Prepared for presentation at the XVII World Congress of the International Political Science Association, 17-21 August 1997, Seoul, Korea.

Copyright IPSA, 1997

The end of the cold war and the aftermath of the Gulf War gave birth to an overoptimistic view on peace and stability. From an ethical point of view, a pacifist tradition is in place chanting the theoretical merits of peace. Politicians, using phrases like “The New World Order”, with references to “the End of History” were now fostering the impression that peace was practically feasible. Action researchers engaged in conflict and peace studies were eager to take up the scientific gauntlet. Early warning systems and conflict prevention became serious issues, if not fashionable language. As we are engaged at our institute for quite some time with problems of conflict prevention, the main aim of this article is to save the scientific concept from expectations which cannot be fulfilled. If, for reasons of high ethics, we place voluntarism above realism and emotions above aseptic scientific standards, we could end with politics lacking any moral standards.

Some Unpopular Questions. An Appetizer

Since time immemorial, man—and certainly the political elite—has been saddled with the problem of how to see into the future and influence it into what may be possible, desirable or even fitting. For many centuries, religion came to the rescue—certainly when it came to avoiding catastrophes—although in the end man had to resign himself to accepting the will of God, and it was beyond him to decipher what that was. Salvation being brought to earth and reason becoming deified did nothing to solve the problem: that is why Hegel needed to call upon the ‘trick of reason’ to link together conscious (individual) actions and the eventual (social) results of them. When the social science went on to follow the example of the exact science, it appeared that the problem had finally gone away. This could be done by the individual involving himself in regular occurring historical trends and by being absorbed with the social carrier of them. Science, political action and morality converged in what was called “praxis”. In the communist version of the utopian ideal, to name one example, this led to authoritarian thinking and actions, and ultimately to disenchantment about the end product. As Semprun put it: “What it comes down to is that …. man does not create the history that he wants, desires, dreams of and that he thinks he is creating. That, then, is not what he creates, he always creates something different. “(Semprun J., 1997, p.50) This so-called “conscious” action because a course which was “scientifically” based led to such a discrepancy with the objectives that it was only possible to close the gap by self-deception and force. I believe that any political scientist who concerns himself with conflict study and attempts at conflict prevention would be best served by separating scientific research, political possibilities and moral demands and only linking them together at the application level.

Which Level of Explanation

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was good news and bad news for students of history. The good news was that the answers were now different. When it comes to stability and development during the last decade, the questions have changed while the answers have, to a large degree unfortunately, remained the same. As always, the perception of certain of the involved parties lags behind actual changes, and they are fortified in this by the comfort status-quo-thinking offers them. But this is only part of the story. At the same time, it is equally true that during turbulent periods in history innovatory movements sweep through science: that is to say, there is a search for new paradigms—quite often with a very shaky basis—as far as the action research is concerned, coupled with voluntarism.

On this point, a two-fold problem—at the very least—arises. The first part of it is of a very general nature: to what extent are we in a position to perceive the trends in the changes with any accuracy when a situation is unfolding? The further you go back into history, the more you come across quasi-mechanistic explanation models: the Roman Empire inevitably fell, the French Revolution was almost unavoidable… (Zhou and Lai, however, remarked—ironically intended or not—that it is still too early to make a definitive judgment on 1789). Arguments of the “if the nose of Cleopatra” sort are fairly meaningless, of course, but that does not prove that any rationalizations made afterwards are per so much more convincing (Boorstin, D.J., 1994). The closer we get to the twilight zone of history and the political science, the harder it becomes to trace the broad outlines, never mind to indicate the decisive moments. There may well have been scientific analysis carried out somewhere which put the collapse of the Soviet system on the agenda —there has never been a shortage of Nostradamus-like predictions—but among the many Russia-watchers no consensus at all existed. For now, this will serve to guard us against over-optimism about our ability to deduce trends, and our potential for being able to understand those major force which essentially shape our world.

The step from analysis to action research is always a tricky one to make, especially when it involves political scientists whose aim is to influence foreign policy (our second “obstacle”). Consciously or unconsciously, the scientists may serve a political role, as Edward Said contends in “Orientalism” (Said, E., 1979). We have possibly become wiser, but “.. even while welcoming new departures, one may plausibly be concerned about the manner of the demise, that is, the way in which the exit from Orientalism is sought and performed”, (Dallmayr, F.R., 1996, p. 116). Or he can go to the other extreme and wrap himself up in self-proclaimed objectivity and selflessness, as a result of which permanent frustration becomes his lot. Or he puts the goalposts of principles so wide apart that everyone can walk between them.

Even when pronounced servitude or unworldly theorizing is avoided, the relationship between science and politics remains uneasy, as their paradigms and objectives can never be identical. If, like Waltz, at the classic meso-level we take the nation-state as an autonomous actor, peace would then be the result of a balance of power between (large) states. In democratic states certainly, this almost unavoidably involves a short-term view, whereas a scientist is on the lookout for trends. More than that, even: peace and stability are not promoted or endangered by ‘states’ but by governments. Even if they are starting out from a ‘rational’ position—which is not always the case—it is still not possible to determine them unequivocally. Kissinger, for example, rightly refers to the tensions between the ‘beacon’ and the ‘crusader’ trends in the United States’ foreign policy (Kissinger, H., 1996, p.173)

Although they are both striving for the same goal, the first trend leads to a strategy dominated by isolationism and the second trend to one guided by interventionism. This divergence does not, under any circumstances, trace its origins back to scientific discord, nor is there much chance that Republican views, for example, will drastically change because of a few high-quality publications. Any action researcher concerned with peace and stability condemns himself, then, to having to balance on a slack high-wire: with practical feasibility versus scientific integrity, detached analysis versus moral involvement, a limited degree of predictability versus dynamism and so on. “Up to now philosophers have explained the world, when what it comes down to is changing it”. As far as this ‘explaining’ is concerned, Marx was rather energetic. Moreover, he was particularly premature as far as ‘changing’ is concerned, and this ideas about science and praxis going hand-in-hand were extremely utopian.

