Small Wars Journal

The Dogs that Do Not Bark: Prevention as the Path to Strategic Stability

Fri, 08/02/2013 - 4:53am

The Dogs that Do Not Bark: Prevention as the Path to Strategic Stability

William J. Flavin

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Sherlock Holmes: "That was the curious incident.”

Silver Blaze[1]

It is difficult to prove that prevention works because if it does nothing happens. But as Holmes observed even the absence of action can lead to insights. Something has [not] been happening.  There have been many potential conflicts that have been averted, or contained, since WWII.  One study found as many as 47 incidents since 1945 such as: Macedonia, Baltic States, Hungary, South Africa, Kenya etc.  Many, like the Inspector above, have not been paying attention to what has not been happening.   What insights can we suggest from this?[2]

Can this be attributed to Strategic Stability, the possession and potential to use WMD and the overwhelming military power of the United States?  Some believe that this is, and remains, a factor and the reason that there has not been a state-on-state confrontation and other conflicts have not been able to disrupt the international system.   However, the fact the U.S. possesses significant military power in the areas of nuclear, conventional, maritime and air did little to convince the Afghan Government to hand over Osama bin Laden.  This vast military power has not convinced the many spoilers, terrorists, anarchists, and criminal elements from attempting to reorder global governance to their own liking with little regard for international consequences.  It was not successful in preventing any number of regional conflicts from the Balkans to Iraq, to Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, and of course the “Arab Spring.”  

Some scholars and thinkers believe that we may be entering a new era. If the international system becomes more fragmented and existing forms of cooperation are no longer as seen as advantageous to many of the key global players, the potential for competition and conflict may also increase.   Thus, conflict although contained in the past may cause instability in the international system that could lead to unintended consequences.  No one predicted in 1914 that a minor incident in the Balkans would lead to WWI.   The international system forged in Westphalia (1648) and rededicated in Vienna (1815) failed to function. 

Several have been thinking that the international system is shifting away from one where technology and organizations hold sway.  MG(R) Robert Scales, Jr., in several articles, has been emphasizing that the international system is shifting. In his August 2006 article, “World War IV,” he predicts the coming “human and biological era of war” when mission success may be determined by individual conduct, character, mental agility, and intuition rather than superior technologies.  He argued that the center of gravity would shift from governments and armies to the perceptions of populations.  In effect, he argues that we are now beginning the tectonic shift into World War IV, the epoch when the controlling amplifier will be human and biological rather than organizational or technological.   In this new era, conflicts will be prevented or contained by creating alliances, leveraging nonmilitary advantages, reading intentions, building trust, converting opinions, and managing perceptions - all tasks that demand an exceptional ability to understand people, their culture, and their motivation. In a nutshell: World War IV will cause a shift in classical centers of gravity from the will of governments and armies to the perceptions of populations. Victory will be defined more in terms of capturing the psycho-cultural rather than the geographical high ground.[3]

The Small Wars Journal has been running several articles and blogs dealing with similar shifts in the international system such as Hybrid War and Unrestricted War.   In these concepts conflict is considered as using all areas of human activity as a means to achieve victory. They assert:

“Mankind is endowing virtually every space with battlefield significance. All that is needed is the ability to launch an attack in a certain place, using certain means, in order to achieve a certain goal. Thus, the battlefield is omnipresent.”  Will this be a game changer for the international system?  [4]

Gary W. Montgomery, in his recent Small Wars Journal article on “An Age of Instability,” offers several observations.  Since Westphalia, the world is ordered in states; and, after WWII, there has been a growth in the number of states as most people seem to want to have their own state as an independent nexus of the elements of power.  But, although the world is ordered into states, are these the states as we understand them?   Montgomery proposes that “global integration is not state-based,” rather, “components within states are integrating transnationally.” [5]  This process eventually unravels and undermines the state as a nexus of power.[6]  It becomes apparent when the elements of power are considered separately: information, economics, military, and diplomacy.”    In all of these areas there are powerful transnational forces building the new face of the international system that can not as of yet be distinguished. [7]

The trends indicated above have also been identified by the National Intelligence Council in “Alternative Worlds 2030” and the Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze Berlin Center for Peace Operation’s “Peace Operations 2025” and lend some credibility and rigor to their observations in that they both used similar methods, approaches and timing to create their reports and scenarios.

