Today’s conflicts cannot be solved with yesterday’s tools. Conflicts are changing. But our approaches of analysing and resolving conflicts are stuck in the past. Mediation, diplomacy, conflict prevention - our toolkit to build sustainable peace - needs an upgrade for the 21st century. By Martin Griffiths

The challenges for mediators could not be greater. Armed conflicts have reached new levels of complexity. New technologies allow for hybrid warfare that challenge our understanding of how to build peace. We are seeing regional proxy wars in which state actors and armed groups are equally skilled in using new communication tools for propaganda purposes. At the same time, trust in politicians, diplomats and journalists is on the decline. How can mediators and conflict resolution professionals adapt to this new reality?

In a recent op-ed Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and Finnish Foreign Minister Toni Soini argued that there are ‘no alternatives’ to conflict prevention and mediation. Given the challenges, a renewed commitment to mediation needs to go hand in hand with a reinvention of how we deal with conflicts. We need to ask ourselves a set of difficult questions: How can we improve the quality of mediation? Can we increase accountability and effectiveness? How can we prevent conflicts? And last but not least, do we need to reinvent how we conduct diplomacy and foreign policy?

Preventing conflicts

We need to get back to the basics. Europe’s foreign policy is stumbling from one crisis to another. The ‘refugee crisis’ is just the latest in a series of events in which Europe did ‘too little, too late’. Ukraine, Syria, Libya have all become synonyms for the ‘failure of diplomacy’. The failure of diplomacy is often a result of an alarming gap between words and action.

Politicians tend to talk about the necessity to prevent conflicts, to ‘tackle root causes’ but not much is happening after all those dinner speeches and government statements. So, what needs to change? We need to think more seriously about early warning systems and preventive diplomacy initiatives. Preventive diplomacy can stop armed conflicts before they escalate. However, we lack real innovation as funders and international organisations tend to avoid anything that turns out to be speculative and risky.

Quality of mediation

In the past two decades mediation has been brought into the public world. It is no longer, as it was for centuries, the preserve of the official world of diplomats. It is now a community of actors, from international organisations to NGOs and foundations. But mediation is still operating on the old model of two parties coming together in a smart room in a third country under the auspices of a disinterested third party to reach a written agreement, finalised by a public handshake. It is time to ask ourselves: Is this enough to resolve the conflicts of the 21st century? Is it enough for hybrid conflicts and regional proxy wars?

Not only do we need to work on new approaches in mediation, we also need to further professionalise the sector. Over time, many professions – law, medicine and teaching – have evolved from informal bodies of knowledge and skills passed down from one practitioner to another, into recognized vocations. In order to make mediation more effective we need to invest time and energy to develop a common understanding of formal and informal rules and standards in mediation. 

Reinventing diplomacy

A revolution in peace making is also linked to the changing nature of foreign policy and diplomacy. For a long time accountability and transparency were not part of our foreign policy discourses. Diplomacy has always been an elite sport. Diplomats usually resemble each other more than they represent their countrymen and women. And this continues in peace negotiations: The one thing many warring parties can quickly agree on is the need to keep the ordinary people with their absurd attachment to original aspirations and truths out of the room. Diplomats share an unstated view of the world that serious differences are best managed by people who know how to talk to each other, who share a common language. But this is changing. The public wants to know what is being done in their name. People want a say in foreign policy. They want to be heard. And they couldn't be more right. Reinventing diplomacy means including the excluded and developing participatory tools needed to open peace-making to the public.

An opportunity for peace

Renewing our toolkit for peace is a challenge but it's also an opportunity for peace. We have the unique chance to reinvent mediation and democratise peace making. By increasing accountability we will make mediation more effective and more transparent. By investing more strategically in preventive measures we can prevent conflicts from escalating.

But most importantly, we need to open the door to excluded voices, we need involve the public in our work – and democratise foreign policy and diplomacy. Peace making is too important to be left to the few. It needs to become the responsibility of the many.