Which Level of Analysis?

Within the classic analysis of stability and conflict, it is nation-states that are the key actors. In an inherently competitive system, states attempt to maximize their security, power and prestige by means of rational strategies, one of which is war (Levy, J.S., 1996). Links may well be made with other levels—such as the individual and international levels—but the focus continues to be almost always directed towards the state as on an autonomous actor and the political elite as an expression of it. Peace and stability—in this context regarded as the same—are seen as a balance of power or at least as the hegemony of one superpower (Organski, A.F.K., 1980). There is little doubt that over the last few decades the overwhelming majority of conflicts have taken place within states as a geographical entity. “The major international schisms of the twenty-first century will not always be definable in geographic terms. Many of the most severe and persistent threats to global peace and stability are arising not from conflicts between major political entities but from increased discord within states, societies and civilizations along ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, caste or classline… This is not to say that traditional geopolitical divisions no longer play a role in world security affairs. But is does suggest that such divisions may have been superseded in importance by the new global schisms” (Klare, M.T., 1996, p. 1). The only thing that can be derived from this is that manifest violence is found at the meso-level, although that does not imply that the basic cause may be found there, too.

It is, nevertheless, tempting to zoom in on local conflict to such an extent that everything else disappears from view. By doing that, the civil war in Liberia will have nothing in common with the one in Afghanistan, and there would be no connections between the conflict in Algeria and the one in Sri Lanka. Not only would the fact they are happening simultaneously have to be put down to coincidence or to an ‘invisible hand’ but, more than that, the responsibility for the problems would be seen as purely internal. The genocide in Rwanda would in that case be viewed as something which is to do with the local population and its leaders (cfr. Huntington, S., 1996). In this way, one is still only one step away from not only accentuating the unicity of the problem, but also from producing a specific explanation basis. Particularly where it concerns Africa, this is the order of the day. “In many circles, they are obstinately refusing to look at political developments in post-independence Africa through the same glasses we use to look at out own political systems. In Africa, however, conflict rarely involves a power struggle between ambitious politicians, it rarely involves an ideological battle between left and right, nor does it involve fierce competition between material interests. No: in Africa, politics and society seem to be dominated by ethnicity, and more than that, even: by tribalism” (Blommaert, J., 1996, p. 29).

On the other hand, if one takes the macro-level, one has to struggle with the acknowledged problem of over-determination, and this results in the playing-down of any points of difference. In the past we have seen that holistic explanation models have not only led to a reduction in the quality of analysis, but they have also been inefficient for change strategies, if not actually counter-productive. The translation of macro-levels to the nation-state level or to the regional level continues to be a dubious practice. On this point I am referring to a debate which was particularly lively in the nineteen-seventies, but which has since passed completely into oblivion. The concept of ‘modes of production’ was developed by Marx as a theoretically-abstract analysis unit and was later elevated by the Soviet orthodoxy into a universal category. Field research has shown that on a global level ‘feudalism’ was the exception rather than the rule, and notions such as the ‘Asiatic modes of production’ and later ‘African modes of production’ caught on. Eventually there were se many ‘forms of production’ that it was only when they were designated as being “pre-capitalism” that they were given any logical and purely negative context: i.e. something they had yet to become. And it does not become any simpler, of course, if one departs from the state framework and looks for entities such as ethnicity or gender (Krause, J. & Renwick, N., 1996) or for explanations at a psychological level (Skin, J.G., 1996). Even today, we are faced with the problem of how ones practical objectives can still be coupled to this world system. Is it possible in practice to link casuistry to a global theoretical analysis in a meaningful way without degenerating into opportunism? More than that, even, is pragmatism possible without the global analysis as a purely mental construction fulfilling an alibi function?

Where Is It All Leading and How?

Perhaps because the above questions are so simple they are often confused, even though they are each of a different nature. Let us begin with the ‘how’ question: what are the mechanisms which lead to violent social conflicts and how do you achieve stability? This is a starting point which dismisses intentionality as apriorism and goes in search of recurring patterns of behavior. The best example is the fracture that Darwin brought about in thinking. From then on, the question was no longer ‘why’ were there various life-forms but ‘how’ did they come to be, resulting in conscious processes giving way to algorithmic ones (Dennett, D.C., 1995). It is the search for the deeper-lying patterns and, as such, it is probably the oldest question about political action, existing long before there was such a thing as political science. Many of the negative reactions to Machiavelli can be attributed to his shift in perspective : he was not in search of an answer to the “why” but to the “how”-problem. The greater the degree to which sciences were emancipated, the more the social sciences reflected the mechanistic explanation models of the then theoretical physics. When looked at historically, this was unavoidable, as the predictions grew for simple, elegantly formulated yet cast-iron laws. Malthus is an example of this—at least in the first version—when he studies the relationship between increasing food production and population growth and describes war and violence as a way of regulating this imbalance. Many of the comments made about his ideological (hidden) agenda may be correct, but the criticism of the mechanism itself is simply missing the point. Positivism would weed out the last pre-scientific remains and Comte’s optimism about the possibility of setting everything in laws was only surpassed by his triumphalism in wanting to provide everything. Not only was “savoir pour prévoir” an adage used in sociology, but it is also the prescription for political action. It is dangerous to make comparisons, of course, but both Descartes and Leibnitz, thin basis for modernism and the fundamentalist of it, tried to exorcise social reality—which they experienced as chaotic—via the absolute certainties which science was supposed to offer (cf. Toulmin, S., 1990).

