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Is World Peace Through Conflict Prevention Possible?

A Review of David Hamburg's No More Killing Fields


Friday, Dec. 12, 2003
David Hamburg, No More Killing Fields: Preventing Deadly Conflict(December 2003)

It is easy to believe that the cycle of violence will go on indefinitely, that peace cannot be realized, and that military power is the only thing that counts in international relations. Questions abound about how the United States should conduct itself as a superpower, and whether there is hope for the community of nations to peacefully coexist. Indeed, I have been impressed by how many policymakers simply assume a violent world and then go from there. In this environment, it is refreshing to read an entire volume about how we can act to prevent conflict.

David Hamburg's No More Killing Fields is based largely on his work as co-chair of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, which published seventy-five books and reports on conflict prevention in the 1990s. But it is also a summation of a career largely dedicated to the idea of taking preventive action to combat undesirable outcomes.

Hamburg was trained as a psychiatrist and medical doctor, and committed himself to the idea of prevention after meeting Jonas Salk. Seeing the effects of the polio vaccine, Hamburg learned an essential lesson. He writes, "From that moment on, a dollar's worth of vaccine was more valuable than a million dollars worth of iron lungs."

Hamburg reasoned, Why not apply the same logic to the prevention of deadly conflict? Instead of dealing with violence after it breaks out, take measures to prevent deadly conflicts . Instead of treating symptoms, treat the cause of the disease .

Drawing on the Lessons of World War II

Hamburg begins his book by revisiting World War II. He points, in particular, to crucial moments in the 1930s when preventive diplomatic, economic, legal, or military action could have stopped Hitler in his tracks. World War II, he argues, was a preventable conflict, but the western powers lacked the tools, methods, and political will to act until it was too late.

Hamburg argues that today, the international environment is ripe for prevention. We have the example of the violence of the 20th century as a cautionary tale and, unlike Europe in the 1930s, we have more effective tools for prevention at our disposal.

We have international institutions like the UN and IMF, institutionalized alliances like NATO, international legal norms, economic incentives and deterrents, extensive intelligence capabilities to anticipate conflicts, and technology that allows for more effective diplomacy and action.

In short, we have both the motivation and the means for prevention.

The Value, and the Urgency, of Taking Preventive Action

This capability is matched by an urgent need to think preventively. Hamburg writes, "We are approaching a time when no society on earth will be so remote that it cannot do immense damage to itself and to others, however far away." Indeed, we may, in part as a result of terrorism, have already arrived at that moment in time.

Still, many people roll their eyes when they hear about conflict prevention. After all, policymakers are overwhelmed by existing crises. A number of years ago, I was in the office of the National Security Advisor. I asked about the large stack of files on his desk. He said, those files all deserve immediate attention, they cannot wait. Then I noticed another large stack, twice as high, behind him. Those, he said, are the ones that are extremely urgent.

Since then, things have only gotten more difficult. The U.S. is now engaged in a global war against terrorists who are in over eighty countries around the globe, and is fighting a violent insurgency in Iraq. How can policymakers find the time for prevention??

The simple answer is that it is in our national interest to act preventively. The United States, as the world's richest and most powerful nation, is looked at as both a target for angry and disaffected peoples, and as the indispensable nation that must help resolve large-scale conflicts after they take root.

In a globalized world, we are inevitably drawn into conflicts - either economically or militarily - and the burdens are vast and growing. Unless a better system of conflict prevention is developed, the burden on the United States to respond to instability and conflict will only become progressively greater, both economically and militarily, as could the cost in American lives.

Consider the cost of failing to act to prevent violence. The failure to remain engaged in what was clearly a failing state in Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal led to the Taliban and a fertile ground for terrorists.

To take another example, the failure to act in Rwanda - where there was already a U.N. peacekeeping force - permitted a genocide that led to a long and protracted multi-state war that cost millions of lives. Apart from the human catastrophe that cannot be measured, the U.S. spent $750 million from 1994 to 1996 on aid related to the fallout from the genocide - an amount that is roughly equal to the entire annual U.S. aid budget to Africa, and far more than preventive measures would have cost.

