In October the Asia Scotland Institute organised a talk by Noel Lateef, the head of the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) based in New York. The Association was celebrating its 100th year with a series of talks around Europe and Edinburgh was fortunately included. The Foreign Policy Association is a non-profit organization set up in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War. It is dedicated to raising awareness, understanding, informed opinion and therefore participation in U.S foreign policy and global issues.

The subject of Lateef’s talk was the ‘Imperative of Conflict Prevention in the 21st Century’. To introduce the subject Lateef talked of the different types of conflict prevention, breaking them down into two main categories:

Operational Prevention: this is action taken in the face of a crisis that is already unfolding or unfolded.

Structural Prevention: prevention that is aimed to stop future conflict happening in the first place.

Lateef made the bold statement that the elimination of nuclear weapons was ‘the greatest agenda on the conflict prevention programme’. He also claimed that in order to ensure conflict prevention the international community needs to ensure that peace is more profitable than conflict. This would include economic leverage in the peaceful negotiation of conflict. Whilst trade wars are not desirable, as we have seen recently between the US and China, they are however the lesser of two evils in the attempt to avoid violent conflict.

Lateef mentioned Einstein’s famous definition of peace in his support for the FPA and the U.N: “Peace is not merely the absence of war – but the presence of justice, of law, of order – in short, of government”. However, I believe this can be hypocritical. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations and has a seat on the security council. It is a country at peace, not embroiled in violent conflict, law and order reigns, but some of these laws are homophobic. Whilst discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation is forbidden in the U.N charter and International Law, the U.N is not intervening here, but, according to Einstein, this is not peace. The United States is governed by law but overseen by a president that has admitted to sexual assault on tape. The question facing organisations using this definition of peace is, what if law and justice are not synonymous?

Moving away from the theoretical and back to the pragmatic Lateef went on to introduce a range of factors that are consistent in contributing to the outbreak of conflict. I was particularly struck with the mention of climate change. This is more important than ever given the damning report released recently by the United Nations and the US’s controversial withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. I had never considered the possibility that this could be a root of human violence. However, Lateef explained that the consequences of environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources can lead to violence especially in areas of rapid population growth and poor governance. I am reminded to think back to my article on Yemen and how protesters of the Yemeni Revolution demanded that the president Ali Abdullah Saleh resign. Saleh had used a corrupt system of patronage to maintain power but as his natural and greatest source of wealth, oil, began to dry up his coterie of supporters became smaller. The people saw this weakness as the possibility to end his despotic regime. The violence that has followed is one of the reasons conflict prevention in the 21st century is certainly imperative.