At this point I would like to link together two comments. The first one concerns the nature and place of the ‘laws’ in the social science, which I will go into in greater detail at a later point. The second concerns the ‘superfluity’ of moral rules or directives which can not only obscure these sciences but also obstruct the efficiency of human actions.

If things are the way they are and the course of events predictable or even unavoidable, then morality is a peripheral phenomenon at most. Neither regulation nor pious praying will help you prevent Newton’s apple dropping to the ground with a uniformly accelerated movement. At the very best you can only catch it to stop it smashing to pieces. Even those who have pushed natural law to the fore have usually opted for correction, because of the simple fact that people are not apples. Darwin was aware that vaccination protected the weakest, and Adam Smith appealed for ‘Social Sympathy’ to alleviate poverty. They left intact the principle of laws which drove towards a new form of regulation—independent of place and time —but they shrunk back from the extreme consequences of them. For others, less circumspect, ‘morality’ was precisely what they saw in these natural laws. It was Herbert Spencer who elevated the principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ —albeit on a shaky physical basis—up to a universal norm and who crowned himself as a philosopher, even though he is “the philosopher whom those who have no other philosopher can appreciate”, as William James sneeringly commented (James, W., 1911, p. 124).

This confusion between “that which is functional” and “that which is good”, which Nietzsche repeatedly warned against, is the order of the day in thinking on violence and conflict. In the past, public morality must be conveyed to the state power (Hobbes), to the reason underpinning the law (Hegel), and it must be measured against class interests (Marx): or, expressed on an international level, ‘raison d’état’ and ‘right or wrong, my country’ apply. To refer to these sorts of ‘laws’ and to invest them with “higher morality” in order to legitimize a particular type of violence really is transparent in the extreme. Many people within the peace movement are turning their backs on what they call cynicism—as are some action researchers—so that they can promptly claim the opposite: good is functional too, and as a result of that, it acquires the same unequivocalness as laws. For several reasons, this is a form of careless thinking. The way in which processes take their course and why, the way in which they can be and are supposed to be are something quite different.

If we start with the assumption that conflicts are inherent to every society and that they are functional elements for change, moreover, it follows that the action research cannot “condemn” conflicts. If we do not see conflict—and violent conflict in particular—as a goal in itself (cf. Sorels “Réflections sur la violence”), action research cannot “praise” them (you cannot like or dislike the laws of thermo-dynamics). So, we must use another sort of criterion. Although we can and must construct this criterion on rational grounds, it is necessary that it is not couched in strictly scientific terms, but partly as the version of the “just-war” and the “just-peace” (Walzer, M., 1976; Miller, R.B., 1991). The gauge we are to use is sustainable development. Since the UNCED conference in Rio, the concept has been translated into legislation and refined in indicators, but it remains a human construction made up of orders and prohibitions which —no matter how sound—can only be realized through consensus and/or force. The relative feasibility of sustainable development (through institutionalized group interests) and, if circumstances dictate, the total impossibility of it (the outer limits, for example) stand between the hopes held out for it and its realization. And this brings us back once again into the territory of laws in the social sciences.

Action Research and the Problems of Predictability: Early Warning Systems

Human activities have somehow to do with time, and on the level of consciousness one may even say all human labor is future related. Simply out of curiosity, in search of some security, at least to avoid catastrophes, individuals have always tried to have a grip on future events (for those who are religious, even or especially after death). From a mere economic point of view, throwing good money after bad money is a misinvestment because of negative future returns, and from a cost-benefit analysis every Benthamian inspired being looks for an optimal calculus. For those vested with political power, showing the capacity to influence the future is extremely important to secure their grassroots support.

There are many good reasons, apart from moral imperatives, to examine how bloody conflicts in the future can be avoided through collective actions. In the past much attention has been paid to restoring peace, while the results were often both meager and a waste of money. The so-called preventive actions and early warning systems are high ranking items on the agenda. The former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali made “The agenda for peace”, one of the core-stones of his policy (Boutros Ghali, B., 1992). The academic world, apart from the scientific incentives, welcomed this invitation which could yield both prestige and money. There is no doubt that many of them were inspired by moral motives, but, trendy thinking was not totally absent. At least one focal question was barely touched: can we predict future events, or under what circumstances can we deliver reliable information?

In the recent past, much attention has already been given, often with good results, to the area of disaster prevention (Blaikie P., 1994). A distinction should be made between “rapid onset disasters” such as flash floods or volcanic eruptions and the “creeping disasters” such as famines or drought, both on the level of warning and action. The development of high technology (e.g. the Tsunami warning system), the systematic linking of information (e.g. the World Weather Watch Program), the institutionalized networking (Early Warning Units), the training of intervention teams (Carter, C., 1991) were key-elements in the achievement of the partial success.

Of course, one cannot prevent cyclones, but “disaster preparedness”, vulnerability analysis and efficient “disaster management” were able to limit both material and human losses. However, once we have a mixture of “men made disasters”, and “natural disasters”, the success-story comes to an end. Famine early warning systems, anti-desertification programs…do raise tremendous problems when it comes to implement the warning systems (Desai, M., 1990). It should be an early warning signal for those engaged in conflict prevention that great difficulties are ahead.

