Policy brief

The Power and Limits of Data for Peace

Bressan 2024 EUISS
(Source: Unplash/ThisisEngineering)
17 Jan 2024

Preventing violent conflict and fostering peace are the European Union’s main foreign policy goals. But ongoing wars in Ukraine, Mali, Sudan, and Israel-Palestine, among other places, beg the question of whether the EU’s conflict prevention mechanisms are effective.

To assess where risks for violence loom and how they can be reduced, the EU has been operating a conflict early warning system since 2012. It is one of the rare examples of a system that integrates data-driven conflict forecasting with traditional qualitative and intelligence assessments. The process combines in-depth analysis, political prioritization and plans for preventive engagement in at-risk countries. 

In combination with other tools, the system is designed to improve the EU’s efforts to prevent conflict and build peace outside the Union and has recently been updated as the toolset on EU conflict analysis and early warning.

This brief analyzes the EU warning system’s contribution to conflict prevention and discusses ways to strengthen it. It examines the factors that contribute to the success of the system and suggests how the system, as well as the EU’s overall prevention approach, can be further improved. The analysis holds lessons for developers of risk assessment and warning systems across a range of geopolitical developments within and outside EU institutions.

The EU’s warning system successfully integrates forward-looking risk assessments from various sources – a task that becomes increasingly important as open-source intelligence and widely available algorithmic and computational methods (often labeled artificial intelligence”) provide opportunities and challenges for the diplomatic, intelligence and security sectors. 

The data-driven models currently used are particularly good at detecting the type of civil war that policymakers in the West were concerned with in the 1990s and 2000s. As the world evolves and priorities shift, the foresight toolbox also needs to adapt and find ways to assess the risk of events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or a possible war in the Taiwan Strait. As a pioneer in successful science – policy cooperation, the EU can support the development of new, integrated foresight approaches.

The EU warning and prevention system’s weak spot remains the lack of mechanisms to ensure sustained preventive action. The brief calls for the European External Action Service (EEAS) to not only expand its methodological toolbox. Together with the EU Commission, member states and other partners, the EEAS should also strengthen the crucial link between warning and action to make sure analyses translate into meaningful, coordinated prevention.

The full policy brief was published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies on January 12, 2024 and is available for download.