Montgomery concluded that:

 “One might argue that the weakening of the state is actually a stabilizing influence in that it reduces the frequency of interstate warfare. That may be true, but it transfers conflict from international to domestic arenas. Relatively short periods of uncertainty and intense conflict are exchanged for persistent uncertainty and low-level violence.” [8]

Will this persistent violence affect the health of the international system and what can be done?

Strategic Stability has been offered as a solution.  Colin Gray and C. Dale Walton address the problem of strategic stability their chapter in Strategic Stability:   Contending Interpretations, and conclude that stability depends on the overall condition of the international system and not so much on the numbers and throw weight of weapons.[9]  The Arab Spring; the situation in Mali; 9/11; ;the subsequent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and operations in the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Somalia, and the Philippines occurred independent of the number of missiles, bombers or carrier task groups.  Yet all of the evens affect the health of the international system and can lead to greater instability.  So how do we create and/ or maintain a global security environment that precludes conflict of a most violent nature such that the condition of the international system is affected?   One approach is to look at the problem as a natural disaster.[10]

Natural disaster, like conflict among human beings, cannot be avoided.  Conflict and natural disasters will occur so the focus should not be on preventing disaster but rather on learning how to cope.  This requires doing what needs to be done to build on the resilience and capacity of a country so as to enhance their ability to handle the natural disaster, within their own means, without the need for massive aid from the international community.  In manmade conflict the approach should be the same.  Conflict prevention is not a useful term because conflict itself cannot be prevented.  Instead, having nations with the inherent ability to manage conflict so that it is not violent is desired.  Lacking this, then the capacity to contain and deal with conflict is preferred.  The US Army doctrine on Stability Operations makes this very point:

Stability ultimately aims to create a condition so the local populace regards the situation as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. These conditions consist of the level of violence; the functioning of governmental, economic, and societal institutions; and the general adherence to local laws, rules, and norms of behavior.[11]

If we consider the international security system as an ecosystem, then we can address it as ecologists do by understanding relationships.  Ecologists look at relationships among plants, animals, and their environments; we must look at the relationships among people, governance, resources, and aspirations. Ecologists focus on managing those relationships to try to achieve a balance or the ‘stability’ that Gray and Walton described.  To achieve that balance, a comprehensive approach, using all of the national and international instruments, must be used to work among the people on the ground where these relationships can be addressed.  General Sir Rupert Smith (2005) in The Utility of Force described this as the new face of the use of power. 

We have examples where conflict was avoided and where future conflict was prevented. There have been several instances where major drivers for conflict were present but major conflict was prevented.  What can be learned from a crisis that did not happen?   First, in each of these, the failure to descend into crisis was dependent upon relationships that had been developed over years.  Identifying the problem, before blood is shed, and providing timely and deliberate measures, from competent and trusted third parties, with support by a comprehensive international effort, seems to prevent our the descent into conflict.   Second, the international community, including the U.S., engaged directly with key countries and actors and created a safe environment so that political action and capacity development could take place.  This was accomplished by actual or virtual presence of an external force.

Beginning in the early 1990s, with the removal of the USSR on the United Nation (UN) Security Council,[12] there has been a marked expansion in size and number of peace operations deployed in the aftermath of intrastate conflicts.  Between 1946 and 2010 the number of global conflicts has declined around 25%. In the decade of 2000 to 2010 there have been five years without new conflicts. No decade, since the end of World War II, has witnessed so many years in which no newly- triggered conflicts have been added to the roster of active conflicts.  However, in recent years, the number of conflict recurrences has surged to unprecedented levels. The U.S .National Intelligence Council, in their Global Trends report of December 2012, indicated that the commitment and engagement of the international community devoted to preventing conflict has accomplished the task of preventing new conflict.  The 1994 UN prevention force, in the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, is an example of keeping a country together and preventing conflict.  But, as the figures indicate, the international community must continue the commitment or countries will slide back into conflict. [13]