Let’s go back to meteorology, a key science when it comes to predicting typhoons, floods and so on. From a technological point of view, information gathering has boomed enormously. But, how about the predictive capacities? The weather is a complex and dynamic system, and even an overkill of information does not alter this basic characteristic. As long as interferences remain under some “critical margins”, weather-forecasting is no problem. In the middle of the dry season somewhere near Timbuktu you do not need science to know that downpours are very unlikely the next week. But, how about weather-forecasting in Belgium during spring or autumn? During unstable periods, where “strange attractors” are at work, initially similar situations lead to totally different or even new ones. The “European Centre for Middle-Range Weather-Forecast”(Reading), having the most powerful computers at its disposal, can only put forward different scenarios, but that’s it: it is impossible to predict even for a period of two days the exact situation ahead. Does this mean that in spite of all the computers, meteorology is a non-science? Of course not, but meteorologists have accepted the limits of predictability, or, more accurately: much more attention has been paid now to research on how reliable predictions based on initial stages, are. It has little to do with the refusal of deterministic laws, but with the acceptance of dynamic systems, where both order and chaos are at work.

Let us now come back to peace and the problems of “Early Warning Systems” (Doom R. & Vlassenroot K., 1995). It is all too easy to consider EWS as day dreaming. During the last decade a lot of money and time has been invested to give it a more operational content. There is no doubt that information gathering made an enormous leap forward (Thoden H., 1992). Both classical database and information from specialized fact finding units provide us with an enormous flow of information which, through efficient networking, is available to all those who are interested (The open character is one of the main characteristics to distinguish it from classical intelligence services). In this respect the work of Israel Charney, Ted Gurr, Akira Onishi and of the “Department for Peace and Conflict-Research” (Sweden) or PIOOM (Netherlands) has been epoch-making (International Alert, 1994). The raw flow of information has to be screened and classified, and since 1994 UNDP is working on an operational set of indicators, the so-called “Humanitarian Early Warning System” (Mizumo J., 1995. Leatherman J. & Väyrynen R., 1995). HEWS could be developed into a good tool to predict international scale conflicts. PARIS is even more sophisticated (Adibi, J., 1997).

However, the fact that we now have our own ‘Reading’ is no reason to be overoptimistic. Can we, even with sophisticated tools predict future conflicts, and what is more important here: can this be done on sound scientific grounds ? The answer goes along lines comparable with the weather-forecasting: we have to look for the limits of prediction. It falls beyond the scope of this article to argue exhaustively about complexity and chaos thinking (Gleich J., 1988. Nicolas G. & Prigogine I.; 1989). We hope that it will be sufficient here to refer the following:

Every society is a complex system, i.e. open, dynamic and dissipative. ‘Open’ means that the system interacts with other systems. ‘Dynamic’ means that the multitude of interactions gives rise to a continuous tendency towards change and to instability. Understood by dissipative is the system’s need for new or extra energy to prevent it going off balance (the entropy phenomenon). In this, what was once regarded as being noise, i.e. accidental and disturbing, now moves into a position occupying the centre of reality and the explanation model.

In the same way that physics does not, of course, cast doubts upon mechanical laws in the appropriate fields, it is also absurd to deny that structures exist in social reality. Chaos and order do not exclude one another, it is just that problems remain in making a distinction between the two zones. In systems with adequate preservation laws, the so-called KAM theory applies: at the slightest disturbance of a system with adequate preservation laws, at most starting situations the disturbed system will follow a movement which differs little from the movements associated with the undisturbed system. In social reality it is not different: a well-balanced system can absorb a great deal before it slides off into instability. The reverse is equally true: in situations where something is totally off balance, small causes can lead to unpredictable and unimaginable large consequences.

And finally, this. Predictability is not the same as deterministic causality; what it is is Popper’s ‘propensities’, the probabilities that under certain conditions certain consequences will occur (Popper K., 1990). Conversely, chaos does not necessarily lead to catastrophe. Within a complex system spontaneous self-organization will occur as a result of the subsystems’ (uncontrollable) interaction, thereby creating—by means of synergy- something new.

What does this mean ? Conflicts go through different stages: from malaise to crisis, to denied conflict, to open conflict eventually to civil war. As long as a society is relatively stable, the upper and lower borders between which the probabilities are situated, are rather well-defined, the number of potential sequences is limited and there is a substantial probability that an initial situation S1 will lead to S2. The more off-balance the system is becoming, the wider the upper and lower borders between which probabilities are situated become, in the end they fade away. Potential sequences increase or eventually can no longer be determined. We enter a bifurcation zone where an initial situation S1 can lead to S2, S3, or in the end to Sn. Small events, normally with virtually no effect at all, can now trigger out processes with enormous and unpredictable results. Once chaos is there, prediction evaporates and action research is condemned to limited scientific aspirations or none at all. For the sake of scientific credibility, we have to admit this. It does not condemn us to sit with folded arms: we can still put forward relevant future oriented information, but we can not describe it as the result of scientific research (It once again stresses the need to start with an early commitment, when chaos is not dominating the scenery).

Action Research and Politics: The Problem of Translation

As stated before, science and politics are not governed by the same paradigms. It is not easy to figure out when both views are matching or for what reason. Action researchers , especially those involved in policy-making decisions should be aware of their vulnerable status. In general, political circles are buyers, looking for those goods which please the political class or their potential voters. They want an aura of skilled managers with academic support, especially if technical sophisticated reports are in line with the views they already had in mind. Academic staff members are sellers, always in need of money and sometimes in search of a broad public recognition of their point of view. On many occasions, they will remain unsatisfied, especially if their expectations are too high and running against the principles of a division of tasks (After all, researchers do not bear political responsibility).

