Contributors to De-escalation
UN Peacekeepers in Eritrea following the Badme Border War, 2005 (photo from Dawit Rezene)
Previously, Parley Policy examined the obstacles to de-escalation, identifying the things that complicate crisis management and fuel escalation cycles. With so many obstacles potentially getting in the way, it is imperative that practitioners leverage things that contribute to de-escalation.
This article identifies the seven most important contributors, as detailed below:
General George Patton once remarked, “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood,” and indeed, there is no substitute for preparation. This preparation comes in several forms, but must always start with education and training for personnel who might find themselves involved in crises. The objective is to ensure understanding of concepts like the characteristics of crisis, how to communicate during crisis, and the obstacles to de-escalation.
To institutionalize this knowledge, organizations can develop crisis management handbooks and standing operating procedures for responding to the most likely precipitating events to crisis. Preparation eliminates anxiety, ensures that the maximum number of options for managing the crisis are being considered, and contributes to calm, rational decision making.
One of the most important contributors to de-escalation is time itself. Time allows cooler heads to prevail, offering chances to separate emotion from decisions, to eliminate misinformation or disinformation, and to ensure that all decision-makers have as much information as possible. Unfortunately, time may not be a luxury afforded to decision-makers outright. Circumstances might require decision-makers to find ways to make time by taking actions that slow down the escalation cycle. Examples of this include dispatching a fact finding mission, employing communication hotlines, and engaging third parties.
Fact-finding contributes to de-escalation in three key ways. First, it helps slow the escalation cycle. Rather than having to execute an immediate counteraction to an incident, decision makers can dispatch a fact-finding team, an act which demonstrates urgency and attention without having to pursue potentially escalatory options. If done correctly, the fact-finding team will be deliberate and thorough in its investigation to offer as complete a report as possible on the incident.
That report leads to the second way that fact-finding supports de-escalation: by mitigating the impact of misinformation and disinformation. In the digital age, it is far too easy for falsehoods to spread across the information space (whether deliberately or not), so a thorough fact-finding mission can cut through any fallacious reporting. This is especially true if a third party conducts and/or oversees the investigation.
By providing evidence and analysis of the incident, a fact-finding mission offers one more potential benefit: the ability to elicit support from third party pacifiers. Armed with the right justification, key third parties will be able to offer legitimacy to any actions while also directly contributing to crisis management by imposing costs (e.g., sanctions) on the party pursuing escalation or taking direct actions to mediate resolution
Diagnosing obstacles to de-escalation
In any crisis, there are major obstacles to de-escalation. As a crisis manager, it is critical to diagnosing those obstacles to mitigate their impact and enable the most effective decision making possible. This can be exceedingly difficult at times because several of the obstacles to de-escalation are predicated on emotion or false logic that exist within governments. No leader wants to hear that the option they prefer may be predicated on an irrational conception of fairness or an unhelpful need for vengeance, but it is essential that crisis managers label those obstacles to de-escalation whenever they emerge. If decision makers can recognize problems, they can overcome them en route to more effective approaches to resolving the crisis at hand.
Dialogue is an essential tool for de-escalation. It enables the parties to crisis to convey interests, deliver positions, exchange information, and (potentially) negotiate resolution. It also allows them to slow the escalation cycle by employing dialogue as an option over escalatory responses. Further, communication affords the parties the opportunity to eliminate misinterpretation of interests or positions and to mitigate the risk of confusion regarding the situation at hand. If the parties get to the negotiating table, then communication will be central to reaching a mutually agreeable resolution of the crisis.
Third Party Pacifiers
Third party involvement can exacerbate an escalation cycle if they are antagonists seeking to exploit a crisis for unilateral gain; however, third party pacifiers can actively facilitate de-escalation. Those third parties can take on any number of roles, be it dispatching investigation teams, mediating the crisis, employing shuttle diplomacy, sifting through mis-/dis-information, or imposing costs on any potential escalators to crisis. Third party pacifiers tend to bring a less emotional approach to crisis management and can employ personnel who are well-trained in negotiation and the art of de-escalation.
Core principles of consistency, clarity, transparency
The core principles of consistency, clarity, and transparency are essential in managing crisis. This is because those principles directly contribute to the mitigation of the risks associated with obstacles to de-escalation. Consistency allows another party to crisis the ability to read what another party is doing. If the behavior is expected, it does not create false impressions. Clarity is critical in eliminating confusion and misinterpretation. Transparency mitigates misinformation and disinformation. If a party is not transparent in its rhetoric, reporting, or actions, it will lead to speculation, and speculation can lead to false conclusions that then drive a party to make what they believe to be rational decisions that are actually based on incomplete or incorrect information. Thus, parties seeking to de-escalate a crisis should adhere to these three core principles.