefited from the interventions of NGOs, multilateral agencies, and individual governments. How many conflicts were actually averted is impossible to calculate, but the number is surely significant. With each case, new things are learned about how to use the prevention tool kit more adeptly.

What we surely know by now is that more dedicated use of prevention techniques can and will stop the cycle of deadly violence in many places. TheFinal Report of the Commission makes this case rather well. What it does not do so well is explain how and why the new tools differ from the old methods of diplomacy or force. And this difference is crucial.

Diplomacy, as it’s been practiced for hundreds of years, is primarily about protecting the interests of the nation-state. Those interests may be about economic advantage, territorial gain, balance of power, alliances, and other matters. But they are the main thing, and the means to advancing them can include virtually anything — war, subterfuge, dictatorships, and other cruelties. So states are only selectively concerned about preventing deadly conflict. They have an equally tenuous commitment to democracy, human rights, disarmament, and other goals central to the prevention paradigm. Multilateral agencies — the UN, the European Union, or the Organization of African Unity — while formally obligated more directly to prevent war, are composed of individual states and are thereby hostage to a cacophony of state interests.

Appeals to policy makers — whether in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, or elsewhere — to stop behaving like nation-states are unlikely to succeed. States will act on behalf of peace when it serves their interests or when the costs of conflict are too painful to endure. Indeed, the trend in foreign policy here and abroad is toward serving domestic pressure groups and away from the collective action model of the Cold War. It’s no accident that one of the incendiary causes of conflict today is radical nationalism: the supranational coherence of the Cold War, however misleading and destructive, has not yet been replaced by a global framework. So the pursuit of national interests still animates the actions of most individual nation-states. Such pursuit explains not only malicious actions (French meddling in Rwanda, state-sponsored terrorism in Guatemala and Lebanon, etc.), but invidious inaction (Bosnia, Tibet, Kurdistan, etc.).

Some of the prevention tool kit is being exploited by individual governments (mostly European), and it’s conspicuously true that some things only governments can do or do well, such as preventive deployments of troops (as in Macedonia and the Golan Heights), mobilization of large-scale resources, and sheer political clout, among others. But states will be conflict preventers only when it suits them, a point that few analysts in this field fully appreciate.

That is why NGOs are so pivotal to preventive action. These voluntary groups typically embrace universal ideals — which is to say, they see themselves as global citizens interested in peace, justice, equality, and so on, without reference to national interests. This is their unique advantage, and it’s an extremely important one. For example, in the days when Israelis and the US Government could not talk to the PLO, the intermediary function of NGOs was indispensable. Such situations arise often. Private diplomats shuttle back and forth between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus, between Teheran and Washington, between Miami and Havana, between Belgrade and all its neighbors. And these unofficial actors are committed to peaceful resolution, not to gaining an edge in geostrategic gamesmanship. These unparalleled qualities have in the 1990s given the world’s 35,000 international NGOs, and the estimated one million local NGOs, an unprecedented entrée into the corridors of power and influence. Their capacity for change is bolstered not only by those sheer numbers, but by the variety of non-governmental actors: former officials like Jimmy Carter, high-level scientists and scholars, clergy and business people and artists and ordinary do-gooders. The density of this global civil society — while potentially confusing — ensures numerous points of contact for antagonists, ample early warning and human-rights monitoring, thousands of foreigners with expertise on faraway conflicts, and, not least, a strong moral voice for doing the right thing.

Many of these NGOs, moreover, furnish tangible assistance in these places, protecting refugees and delivering emergency aid, building infrastructure, helping women start businesses or make choices about fertility, managing ecological sustainability, advising locals on economic issues, connecting advocacy groups the world over. They are not just Jeremiahs. In some places, they provide more services than the central government. That enhances their credibility, knowledge, and connectedness, which may easily exceed the meager, overworked staff of even major embassies.

The authors of the Carnegie Commission’s Final Report, like most observers of this work, fail to fully appreciate these singular advantages. (The Commission does at least outline a strong role for unofficial players, which is far more than is conceded by most academics and journalists, who compete with NGOs as interpreters of world events.) Instead, the incessant refrain of the Final Report is the need for government leadership. No one disputes the transformative power of visionary political leaders; Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Yitzak Rabin readily spring to mind in this regard. But the reliance on leadership is a low-percentage wager, a fault not just of the Commission but of many NGO leaders as well, who regard their mandate as prodding governments to do something when evil looms.

Crisp realism on this tendency is offered in Civil War, Civil Peace (Pluto Press), by an insightful theorist-practitioner, Kumar Rupesinghe, who formerly headed the large conflict-resolution group International Alert. Rupesinghe, whose short book has a richness of experience and detail that most treatments lack, has often cried out for a summoning of “political will” to prevent war. But here he soberly reviews the record in places like Rwanda and concludes, “it would be naive to assume that governments actually want to intervene or assist in political crises. The truth is that in most cases they prefer not to know in advance, because then there would be pressure and a sense of obligation to take action.” Rwanda, he writes, “was not a priority for Security Council members. Only France had a foothold, and her sympathies were predominantly towards the Hutus, not the threatened Tutsis. . . . More pertinently, Rwanda had little strategic value or valuable natural resources. . . . The mass killings of a million people did nothing to change that attitude.” His recipes for overcoming official apathy hinge on the dexterity of NGOs, in tandem with official resources, and he explains the how-to with gratifying specificity. He provides a practical explanation of what’s most handy in the prevention tool box without overselling its utility.