What is the military role in all of this?  The U.S. Army’s capstone concept states that the Army’s missions is to Prevent, Shape, and Win.  In their new operating concept, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOF) will focus on enhancing stability and preventing conflict.  The USMC Operating concept identifies preventing wars as important as winning them.   There have been several recent efforts to look at what prevention means and what the U.S. military role should be.  The Naval Post Graduate School (NPS) and U.S. Institute for Peace have hosted the Interagency Education and Training Working Group (IETWG) and a special working group on Conflict Prevention for the Collaborative and Adaptive Security Initiative (CASI).  The Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) has facilitated and George Mason University and Unified Quest, the Army Future Game hosted, the Stability Operations Training and Education Working Group. Additionally, in 2013, the Joint Concept Based Analysis for Stability Operations, conducted by direction of the Secretary of Defense, identified prevention as a key issue to be addressed. [14]   

These efforts identified issues and challenges.  Joe Miller, at the 2011 NPS symposium on prevention, suggested that the military use the following formula to guide their engagement: engage long before violence happens to enhance, enable, and promote conflict prevention.  If violence should start then deter, persuade and preempt.  For this formula to succeed the following conditions should be considered:  develop deep understanding of the total physical, cultural, social, and psychological environments that influence human behavior; understand the strategic narrative and how to deal with it; develop sensing and monitoring abilities to know when and where to engage and act on this understanding before tensions escalate and bloodshed polarizes the actors; develop a comprehensive approach that will include the whole of the U.S. government, host nation and international actors; engage discretely with just the appropriate level of force needed;  develop partnerships and networks and sustain them over time (“you can’t surge trust” Admiral McRaven) ; be patient and engage for the long haul; maintain the legitimacy of the engagement;  be comfortable with setbacks; see the military in collaboration with the other elements of power as a constructive tool; and, remember success at the end of the day lies with the host nation. [15]  

All of the above mentioned working groups and thinkers have been identified key challenges and issues.   What does prevention mean?  Can we achieve a comprehensive approach?  Can we learn from previous successes and failures?  Can we educate and train for prevention? Can the military “institution” have the flexibility to embrace prevention?  But what does prevent mean?  Preventing conflict is not well-defined.  There is no U.S. interagency definition for prevention.  Does preventing violent conflict mean preventing war?  Does it mean “If you do “that,” I have the military power to prevent you?”  This is not a useful approach, either from a national security perspective or from a military perceptive.   So, we need to define prevention and determine who has what role.  This is not easy if we look at all the “prevention regimes” that currently exist.  There are many different regimes established to deal certain aspects of the international system: Nuclear, Chemical, Landmine, Cyber, Terrorist, Arms Control, Climate Change, Piracy, etc.  Each of these regimes has norms, principles, rules, procedures, decisional arrangements and measures of effectiveness.  There is no overarching regime for “prevention.”   This remains a challenge.

The US government has struggled to achieve a whole of government approach to address what Dr Michael Lund terms primary prevention (stopping incipient conflicts) and secondary prevention (preventing relapse of previous conflicts).  Since the 1994 Presidential Decision Directive 56 through the 2004 National Security Presidential Decision Directive to the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Report - the struggle continues.  The problem has been discussed in many journals.  In 2012, the Simon Center Interagency Journal discussed the deleterious effects that the lack of a whole-of-government approach has on conflict prevention.  The problems faced prior to the outbreak of   uncontrolled violence lie primarily in the civil realm and are related to structural grievances, societal grievances and drivers of conflict. The military may be a necessary, but not a sufficient, tool.  Many countries have military- oriented processes in which the military has a lot of  influence, respect and control.   The military may have more levers than the civilian side; therefore, a whole- of -US Government is warranted. Currently, a shared policy on conflict prevention within the United States Government does not exist.[16]

It is essential that we learn and address the dynamics of human-centered violence and share this knowledge with all actors in the U.S. Government and among our international partners.   In the past, though successful engagements, tools, skilled people and resources have been used neither the U.S. government, nor the international community, has developed a best practices network to widely share what has been successful.   There are several groups in the U.S. Government working these issues, in USAID and Department of State,  but they use different tools and sharing is incomplete, among those agencies and with the Department of Defense (DoD).  The problem has been identified. 