Let me give an example, dealing again with early warning and the ultimate goal: early action. One of the most traumatizing experiences was the genocide in Rwanda, which took place in spite of all alarming signals (Adelman, H., A. Suhrke, 1996). Let me only mention a few:

the general trend toward a large scale conflict had been growing for years: overpopulation and, due to the agricultural base of the society and the type of land tenure, growing scarcity of cultivable land; a decline of the per capita income while the upper ten per cent was—by economic and non-economic means—increasing its share; a political system which was relying more and more on personalized power while the potential newcomers had virtually no access to the ruling elite.

the specific articulation of the conflict along ethnic lines, overdetermining all other contradictions; the problem of the refugees in neighboring countries was there to put both internal and external pressure on the regime; the Arusha-agreement, enforced upon Kigali by Western powers was functioning as a detonator, while the limited invasion of the RPF was actually the fatal act, pushing organized violence against all oppositional forces to the foreground.

The covert preparation of genocide, in a small country, with an abundant presence of NGOs, with international monitoring, with the presence of peace-keeping UN troops, is nearly unthinkable. Both UN and NGOs as well as intelligence services gave alarming messages to their national governments and the international community: the formation of death-squads, black lists and time-tables, the piling-up of weapons, the disastrous role of “Radio Mille Collines”… But, reactions were to say the least half-hearted, slow and surely inefficient. The reasons are manifold: incompetence, lack of interest, bureaucratic rigidity; but also: support of the Habyarimana-regime (France) or national double-track diplomacy (Belgium)… Anyway, the Rwanda case made it clear that early warning systems were indeed functioning as flashing signals, but without response from the political world. Nation-states stuck to their particular agenda, thus blocking initiatives from international organizations. The problem of the genocide and later on the tragedy of the refugees in the Kivu made it obvious: there is no such thing as automatic transmission from alert to response. The key to the answer can be found in the struggle of (big) states to safeguard their sovereignty. All suggestions in the recent past to strengthen the autonomy of the UN vis-à-vis unwilling members failed. It was quite clear that proposals to set up a UN permanent intervention team were doomed to fail (Urquhart B., 1993), a UN rapid reaction deployment brigade was also rejected (Van Mierlo H., 1995) and even a UN Stand-by Arrangement has not been put into practice (Permanent Mission, 1995).

The easiest answer to crack the puzzle of “why-don’t-they-listen” is to call in a moral division: the good guys and the bad ones. It is of course a popular item to put the political class in the pillory. Besides, foreign affairs always kept a distance from the public, if not from parliament, which makes it extremely vulnerable to all kinds of suspicions. Action researchers in peace and conflict studies should keep in mind at least two things. One, they jump to conclusions when stating that people are really concerned with problems of peace and stability in far away corners of the earth, are also in favor of all kinds of peace-promoting actions. One cannot deny that people are emotionally upset when confronted with CNN-produced horror-pictures of yet another bloody civil war. But, you should not overestimate the political will to devote people and money to this drama, especially if no quick solutions are offered. Action researchers promoting themselves to the voice of the silent majority, flatter their moral vanity without necessarily strengthening their scientific integrity. Two, action research, by nature, is meant to influence decision-makers. The best way to do so is by studying where, how and why decisions are made or a non-decision making policy is adopted. Action research can introduce scientific arguments in the debate, it is not forbidden to avoid artless tactics, but in the end the decision will be taken along political lines. To take honorable compromises for an answer is not the most exciting thing to do, but it is often the only remaining solution. Action researchers, unwilling to understand the proper logics of the political world are turning a blind eye towards one of their focal research items: power (One can, of course, always join or start a radical anti-systemic political pressure-group).

Besides the inner logics, politicians are also contained by some outer limits. Looking back at the sixties and seventies, the political elites were overconfident: they gave the impression to be at the steering-wheel of national economic expansion and social welfare. At the international level, UNCTAD, the “Common Fund”, the “New International Division of Labour”… drew new horizons for a different North-South relationship. In the eighties and in our decade we were confronted with governments both unable and unwilling to fulfill these intentions, giving much more weight to free market forces to deliver the goods. Not only “Free Lunch Keynesianism” but the possibility to correct even bonanza capitalism lay under fire. Globalization was the key concept: a restructuring of the world economy with new allocations of production, labor and capital.

The expansion of capitalism, its conquest of nearly every activity or country all over the world and the shifting of the centers of command, both geographically and sectorally are not new. But, the technological boom—especially in the field of communication —and the implosion of state-planned economies, both reshape the intensity and the physical space of the process. As Immanuel Wallerstein rightly states, the world economic system enters into a new phase, with winners and losers, and with enormous political consequences (Wallerstein I., 1988,1990). It means both globalization and fragmentation as two sides of a coin, labeled by Rosenau as “fragmegration” (Rosenau J.M., 1992). Fragmegration is the ultimate deep-rooted cause of nationalism, ethnicity, religious fundamentalism… which are fanning the flames of internal conflicts and further introduce the “destating”-process (Clapham C, 1996). The politicians, at best, are opting for damage control or are making kowtow before the “laws” of competition.

Some of the more popular authors, Kaplan for example, offer a gloomy picture for the near future (Kaplan R.D., 1994, 1996). Some of the more voluntarist like Samir Amin propose “the anti-systemic force of an organized, coherent and effective refusal to subordinate society to the unilateral and absolute needs of economic laws” (Amin S., 1997, p. 103). But, the triumphalism of the old days is over “the method advocated here does not permit us to formulate ready-made methods of escaping the crisis. Solutions can only come as a result of transformations of the relations of social and political forces, resulting from struggles where outcomes are unpredictable” (id.). Even those with less revolutionary connotations remain extremely prudent. “What we do know about the new internal wars suggests that involvement in them should be approached with extreme caution. But because they are likely to remain the major source of violence and instability in the system for the foreseeable future, they cannot be ignored all together” (Snow D.M., 1996, 159-60). The least one can say is that those who decipher the causes of conflicts, do not see much possibilities to change the actual situation. Both the political and research world seem to agree on corrections as the limit, altering the system is not on the agenda. For those engaged in action research, pragmatics are the only solution, if they do not want to oppose scientific findings and political feasibilities.