The reliance on national leaders is not only a bad bet (because so few good leaders are in the saddle) and contradicts their main purpose (which is to protect national interests), but it misuses the prevention idea. To see the national leader as the “doctor” in the prevention effort, the one who injects the vaccine or the antibiotic, is a mistake. To stretch the metaphor, national leaders are instead the ones who decide how many ambulances to buy, which hospital gets the CAT scan, whether the indigent will receive any care, who of the elderly can be left to die. Actual prevention largely occurs elsewhere, with nutrition, protection from toxics, and early detection. The true leaders of prevention are those who, collectively, do lots of little things early. When the urgent attention of a prime minister is needed, it may be too late. And cures, if available, will at that point be expensive.

The Final Report is flawed not only in its reliance on national leaders but in its belief that law — the law of treaties, international courts, sanctions, arms control agreements, and the like — is the ultimate instrument of prevention.4 International law does codify universalist values. (Even in the US Constitution, treaties take precedence over other laws.) Its achievements are plentiful, particularly in regulating commerce. But as a route toward conflict prevention, legalisms are limited — necessary but insufficient. The urge toward legal constraints (like sanctions and arms control accords) and legal processes (like bargaining and arbitration) is instinctive to diplomacy, whether of the official or private kind. But it’s not enough, and it can even divert from more fertile approaches.

Consider arms control. The long series of negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States over its nuclear rivalry was partially successful — no mean feat, to be sure — and many of the treaties of that era remain vital. US-Soviet arms control was so important because it was the one area of mutual concern that the two antagonists could actually discuss, and they did so mainly on technical grounds. But the endless rounds of talks, the exchanges of papers, the careful communiqués rarely if ever addressed the actual source of the conflict. It was an intentionally inert endeavor. Arms control, as defined over those decades by is proponents, was not meant to address the causes of discord.

The India-Pakistan confrontation illustrates this with chilling clarity. The nuclear-weapons capability of each, confirmed in their series of nuclear tests last May, has long been the focal point of international security specialists. The nuclear tests stirred US officials to redouble efforts to coerce India and Pakistan to sign nuclear-control treaties. News coverage of the events fastened on the potential for nuclear catastrophe, the possible numbers of warheads and delivery systems, the scientists behind the tests. But the India-Pakistan rivalry is not about nuclear weapons. The source of trouble goes back hundreds of years to the invasion and migration of Muslims into Hindu India, and, more recently, the bloody partition of India in 1947, when British rule ended and an Islamic state of Pakistan was sliced out of India. One million people were killed in communal violence in the late 1940s. The most violent manifestation of this today is the civil war in Kashmir. In the wake of the atomic blasts, Clinton aides suddenly saw Kashmir as something to which they should pay some attention. In fact, the conflict has festered for decades. What officialdom doesn’t get is that the traumas of these and other psychological wounds are the reason why each has developed nuclear weapons. Nukes are a symptom, not the disease, and to treat the arms problem as the disease is to ensure that it will return again and again.

This insight about the sources of conflict — the psychological traumas that simmer and explode into irrational hostilities — bring many conflicts into vivid focus. The wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the Greek-Turkish standoff in Cyprus, the Turkish-Kurdish civil war, the Hutu-Tutsi rounds of genocide, the rebellions of indigenous peoples in Latin America: these and other chronic episodes of bloodletting cannot be explained without reference to the deep, nearly ineffable wounds to the collective psyche of nations. The term “ancient hatreds,” invoked so often during the Bosnia genocide, is not accurate. There are specific causes that can be identified and remedied. But they will not be cured by the cold application of the law or treaties or sanctions. Indeed, some such measures, like sanctions or war-crime tribunals, may exacerbate the sense of persecution at the root of much violence. They must instead be dealt with by grappling with the psyche itself.