How do we educate and prepare for conflict prevention?  The IETWG is directly addressing this issue and has support from a wide range of governmental offices.  The USIP Director of Learning and Organizations has addressed the issues of program design and feedback.  The problems of definition, policy and lessons learned listed above provide challenges when designing whole-of-government educational initiatives.  The U.S. Government has not reached consensus on the nature of conflict or which theory of change should underpin it.    Education and preparation are essential toward informing all of the players.

How will the military embrace prevention?  Andrew Bacevich describes the institutional challenge in this way:  “The armed forces of the United States do not define their purpose as avoiding defeat. They exist to deliver victory, imposing their will on the enemy. In plain English, they make the other side say uncle.”[17]    The military institution is designed to prepare to engage in combat so their budgeting and planning systems ensure that the institution is prepared.  Those systems postulate a crisis and then ensure that the military has the doctrine, education, training, material, and personnel necessary and appropriate to address that crisis.  This is indeed prudent and appropriate.   But how then does the institution plan and prepare for a situation that is not a crisis?   The current assumption is that the doctrine, education, training, material, and personnel developed for a crisis are appropriate for preventing that crisis.  Are they?  The current Joint Concept Based Analysis (CBA), mentioned above, is trying to address that issue.  

So, has the absence of conflict led to insights?  It has led to many questions, challenges, and discussions that will, hopefully, lead to a whole-of-government approach to addressing one of the most challenging issues we face.

End Notes

[1] Here is the actual quotation edited above for comprehension:

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the Inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

“You consider that to be important?” he asked.“Exceedingly so.”“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ADVENTURE 1: “SILVER BLAZE”,   (accessed May 21, 2013).

[2] Hal Hansen, Perspectives on Conflict Prevention (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 24-26 September 2012) 35.

[3] Maj. Gen. ROBERT H. SCALES (ret.), “Clausewitz and World War IV,” Armed Forces Journal (July 2006).

[4] Brian M. Pierce and James Zanol MANeuver in N-Dimensional Terrain (MAN^N) A Full Spectrum Maneuver Concept Small Wars Journal January 24, 2012 - 8:46pm (accessed May 27, 2013)

[5] Gary W. Montgomery An Age of Instability Small War’s Journal  April 26, 2013 - 2:30am (accessed May 27, 2013)

[6] Gary W. Montgomery An Age of Instability Small War’s Journal  April 26, 2013 - 2:30am (accessed May 27, 2013)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9]   C. D. Walton and C. Gray, “The Geopolitics of Strategic Stability:  Looking Beyond Cold Warriors and Nuclear Weapons, In M. Colby and M. Gerson (2013) Strategic Stability:  Contending Interpretations, Carlisle, PA:  Strategic Studies Institute.

[10] C. Dale Walton and Colin Grey, “The Geopolitics of Strategic Stability: Looking Beyond Cold Warriors and Nuclear Weapons,” in Elbridge A. Colby and Michael Gerson Ed. Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations, ( Carlisle Barracks: US Army War College: 2013). Thanks to Professor Peter Walker of Tufts University who suggested the idea to the author at the Prevent Workshop Aug 2011 at the Naval Postgraduate School.

[11] Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication 3-07 Stability, Washington DC: August 2012 p 1.

[12] Russia is still a member.

[13] J. Joseph Hewitt, “Trends in Global Conflict, 1946-2009” in J. Joseph Hewitt

Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Ted Robert Gurr, with Birger Heldt ed.  Peace and Conflict 2012, (College Park: University of Maryland, 2012) 18.

[14] US Special Operations Command, US Special Operations Command Operating Concept (Tampa: USSOCOM May 2012); TRADOC, US Army Capstone Concept TRADOC Pam 525-3-0 (Washington, D.C.: HQ Department of the Army, 19 December 2012); HQ US Marine Corps, US Marine Corps Operating Concepts (Washington, D.C.: HQ US Marine Corps, June 2010)

[15]William (Joe) Miller Prevent Workshop Aug 2011 NPS recorded by the author who was a participant; and SOCOM Operating Concept 21.

[16] Hansen, Perspectives, 35. Kevin D. Stringer and Katie M. Sizemore, “The Interagency Role in Conflict Prevention,”  Interagency Journal 3, no 3, (summer 2012) 11-21.

