The Comprehensive Approach: A Silver Bullet or the Loch Ness Monster?
By: Sándor Fábián , Hungarian Army
The way militaries understand what constitutes a threat to security has gone through a significant transformation since the end of the Cold War. Single peer-on-peer military threats of the past have given way to complex forms of violence and upheaval that simultaneously threaten both national and global peace and security. The natural consequence of this transformation is a fundamental change in the way nations approach crisis management, a role that has radically expanded over the course of recent conflicts in terms of tasks, timelines, and the number of actors involved.1 By the beginning of the twenty-first century, both individual states and international organizations had painfully learned that their traditional, sequenced crisis management procedures did not deliver the results they expected.2 Despite "on-paper" success in many crisis areas, the world has seen numerous seemingly resolved conflicts relapse into violence since the early 1990s.
Many scholars, supported by research that has explored the recent failures in crisis management, argue that the fundamental problem is due to "poor coordination and collaboration between the actors involved," which has led to "wasted resources, poor effectiveness, and lack of sustainability."3 The concept of a comprehensive approach (CA) to crisis management was born out of these discussions, and the term came to be widely used among both national and international crisis management professionals. Now CA is cited everywhere from the lowest to the highest levels of decision makers and practitioners as if it were a silver bullet for solving contemporary conflicts. But is it?
What Is a Comprehensive Approach?
As a result of the shortcomings of crisis management in recent conflicts, a number of international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO, along with individual states, have taken significant steps to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of their crisis management efforts. These initiatives have "resulted in the development of a range of concepts for acting comprehensively." 4 Although these concepts share some common ground, in the end all of them have been fundamentally shaped by the national and organizational contexts in which they were developed. No single, universally agreed definition of CA exists. Given this fact, it seems more appropriate to think about CA as a cluster of concepts rather than as one common concept. There are at least three identifiable categories of CA, based on the bureaucratic levels at which CA is implemented: national, intra-agency, and interagency.5
CA at the National Level
A number of countries, especially those involved in recent crisis management efforts, "have been experimenting with improving coherence between their own ministries or governmental departments, with a view to improve the national management of domestic challenges as well as international operations." 6 Different terminologies inevitably arose to describe the application of CA at the national level, including the whole-of-government approach;7 DIME, a US concept that refers to the four types of power a government can bring to bear (diplomatic, information, military, and economic); PMESII (political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure systems), a US military acronym from systems analysis; and the Canadian 3D approach (defense, diplomacy, and development), to name a few prominent examples. It does not matter what name is used—all of these concepts aim to harmonize the policies and actions of various governmental departments around a certain issue to achieve greater effectiveness. These approaches include the coordination of the "departments and agencies responsible for defence, foreign affairs, and international development issues," a grouping that is sometimes stretched to include other departments or ministries, such as trade, finance, or justice.8 The concepts are based on the assumption that more meaningful and sustainable effects can be achieved in crisis management "when the various government departments involved pursue a common strategy, [and] have a shared understanding of the problem, a common theory of change, and an agreed plan for implementing such a strategy." 9
It must be admitted that many of these national approaches have had some promising results, including putting "mechanisms in place for regular meetings to exchange information" and coordinate actions;10 the establishment of integrated offices; the development of joint funding mechanisms; and the development of a joint national strategy with regards to specific crises. While the implementation of CA on a national level may be useful for creating consistent national policies, it is not sufficient to address contemporary international crises. National approaches are developed mostly in a vacuum, where the focus is on national interests and concerns. If a country's CA policy fails to consider the strategies, interests, and abilities of the other actors and organizations involved in an international crisis, it will be more difficult for that country's agencies and personnel to effectively interact with others in the field—especially because the national agencies' hands will already be tied by national interests when they arrive in the conflict zone. These agencies will also be less flexible and adaptable in a foreign environment. Last but not least, national approaches in general seem to be too "state-centric"; in other words, they fail to properly consider the roles of civil society, the private sector, and international organizations in crisis management.
Intra-Agency Concepts of CA
International organizations have their own intra-agency concepts for CA as well, and like the national ones, there are significant differences among them. Three of the many ideas developed in recent years are particularly relevant to this discussion.
The United Nations' Integrated Missions concept
refers to a type of mission where there are processes, mechanisms and structures in place that generate and sustain a common strategic objective, as well as a comprehensive operational approach among the political, security, development and human rights sectors and, where appropriate, humanitarian UN actors at the country level.11
The European Union's Civil-Military Coordination Concept
seeks to ensure and guide a Comprehensive Approach particularly at the political-strategic level, ranging from the planning phase to execution of a mission. The "Crisis Management Procedures" as well as the "Crisis Management Concept," which is developed individually for each operation, are geared towards ensuring that the Comprehensive Approach concept is applied in the EU's crisis management activities.12
Finally, NATO's Comprehensive Approach
is NATO's planning blueprint. This is to be achieved by expanding its approach for military planning to include all civilian and military aspects of a NATO engagement. … [NATO's] approach primarily seeks to improve the external cooperation with civilian actors and other international organizations.13
Although the very existence of these approaches is a significant step forward in international crisis management, all of these organizations have a long way to go to develop coherent policies that will make the concepts work. As of now, all of these approaches "suffer from internal, institutional and interagency rivalry," and even more from disagreement and fragmentation among the organizations' member states, which have consistently failed to speak with one voice.14Furthermore, it seems that the intra-agency approaches face an "ideological gap between the political/military actors on the one side and humanitarian actors on the other." 15 Although this is a problem for both the UN and the EU, it most severely affects NATO and could potentially block the alliance's efforts to bring humanitarian partners on board with CA. Last but not least, the most challenging problem for international organizations is to develop a model for cooperating among themselves and synchronizing their differing approaches.
