Crisis Management in International Relations

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

In a world of conflict, preventing war and preserving peace requires a delicate hand. The importance of understanding why conflict arises and crisis management is not to be underestimated. To create a more peaceful world, we must understand how to identify a crisis before they escalate. If they do, how do we prevent them from escalating further? The answer lies in crisis management. 

What is a Crisis? 

Before we examine crisis management, it’s helpful to briefly understand some of the underlying terminology. Let’s start with the word “conflict.” In simple terms, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) says a “conflict is present when two or more individuals or groups pursue mutually incompatible goals.” They add that a conflict can either be resolved violently—such as in a war—or peacefully—as is the case in an election or in a legal proceeding. In international relations, conflict most often arises when two states have politically incompatible goals. For example, these goals may be geographic, economic, or ideologic. 

Within a conflict, there are four states: stable peace, unstable peace, crisis, and war. It may be helpful to imagine the stages of a conflict as a bell curve—escalating from stable peace up to war and then back down (Figure 1). Therefore, a conflict will begin before a crisis and will continue for a time after the crisis has ended. 

Courtesy of George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies

Oftentimes, crises are thought of as sudden, unpredictable events. However, as Tufts University professor Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff argued in his 2008 paper “Crisis Management: Looking Back and Looking Ahead,” such a view does not represent reality: rather, it is either representative or a “failure of imagination” or an “inability to connect the dots properly.” 

In other words, wherever a conflict may arise, a crisis may ensue. 

What is Crisis Management? 

Crisis management—sometimes known as conflict management—is the commitment to building peace and stability in crisis regions. This can be achieved through various means and instruments, including measures for both crisis prevention and crisis resolution. 

A crisis only emerges when diplomacy fails during peacetime. Once the crisis emerges, crisis management is needed to prevent further escalation into war. What easily muddies the water is the line between “crisis” and “war.” Though the word is ever-present in discord and conversation surrounding armed conflicts, war has only been fully-declared a handful of times since the United Nations Charter was established in 1945. For example, even though the U.S. has engaged in military conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Panama, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, etc., we haven’t formally declared war since World War II. 

So, how does crisis management work? What steps are involved? For an example, let’s examine the NATO Crisis Response System (NCRS), specifically one of its core components: the NATO Crisis Management Process (NCMP), which considers a crisis into distinct phases and provides a structure to respond in those structure for these phases. 

The most important components of the crisis management process include: 

  • Standardization: countries need to share a common set of standards in order to execute multinational operations. This achieves interoperability—the ability of different systems and organizations to work together—among NATO members. 

  • Logistics: the connection between deployed forces and the industrial bases that produce the materials and weapons needed to accomplish the mission. This includes identifying requirements, securing a stock, and maintaining both weapons and personnel alike. 

  • Coordination with other international players: NATO contributes to efforts prevent crises and to restore peace. Such efforts require cooperation and partnerships with non-governmental organizations, local authorities, and foreign states. 

  • Civil preparedness: civilian support, both at home and abroad, is essential for military forces. This support can come by way of providing essential supplies, transportation, and communication equipment. Civilians of member states can also develop skills such as cyber defense and medical knowledge. 

Understand Crisis Management Through NDISC 

Crisis management is a key component of international security, so understanding how to defuse a potentially explosive situation is critical to keeping people safe. If you’re committed to understanding why crises form, how to resolve them, and how to prevent them in the future, contact the international security scholars at the Notre Dame International Security Center. 

Originally published by Notre Dame International Security Center at on February 27, 2023.