Action Research and Rational Morals: Sustainable Development

When it comes to questions of peace and war, ethical debates are around the corner, which is quite natural. Reductionist attempts to make morality redundant or dead wood have failed. In the end, we are left with questions where neither sciences nor politics can deliver adequate answers. The search for policies which have nothing to do with morals is futile: whether we like it or not, beliefs serve to identify the problems and shape solutions in the realm of politics. The same applies to human sciences. This does not necessarily come down to a situation in which our basics have nothing in common.

Kant’s “Pacific Union” (foedus pacificum), the “Formula of the Universal Law” and companion “Categorical Imperatives”, are still impressive tools of thinking but, alas, not very practical if one is confronted with concrete bottlenecks (Hare J., 1996). Rational ethics are not in search of the “ultimate good” and “perpetual peace”, but have to adopt concrete problem solving strategies, bypassing morals when relying on scientific findings, but transcending sciences when looking for what should be. I think we come very close to Popper’s “tentative solutions”, which are constantly checked by “error eliminations” (Popper K., 1972). Although there may be global visions about a “better world” which are difficult to explain or not completely explainable, when it comes down to action, small scale and manageable operations are the answers allowing constant adjustment and reformulating. Eventually new paths have to be chosen, if former ones show no results. It does not mean that we go back to simple “trial and error”-tactics, because morals exclude certain options, while scientific findings promote certain approaches. Others are blocked by political reality. Unfortunately, one can seldom choose, especially confronted with violent conflicts, between the optimal and second best option. Ultimately, the only thing left is to avoid the worst case scenario. It may run against high ethical standards, or be out of tune with the scientific optimum, but engineering with a lot of criticism ahead is often the only way out.

Sustainable development is a new paradigm for action research and our final yardstick when it comes to peace and stability. Although it is firmly rooted into scientific research, it has many ethical and political dimensions. It became more and more clear that both market oriented and central planned economies were seriously underestimating or even totally neglecting the outer limits of our world system, the carrying capacity of the earth as a whole. Sustainable development became a hot issue, both as an academic focal research item and as a political program. It is high ranking on the international agenda and, in the aftermath of Rio, became part of the national priorities. Of course, a topic having too many devotes, from all corners and from agents having a multitude of often contradicting interests, is somehow suspicious. There will be a battle between various power groups to occupy the concept, to divert it from some of its essentials, or to reformulate it in line of vested interests.

For example at the Rio Summit the “Framework Convention on Climate Change” was finally adopted. One cannot say that scientific unanimity was reached neither on the causes nor on the exact nature of the phenomenon of climate change. But, the results of the actual findings have passed a certain critical threshold: one cannot risk to ignore the alarming signs. We have to call in the concepts of “caring society” and “precautionary principles” in order to cope with dramatic eventualities. We even have to abandon technological optimism: both the “Devil’s doctrine” —what can be done, must be done—and the belief that technological salvation will—in the end—resolve all human made problems are out of time. Briefly, we have to take ethical decisions: what kind of future do we want by changing collective human behavior? Inevitably, this also means that we have to undertake the long march through political and economic decision-making structures. It will be a frustrating process, with setbacks and rearguard actions, with Kantian high priests and political radicals on our backs. But is there another way out?

The UNCED-conference in Rio was fully aware of the multiside problem of how to define sustainable development into operational terms. In order to avoid deadlocks, it was decided that nation-states could translate the general principles into their own “Agenda 21”. Agenda 21 can be labeled as the action program for the future. It was clear that any top-down approach was impossible or even not desirable. On the other hand, leaving concretization totally in the hands of local powerful lobbies, with endless passing the buck to other countries would reduce Agenda 21 to a mere profession of faith. In order to keep local action in line with global requirements, the “Commission on Sustainable Development” (CSD) was established as a functional commission of ECoSoc, and mandated to provide a set of “Indicators for Sustainable Development” (ISD’s). Most important was the so-called “Core Set of Indicators”. Such a Core Set constituted a menu from which countries could select their indicators according to their national problems, priorities and targets. This Core Set must be seen as a flexible and evolving tool, changing according to further experience gained (Gouzée N., Mazijn B., Billharz S., 1995, p.6).

M. Strong may have stated “Agenda 21 is based on the premise that sustainable development is not just an option, but an imperative”, when it comes to practical issues, we come close to Popper’s “tentative solutions (Strong M., UNCED, 1992). Sustainable development, as an umbrella term, translated into ISD’s, is still centered around basic requirements of life aspirations for improvement and remains consequently partly an ethical question. But , at the same time, its “imperatives” are brought down to earth, taking into account practical feasibility and relativism. This may not be pleasing the ear and eye of those hooked on eternal and universal truths, but it is in line with the capacity of action research. For those who find it consoling, we come close to the consequentialist thought of Max Weber, who prefers thinking through practicalities instead of politics of ultimate ends (Weber M., 1946, Anderson P., 1991).