Today, the standoff between India and Pakistan could lead to a nuclear war that, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, could take the lives of up to 12 million people while injuring up to 7 million more. The humanitarian, economic, and, potentially, military crisis that this would cause is beyond our capacity for imagination, and would surely demand significant U.S. involvement.

The cold truth is that the seemingly distant conflicts of today can inevitably cost the U.S. lives and treasure in the future.

The Importance of Early Warning as a Key to Prevention

Hamburg identifies early warning as a key to prevention. One of the advantages of a more interconnected world is that we can see trouble coming. The worldwide media, international institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can identify where conflict is brewing, and where it could spread, as can government intelligence agencies.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was apparent that the former Yugoslavia was in danger of a violent disintegration. In 1994, hate radio broadcasts indicated that Hutus were planning to kill Tutsis on a massive scale. Long before September 11, the CIA was reporting that al Qaeda and the situation in Afghanistan presented a threat to the United States.

Today, various early-warning signs alert us to many dangers: the growth of al Qaeda in Indonesia, the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, the potential for mass violence in Zimbabwe, cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, and the threat of disintegration in Afghanistan or Iraq.

A Set of Ways to Respond to Early Warnings That May Prevent Conflict

Hamburg proposes a series of steps that can be taken by the international community in response to these early warning signs. The first step is preventive diplomacy, along the lines of the international attention to Kashmir after the terrorist attack on India's Parliament. When violence breaks out or appears imminent, nations or international institutions should intervene diplomatically through mediation, resolutions, public condemnation, or political carrots and sticks.

As the sole superpower, the U.S. can take the lead in certain crises, but by no means should it bear every burden. Regional organizations such as the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, or the ASEAN Regional Forum can take more responsibility for crises in their regions - it is better, for example, if Africans deal with African problems.

International institutions like the U.N. can dispatch diplomats to trouble spots, demonstrate the will of the international community with a Security Council resolution, or mediate between conflicting parties. Ad hoc coalitions can also be formed to intervene diplomatically - for instance, the burgeoning effort of "the Quartet" of the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and Russia to find a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue could set an example for future cooperation.

Economic intervention through assistance, inducements, or punishments is another preventive tool. Economic assistance can prevent a state from falling into chaos and disarray, and can therefore alleviate a deteriorating situation - if people's basic needs are met, conflict can be prevented. Inducements and sanctions can encourage a state or group to steer their behavior away from violence by making it worth their while.

For instance, Palestinians are badly in need of international aid if they are to address a humanitarian crisis, reform their institutions and crack down on terror. Such aid could supply a large carrot that could prove more coercive than a large stick in encouraging badly needed Palestinian reforms.

Military intervention is another tool in the prevention arsenal. Preventive military action can take a variety of forms. In Cyprus, a substantial peacekeeping force has deterred a war between Greece and Turkey, and a preventive force in Macedonia stopped the mass violence of the Balkan wars from spreading to that country. In countries such as Afghanistan or Kosovo, the deployment of a peacekeeping force can prevent a return to chaos and violence. And in Rwanda, an oft-cited statement is that a peacekeeping force of 5,000 with the appropriate mandate for action could have prevented the slaughter of up to 800,000 Tutsis after it became clear that violence was coming to a head.

Finally, large-scale military campaigns can be a final resort if a threat is great and imminent.

The Need for International Coordination and Cooperation

The role of the U.S. in these military interventions is, of course, vital and controversial. Often the U.S. is forced to do the lion's share in military operations because of its capabilities, and the fact that no other nation or entity can project military power abroad fast enough and substantial enough to resolve a conflict. But this situation should not continue.