This exceptionally inventive analysis has been recently unpacked in Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism (Westview) by Vamik Volkan, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, who has been involved in numerous dialogues between ethnic antagonists. Volkan covers the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the Turks’ problems with Greeks and Kurds, and the relatively quiet difficulties of Russians in the Baltics, among others. With these he illustrates how, in his words, a loss to a people — the Serbs’ defeat in Kosovo in 1389 by the Turks, for example — is never resolved psychologically, remaining a politically potent “chosen trauma” that is passed along from one generation to the next, sometimes becoming virulent in times of stress. In this and other works, notably a two-volume collection edited with Joseph Montville and Demetrious Julius, Volkan and his colleagues offer a way out of the dilemma posed by the hoary notion of “ancient hatreds.”5

The psychodynamic approach — Montville calls it addressing the “burdens of history” — is largely ignored by policy makers. That’s a pity, because so many conflicts are stuck on the shoals of chosen traumas. Look at Cyprus. Since its violent division in 1974, countless envoys, negotiators, economic incentives, sanctions, arms control schemes, and the other tools of traditional diplomacy have blanketed the island. Nothing has worked, and the failure stems from the inability of Turks and Greeks to bury their differences until their grievances are acknowledged. Simple recognition of past wrongs and contrition can move mountains. We see this repeatedly in places such as Ireland, South Africa, Central America, and Eastern Europe.

Yet psychology will not explain every conflict, and even where it does, the mechanisms of law, leadership, and power have their place. One area where global power is increasingly concentrated is the realm of multinational banks and corporations. Two dimensions of “market society,” both given short shrift by the Carnegie Commission, are worth noting. First are the effects of “globalization,” profound but not well understood for conflict. By intensifying poverty in many places, by creating virtual slave-labor camps, by stripping national governments of their ability to regulate corporations or provide safety nets, globalization surely worsens the economic conditions that contribute to conflict. Civil strife in Indonesia rose sharply after the financial turbulence of 1997-98, for instance, and some attribute Central Africa’s woes to the collapse of commodity prices. In an international system hell-bent on privatizing, low-wage, and export-driven policies, conflict will be one of the risks. Some of the Commission’s reports do urge the World Bank to account for prevention in its lending polices, though the Bank itself (among a few scholars) has been exploring that for many months. Otherwise, the ravages of globalization are soft-pedaled.

The flip side of the business-and-conflict nexus is the potent role of large corporations operating in zones of conflict. Many of these, mainly extraction firms, have already been stung by their heedless attitudes, the most infamous being Shell Oil’s actions in Nigeria. But corporations have a stake in stability, peace, the resources and on-the-ground presence to have an impact, and unlimited access to officialdom. What they lack is the vision. Corporations occupy a parallel universe adjacent to civil society. They possess neither nationalistic or universal values; they are not — as NGOs should be — transparent, egalitarian, and participatory. Their goal is to make money, and this imparts a different sort of culture and ethos. But the overlapping interest in peace is nonetheless attractive. How can it be marshaled systematically, creatively? Very few analysts are exploring this question, a glaring oversight. And the Carnegie Commission, so well positioned with its gaggle of elites, could have served this purpose neatly.

Figuring out how market society and civil society mesh — if, indeed, the latter can civilize the former — will be crucial in shaping the next century. Civil society in particular can offer sources of stability which official institutions no longer will. What could animate the promise of conflict — prevention techniques is their realization in many kinds of institutions — business, government, education, social, communications. Constant attention to coordination and cross-fertilization, which the Carnegie Commission does often emphasize, is the likely path to realizing fully the value of the prevention paradigm. On their own, civil society and NGOs will have limited, if startling, successes in preventing conflict. What will make preventive action a truly powerful idea is when it is integrated into a multiplicity of agencies, enterprises, and professions.

The “private pursuit of public purposes” centered in civil society is reshaping global politics and is “the greatest social innovation of the twentieth century,” in the words of Lester Salamon and Helmut Anheier. Its dynamic growth stands as a retort to the pessimism over the demise of “social capital,” to use Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s formula, and to the decrepit state-centered politics of left or right. It revives internationalism at a time when many politically active people have turned inward.

That civil society remains largely unappreciated — Salamon and Anheier call it “an uncharted subcontinent on the landscape of modern society” — would matter little except that drawing upon its full powers requires some attention. In preventing or resolving conflict, we have just skimmed the surface of the potential of civil society organizations. They are, the Carnegie Commission rightly says, “the self-designated advocates for action on virtually all matters of public concern,” and increasingly they are more than that: the main actors of prevention. Governments, our own in particular, should steadily and creatively employ the unique and vast networks, talents, and advantages of NGOs. Such an embrace would not only enhance the creativity and efficiency of traditional diplomacy, but would steer it toward values that insist on human rights–the most basic of which is freedom from deadly conflict.


1 One useful list is found at the US Institute of Peace Press (Herndon, Virginia; http://www.usip.org). Two recommended titles are Building Peace by John Paul Lederach et al. and Preventing Violent Conflicts by Michael Lund.

2 A full list of reports and books can be found at the Commission’s Web site, http://www.ccpdc.org. The Final Report is self-published; the books are published by Rowman & Littlefield.

3Judith Miller, “Preaching to the Converted,” New York Times Book Review, 15 February 1998.

4 For a set of essays engaging some of these themes, see Boston Review‘s New Democracy Forum “The End of War?”.

5Volkan et al., The Psychodynamics of International Relationships: Vol 1, Concepts and Theories (Lexington Books, 1990), and Vol. 2, Unofficial Diplomacy At Work (Lexington Books, 1991).