[17] Andrew Bacevich, “Where Petraeus let us down,” New York Daily News, November 25, 2012,


About the Author(s)

Professor Bill Flavin is the Assistant Director of the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, located at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Professor Flavin has written on peace and stability operations doctrine, concepts, education and training.


Prof Flavin,

An outstanding and timely article. Your organization has done some great work over the years, and in my opinion it is under appreciated by the Small Wars community writ large.

As a SOF planner and SOCOM's growing focus on prevention, I find myself thinking a lot about your core question, "what does prevention mean?" Personally I think it incorporates a lot of things such as a strong nuclear deterrent, a strong Navy to maintain the commons, effective diplomacy, capacity building, good intelligence to inform all of the above, international cooperation and accepted norms, and much more.

In John Gaddis had some relevant insights to this discussion in his book:…

"During the Cold War we could co-exist with our adversaries, but within the Islamic world our adversaries don't want to co-exist with us." That obviously has implications on how we approach prevention, or if it is even possible in this particular case.

He discussed at length the overall concept of asymmetric legitimacy (the U.S. compared to the USSR), and why today maintaining that legitimacy is critical to maintaining relative global peace (I'm paraphrasing extensively here). The U.S. expanded its influence post WWII largely by consent, while the USSR expanded its influence largely by coercion. He offers that U.S. hegemony is acceptable when it is linked to values that all states and cultures share (not sure we'll ever get to all states). Our strategy, stated or not, is maintaining unchallengeable strength with universal principles (he argues in a non-critical way that the Bush Administration with its unilateralist approach derailed this approach). Regardless of ones views on who shot who, it seems to me that is this unchallenged strength and being a leader by consent because we promote universal values is at least part of the prevention construct at the policy level.

You asked, "Can the military “institution” have the flexibility to embrace prevention?" You touched upon one of my pet peeves. We don't have doctrine for operationalizing Phase 0 to prevent conflict, instead we use our existing war fighting doctrine and attempt to make it work. Simply take a look at the operational design process described in Joint Pub 5.0 and it becomes apparent we're adrift without a rudder when it comes to Phase 0, whether you call it waging peace, or prevention, or readiness/preparedness. Our concepts have outrun our doctrine which is normal, but I have seen no indication that the military is attempted to address this. Maybe it isn't appropriate to do so, but if we're being asked to focus on prevention, then it seems there should be doctrine related to this that will inform our planning, task organization, training, and shape future authorities DOD will need to perform its role.

SOCOM's current focus in their messaging appears to be on capacity building to prevent, but not conflict prevention itself. We have conducted security force capacity building for decades and while it may have an indirect role in prevention it is largely focused on response and if we're lucky pre-emption. Hopefully SOCOM will expand their concept on prevention over time as we collectively think about this. USASOC and TRADOC are working on a concept for human domain that could evolve into something useful that will result in novel ideas for mitigating conflict between peoples. We have a lot of capabilities in our Civil Affairs, Military Information Support, Special Forces, and general purpose force that may be able to shape developments in the human domain to help prevent conflict. Obviously a strong Navy and Nuclear deterrent won't prevent conflict between peoples. We need to maintain our ability to deter and prevent conflicts between states, but work with the international community to address preventing conflicts between peoples.

Bill C.

Fri, 08/02/2013 - 10:51am

The concept of conflict prevention, I believe, is based on the idea that:

a. States and societies that are organized, oriented and ordered along modern western lines; these such states and societies are much less likely to become engaged in conflict; internal or external. Everyone in these states and societies, so-to-speak, are fat, dumb and happy.

b. States and societies that ARE NOT organized, oriented and ordered along modern western lines; we believe that these such states and societies -- because of their less-western/less-modern configuration -- are much more prone to internal and external conflict and disorder, to include: war, poor response to natural disaster, rebellion, terrorism, genocide, war crimes, insurgency, etc., etc., etc.

This suggesting that conflict among human beings, unlike natural disaster, can be significantly avoided, simply by transforming outlier states and societies along modern western lines.

Thus, efforts directed at simply coping with things as they are -- rather than addressing the clearly identified and, in the view of many, very fixable underlying problem -- to be seen as error.