The international community must develop a means of responding militarily to deteriorating situations with a multinational rapid-response capability - most likely through the U.N. or NATO. A multi-national rapid-response force would take the burden off of the U.S. military, and enhance the international community's ability to take action to prevent conflict.

International coordination and cooperation is essential to making all of these methods of prevention - diplomatic, economic, and military - work. Diplomacy is most effective when potential combatants are presented with a clear multilateral message by their neighboring states or the international community. Economic prevention only works if nations act in concert with one another - either in enforcing sanctions, delivering aid, or abiding by agreements. And military action is more effective and far less provocative when it is conducted with international support.

The Need to Address the Root Causes of Conflict

To prevent deadly conflict it is not enough to act on developing crises; we must also look for and address the root causes of conflict around the world. We know that conflict is caused by systemic repression, alienation of groups, ethnic and religious fanaticism, and sustained poverty and lack of opportunity. We also know that good democratic governance and economic progress are the long-term solutions to these problems.

Hamburg argues that democracy is the single most important long-term solution to violent conflict, because democratization addresses many of the root causes that lead to this volatile situation. In democracies, there is a natural inclusion of different groups, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, and this leads to a higher regard for human rights.

Democracies also provide people with peaceful means of resolving disagreements within a society - there may be battles, but they don't lead to killing. Simply put, someone within a democracy is less likely to be systemically repressed because they are a part of the political process, and they are less likely to start a violent insurgency because there are other means of protest and forums for argument.

On a larger scale, democracies do not tend to go to war with other democracies because they are more adept at resolving disputes peacefully, and democratic institutions provide checks on a nation's ability to rush to war.

The Importance of Promoting the Spread of Democracy

There are basic steps that the U.S. and the world community of democracies can take to consolidate and encourage the spread of democracy. The U.N., regional organizations, and individual nations like the U.S. can help emerging democracies establish and promote institutions of civil society -- such as political parties, trade unions, independent media, and the rule of law. And these institutions in turn serve as safeguards against human rights abuses, corruption, and political repression because they give people a means to address their differences peacefully.

But conversions to liberal democracy do not happen overnight. Today, Indonesia and Pakistan are at important junctures in the long process of democratization. In Pakistan, President Musharraf has rolled back democracy and rewritten the Constitution to give himself broad new powers. While the U.S. has important interests in gaining Pakistan's support in the war on terrorism, it is both counter to American values and not in our interests to turn a blind eye to these repressive actions.

Musharraf's rollback of democracy will only feed opposition, much of it Islamist, and stunt the Pakistan's growth. The murky and militaristic nature of Pakistan's government also makes it hard to determine the extent of Pakistan's support for cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and Taliban fighters, and Pakistan's accounting of its nuclear weapons material, some of which found its way to North Korea.

Pakistan cannot be a useful ally if it does not develop successfully, and it cannot develop successfully without democracy and the rule of law.

The U.S. must not lose sight of the fact that prevention of violence in Muslim countries is dependent upon long-term political reform, not merely short-term action. Indonesia is engaging in a necessary and vital crackdown on Islamic terrorism, but we should not sacrifice the important steps that country has made in decentralizing power and moving towards democracy.

We must be vigilant in pursuit of al Qaeda, but a movement back to military control of Indonesia could exacerbate separatist movements and Islamist opposition to the government. Short-term security concerns should be fused with a long-term interest in a stable and democratic Indonesia.

Much of the talk surrounding Iraq concerns the good example that U.S. and international support for a democratic Muslim country in the Middle East could set. Indeed, President Bush has suggested that a "big bang" of democracy in Iraq will set off further democratization in the region and the Islamic world.

But building a representative democracy in Iraq will be a long and arduous process, and we need to do more to support democracy in other Muslim countries. Indonesia and Pakistan, the two largest Muslim countries, could set a positive example if they consolidate and deepen their democracies.

The Importance of Free Trade, Economic Openness, and Economic Aid

Hamburg also reminds us that free trade and economic openness can lead to democratization and the prevention of conflict. In an increasingly interconnected world, countries with market economies become dependent on one another. This interdependence raises the cost of going to war - why go to war with someone you buy, sell, or trade with?