The main constituting elements of sustainable development are structural poverty eradication, democratization and respect for ecological carrying capacity, thus widening the classical concept of economic development, measured in terms of GNP. Although intimately linked —e.g. deforestation has something to do with poverty and decision making processes —for the sake of operationalization in specific situations, their relative weight will be fluctuating (Colchester, M. & Lohmann L., 1993). If sustainable development is our final yardstick to evaluate our attitude vis-à-vis conflicts, especially violent ones, it also means that our criteria are flexible. It comes down to the belief that our future is relatively open and moldable and that conscious human behavior is important. It is also aware of the enormous problems to overcome short time interest defense of power groups, the culture of contentment of societies and the conservative reflexes of individuals. It may be an attitude close to Emile Habibi’s “pessoptimism”, an attitude taking into account the facts of life but with a stubborn inclination not to surrender.

Conclusions: Peace Is Not a T-Shirt Away

Action research engaged in peace and conflict prevention has to accommodate with low-profile aspirations. Confronted with their diffuse scientific paradigms, researchers often reach out for actions based on abstract ethical foundations. For the sake of sciences ànd ethics, and most of all, for the benefit of those in want of support, the nanny-reflex is no answer. Let me remind you just a few puzzling issues:

  • If sciences are in need of predictive capacities what are the limits for scientifically well-founded predictions ?

  • Is there any justification to prevent potential conflicts? Conflicts, even violent conflicts, are not always containable, while the future outcomes are not necessarily univocally ‘bad’.

  • We cannot avoid ethical yardsticks when it comes to peace. If we look for rational morals, incorporated in the sustainable development paradigm, we have to work with practicalities, not with eternals or universals.

  • Action research aims to alter situations evaluated as far below any optimization standard. Both economic and political decision-making processes are governed by interests out of reach of academic critics.

Prudence and modesty, vis-à-vis scientific legitimacy, ethical validity and political feasibility should set the tune as far as action research on peace and conflict prevention is concerned. This is again a plea for early action, because once belated and forced into intervention all of these precepts lose sense, as both instruments and targets are limited by them.

But, how about the ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’, you may ask ? Nobody expected the swift transfer of regime, especially not Kabila himself. The self-proclaimed Zaire-experts -in Belgium you can find dozens of them- were overrun by the events. (How about predictive capacities?) If asked for consultation both by the government and NGO’s in the aftermath of the take-over, what can be our position? To use Popper’s phrase, all we can offer are ‘adventurous trials’; we can forget about certitudes, we can hope for the truth, and we can aspire efficiency relevant to this specific but ill-defined problem situation. We have to make use of our general scientific knowledge but avoid illusions of a scientific advice in this particular case. It is a field test of our rational moral standards in a concrete situation, which we neither created nor are able to change completely. Although future decisions will most probably be shaped along other logics, we can at least be held partly responsible for them. For those engaged in action research, it may be an unpleasant situation. There is only one advice left: if you can’t cope with this problem, change problems.

Sustainable peace is not around the corner. We can regret it. We can, especially during long summer nights, have deep reflections whether men are good while systems are bad or vice-versa (‘la philosophie commence quand les sciences sont en vacances’). But, for the time being, the roots of conflicts, both on the international and national level, will remain. And we will not be able to prevent or contain all potential conflicts from bursting out. It is not always desirable from an ethical point of view, nor possible from a practical perspective. Early Warning Systems, both as predictive or monitoring tools, can and must be installed. The instrumental scientific value, however, will only be maintained when we accept well defined fields of application. Pushed beyond its inherent limits, false pretension will destroy potential prevention.


ADELMAN, H. & A. SUHRKE, Early Warning and Response: Why the International Community Failed to Prevent the Genocide; Disasters, The Journal of Disaster Studies and Management, vol. 20, nr. 4, Dec. 1996.

ADIBI, J.I., H.R. ALKER, M. MALITA, T. Jr. VEST, Paris: a Prototype Action Recommender’s Information Support System for Conflict Prevention. Paper presented at XVIIth IPSA World Congress, Seoul, August 17-21, 1997.

AMIN, S. Capitalism in the age of globalization. The management of contemporary society, Zed Books, London, 1997. 

ANDERSON, P. “Science, politics and enchantment”. in: HALL, J.A. & JERVIC, I.C. (eds.) Transition to modernity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

BLAIKIE P., CANNON T., DAVIS I., WISNER B. At risk, natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. Routledge, London, 1994.

BLOMMAERT, J. (e.a.)Politiek en crisis in (onze kijk op) Kongo en Rwanda”. Vlaams Marxistisch Tijdschrift, nr. 1, 1997, pp.28-41.

BOORSTIN, D.J. Cleopatra’s nose. Essays on the unexpected. Random House, New-York, 1994.

BOUTROS-GHALI, B. An agenda for peace. Preventive diplomacy, peace-making and peace-keeping. Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted to the summit meeting of the Security Council on January 31 1952, UN, New-York, June 1992.

BOUTROS-GHALI, B. Supplement to an agenda for peace: position paper of the Secretary-General on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the UN. January 3 1995.

CARTER, W.N. Disaster management, a disaster manager’s handbook. Asian Development Bank, Manila, 1991.

CLAPHAM, C. Africa and the international system. The politics of state survival. CUP, Cambridge, 1996.

COLCHESTER, M. & LOHMANN (eds.) The struggle for land and the fate of the forest. Zed Books, London, 1993.

DALLMAYR, F.R. Beyond orientalism: essays on cross-cultural encounters. State University of New-York, Albany, 1996.

DENNETT, D.C. Darwins dangerous idea; evolution and the meaning of life. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1995.

DESAI, M. “Modelling and early warning systems for famines”. in: DRÈZE, J. & SEN, A. (eds.) The political economy of hunger. Vol.2, Clarendon Press, London, 1990.