Inter-Agency Approaches to CA
The third category of CA concepts, the inter-agency approach, is best described as a whole-of-systems approach:
Instead of seeking coherent and complementary approaches between governmental actors or within one organisation, CA, at this level, addresses the relationships and structures that exist among and between the plethora of international and local actors and organisations engaged in a given context.16
The inter-agency approach arose from the context of concept development and experimentation, such as the Multinational Experiment series. This approach addresses "the relationship between actors both at a strategic level as well as in the field. The pre-conditions for acting comprehensively in these different contexts vary significantly." 17 Recent crisis management operations have in fact tended to expose the lack of a unified strategy, which makes the implementation of CA in the field no more than an attempt to coordinate the activities that derive from various existing strategies.18 The inter-agency approach has never been effectively operationalized because it is inherently complex and "there are only a few strategies or suggested working methods that concretise CA at this level." 19
It seems obvious that despite CA being used so frequently in crisis management, there is no universal agreement about what CA entails or even how it should be defined. The different CA approaches "exist because they fulfil different functions, use different resources and have varying goals and ambitions." 20 One common denominator can, however, be identified: CA is a mind-set. "It includes recognition of oneself as part of a system and an understanding that effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability can be achieved if the interdependencies that exist within this system are responsibly managed." 21 There have been numerous attempts to concretize and implement CA, which usually have "resulted in the establishment of structures and processes for coordination and collaboration. How these structures or processes are outlined depends on the nature of each system and what possibility there is to direct and coordinate the system." 22
As long as CA is used as a highly conceptual, singular term, without understanding "how the various interpretations vary and what effect each of them has on how CA should be implemented, assessed and prepared for," the approach will never be a blueprint for effective crisis managment.23 A number of questions need to be answered. How will the dependencies (e.g., resources and action timelines) be managed? What incentives are needed to ensure coordination and cooperation? How will the harmonization of actions and goals occur? How will key leaders be trained? How do participants ensure that the necessary capabilities are developed? Until everyone agrees on the answers, CA will not be a silver bullet for crisis management, but only a myth like the Loch Ness monster: lots of people talk about Nessie, some may even believe it exists, but no one has ever been able to prove its existence beyond a doubt.
About the Author(s):
LTC Sándor Fábián is a Special Forces officer in the Hungarian Army.
Copyright 2015, Sándor Fábián. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.
- Christian Mölling, "Comprehensive Approaches to International Crisis Management," CSS Analyses in Security Policy 3, no. 42 (October 2008): 1: http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/CSS-Analyses-42.pdf
- In traditional crisis management operations, peacekeeping and peace building were considered to be sequential steps. Peace building naturally followed peacekeeping, and development initiatives would begin only after a sufficient level of "peace" and stability had been established. Experiences from operations in recent years, however, show that recognizable points where peacekeeping might naturally transition into peace building are difficult to find. Cecilia Hull, Focus and Convergence through a Comprehensive Approach: But Which among the Many? (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2011), 3: http://www.dodccrp.org/events/16th_iccrts_2011/papers/088.pdf
- Ibid., 3–4.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 7–8.
- Ibid., 8.
- "‘Whole of Government Approaches' usually aim at improving inter- and intra-ministerial cooperation in view of assuring a nationally consistent approach. They respond to the experience that incoherencies in domestic actors' positions and policies obstruct not only a coherent national strategy but also constitute a major stumbling block for an internationally accepted and coherent crisis response." Mölling, "Comprehensive Approaches," 2.
- Hull, Focus and Convergence, 8.
- Cedric de Coning, Helge Lurås, Niels Nagelhus Schia, and Ståle Ulriksen, Norway's Whole-of-Government Approach and Its Engagement with Afghanistan, NUPI Report (Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Department of Security and Conflict Management, 2009), 5: http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/dcdndep/47107380.pdf
- Hull, Focus and Convergence, 8.
- Kristiina Rintakoski and Mikko Autti, Comprehensive Approach: Trends, Challenges, and Possibilities for Cooperation in Crisis Prevention and Management (Helsinki: Ministry of Defence/Crisis Management Initiative, 2008), 13: http://www.defmin.fi/files/1316/Comprehensive_Approach_-_Trends_Challenges_and_Possibilities_for_Cooperation_in_Crisis_Prevention_and_Management.pdf
- Mölling, "Comprehensive Approaches," 3.
- Rintakoski and Autti, Comprehensive Approach, 17.
- Hull, Focus and Convergence, 9.
- Ibid., 10. "The Comprehensive Approach concept for MNE 5 [Multinational Experiment] describes the overarching framework in which various nationally sponsored concepts (or focus areas) are being evaluated for their individual practicality and for the critical integration linkages between focus areas to support effective and efficient coalition operations. MNE 5 has aimed to provide capabilities through which concerned nations and organisations can harmonise potentially divergent views and interests in order to respond to a crisis in a unified manner." Rintakoski and Autti, Comprehensive Approach, 16. For more on the MNE series, go to the Multinational Experiment website: https://wss.apan.org/s/MEpub/default.aspx
- Hull, Focus and Convergence, 10.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 14.