For example, trade relations are currently playing an important role in the maturation of Sino-U.S. relations. While key differences remain on the issues of Taiwan and human rights, the potential for peaceful relations has been increased because of overwhelming common economic interests.

China also highlights the role that economic openness can have on a country's political system. As markets open, new flows of information, people and ideas are able to penetrate what were previously closed societies. Since opening its economy, China has made progress - albeit slowly - towards political change.

A similar process should be encouraged in regions like the Middle East. A recent U.N. human development report emphasized the fact that young people in the Middle East are frustrated because they can't get jobs and can't reach their potential. Opening economies and involving more of the population - particularly women - can reduce tensions within these countries, help them tap the potential of their own peoples, and provoke political change.

Economic aid is also needed to address the underlying causes of violent conflict. Today, the poorest third of states account for more than 88% of total global warfare. Poverty, inequity and lack of opportunity incites young men across the Middle East; HIV/AIDS has already ravaged sub-Saharan Africa and could be a destabilizing force in China, India and Russia; population patterns and an erosion of natural resources could inflame tensions in already volatile areas.

Aid and developmental assistance from nations and international financial institutions is essential to addressing the tensions that lead to bloodshed. Recognizing this, the Bush administration has already taken the positive step of announcing a 50% increase in the U.S foreign aid budget. The cost in increasing aid to reduce these threats is minimal compared to what the cost could be later on if these troubling developments initiate deadly conflicts, and humanitarian and environmental crises.

Each of these strategies for long-term prevention is ambitious and, given the preeminence of the U.S. in the international community, each will depend in some measure on American policies. But each of them reinforces the reason why the U.S. occupies the position of leadership that it enjoys: the values of freedom, democracy, economic opportunity, tolerance, and the rule of law are widely admired and desired around the world.

It is in the interest of the U.S. and the world that the U.S. lead as a benign superpower committed to promoting these values to address the root causes of deadly conflict. Turning our back on the world, or supporting those who oppose these values, will only enhance the dangers of tomorrow.

Why an Optimistic, Not Defeatist, Attitude Is Crucial

The human element of deadly conflict is the hardest to predict. Sadly, we must always expect that a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot, or some other charismatic leader will emerge to harness peoples' fear, desperation or rage towards horrific ends.

Many of the regimes that trouble us today are led by despots who use the power of the state to enrich themselves, their aggression, or their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, while repressing large groups of people. Osama bin Laden joined his considerable wealth and connections with the disaffection of many people in the Muslim world in pursuit of human catastrophe and destruction.

Does this mean that conflict prevention is irrelevant, for the cycle of violence is fated to proceed indefinitely into the future? Hamburg passionately argues that the answer is no. To the contrary, he urges, hard work and good thinking can achieve remarkable ends. Conflict prevention, in his view, "is difficult and prolonged work, but surely not beyond human capacity."

To support his view, Hamburg draws on the example of the Marshall Plan, when out of the absolute destruction of World War II the U.S. acted to prevent the conditions that would lead to another world war. The immensity of the challenge was huge then, as it is now, but human capacity put to work built a better world out of the rubble of Europe and East Asia.

"No More Killing Fields" is a call to action. It offers an incredible and detailed menu of actions that people, organizations and institutions can take to prevent deadly conflict, ranging from the very broad to the very specific. Today, conflict prevention is being explored and implemented by the UN, EU and many foreign governments and international institutions; the U.S. Departments of State, Defense and the US Agency for International Development are also incorporating aspects of conflict prevention into their operations.

In the midst of the rhetoric of war and discord, Hamburg puts forth an aggressive program for peace and concord. We ignore him at our peril.

Lee Hamilton is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vice-Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks (the 9/11 Commission). He previously served for 34 years as U.S. Representative from Indiana, and was Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on International Relations.

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