DOOM, R. & VLASSENROOT, K. Early-warning and conflict-prevention. Minerva’s wisdom? ABOS, Brussels, 1995.

GLEICH, J. Chaos, making a new science. Heinemann, London, 1988.

GOUZEE, N., MAZIJN, B., BILLHARZ, S. Social, institutional, economic and environmental aspects of Indicators of Sustainable Development for Decision-making. Report of the Workshop of Ghent, submitted by Belgium to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Brussels, 1995.

HARE, J. “Kantian ethics, international politics and the enlargement of the Foedus Pacificum”. in: LUGO, L. (ed.) Sovereignity at the crossroads. Morality and international politics in the post-Cold War era. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanhaw, New-York, pp.71-93.

HOMER-DIXON, T. “Environmental scarcity and intergroup conflict”. in: THOMAS, D.C. (eds.) World security: challenges for a new century. New-York, St. Martins Press, 1994, pp.278-299.

HUNTINGTON, S., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.

Indigenous peoples and sustainability. Cases and actions. IUCN intercommission task force on indigenous peoples, International Books, Utrecht, 1997.

INTERNATIONAL ALERT. Advancing preventive diplomacy. A programme proposal. International Alert, London, 1994.

JAMES, W. Memories and Studies. Longmans, New-York, 1911.

KAPLAN, R.D. “The coming anarchy. How scarcity, overpopulation, tribalism and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of the world”. The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994.

KAPLAN, R.D. The ends of the earth, a journey at the dawn of the 21st century. Random House, New-York, 1996.

KELLY, D. “Realistic responses and strategic options: an alternative CCP ideology and its critics”. Chinese law and government, March-April 1996, Vol.29, nr.2, pp.13-32.

KISSINGER, H. “The world order”. in: CROCKEN, C.A. & HAMPSON F.O. Managing global chaos. Sources of and responses to international conflict. US Institute of Peace Press, Washington DC, 1996, pp.173-183.

KLARE, M.T. The human dimension: redefining security. The new global schisms, Random House, New-York, 1996.

KRAUSE, J. & RENWICK, N. Identities in international relations. St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1996.

LEATHERMAN, J. & VÄRYNEN, R. Structure, culture and territory. Three sets of Early Warning Indicators. Notre Dame, paper, 1995.

LEVY, J.S. “Contending theories of international conflict. A levels-of-analysis approach”. in: CROCKER, C.A. & HAMPSON F.O. Managing global chaos. Sources of and responses to international conflict. US Institute of Peace Press, Washington DC, 1996, pp.3-24.

LORENZ, E.N. The essence of chaos. UCL, London, 1993.

MIZUNO, J. Humanitarian Early Warning Systems: progress and prospects. UN-Department of Humanitarian Affairs, New-York, 1995.

MILLER, R.B. Interpretation of conflict. Ethics pacifism and the just-war tradition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

NICOLAS, G. & PRIGOGINE, I. Exploring complexity. An introduction. Freeman, New-York, 1989

ORGANSKI, A.F.K. & KUGLER, J. The war ledger. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980.

Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN. Comprehensive review of the whole question of peace-keeping operations in all their aspects. Statements in the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly. New-York, November 13, 1995.

POPPER, K. A world of propensities. Toemer, Bristol, 1990.

POPPER, K. Objective knowledge. An evolutionary approach. Clarendon, Oxford, 1972.

ROSENAU, J.M. The UN in a turbulent world. Lynne, Rienner, Boulder, 1992.

RUELLE, D. Strange attractors: chance and chaos. Princeton University Press, 1991.

SAID, E.W. Orientalism. New-York, Vintage Books, 1979.

SEMPRUN, J. Wat ‘n mooie zondag. (Vert. “Quel beau dimanche”, Ed. Grassier, Paris, 1980), Breda, De Geus, 1997.

SNOW, D.M. Uncivil wars. International security and the new international conflicts. Lynne, Rienner, Boulder, London, 1966.

STEIN, J.G. “Image, identity and conflict resolution”. in: CROCKER, C.A. & HAMPSON, F.O. Managing global chaos. Sources and responses to international conflict. Washington DC, US Institute of Peace Press, 1966, pp.93-112.

THOMAS, H. (ed.) Globalization and third world. The challenge of rapid economic change. Zed Books, London, 1995.

THOOLEN, H. “Information aspects”. in: RUPESINGHE, K. & KURODA, M. Early warning and conflict resolution. Mac Millan, London, 1992.

TOULMIN, S. Cosmopolis. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1990.

UNCED. The global partnership for environment and development. A guide to Agenda 21. UNCED-Geneva, April 1992.

URQUHART, B. For a UN Volunteer Military Force. New-York Review of Books, June 10, 1993.

VAN MIERLO, H. Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs: the Netherlands non-paper. A UN Rapid Reaction Deployment Brigade. A preliminary study. New-York, April 1995.

WALLERSTEIN, I. “Culture as the ideological battleground of the modern world systems”. in: FEATHERSTONE, M. (ed.) Global culture, nationalism, globalization and modernity. Sage, London, 1990.

WALLERSTEIN, I. “The ideological tensions of capitalism: universalism versus racism and sexism”. in: SMITH, J. (e.a.) Racism, sexism and the World System. Greenwood Press, Westport, 1988.

WALTZ, K.N. Man, the state and war. Columbia University Press, New-York, 1959.

WALZER, M. Just and unjust wars. A philosophical essay with historical illustrations. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.

WEBER, M. “Politics as a vocation”. in: GERTH, H.H. & MILLS, C.W. From Max Weber. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1946.

Tagged with:

Comments are closed.