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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at the 2012 Alliance for Peacebuilding Annual Conference

Ambassador Rick Barton
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations
Washington, DC
May 11, 2012


Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton delivered the keynote address at the Alliance for Peacebuilding Annual Conference on May 11, 2012 at the United States Institute of Peace. The 2012 conference, “Peacebuilding 2.0: Managing Complexity and Working Across Silos,” focused on new models for peacebuilding that work across disciplines to address the complexity of today’s conflict environments. A video of Assistant Secretary Barton's remarks is also available. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Well, thank you. Thank you, Pamela, and thanks to all of you old friends. I do feel as if I’m home and I do feel as if USIP is our home and so it’s just a great, great pleasure to be among so many peacebuilders. All of you have dedicated so many wonderful years and superb efforts to the cause and so as I look around the audience, I just see people that I’ve admired for a long time; your dedication, your professionalism, your perseverance.

One of the things I am finding out in this new job is that tenacity seems to be a fairly important quality and it’s not one that I would have necessarily put at the top of my list but I’m finding that there must be more of that New England strain than I realized before I moved into the State Department for this particular job a few months ago. But all of you have clearly shown that and thank you so much. Without it we would not be making the progress that we are today. Thanks to Melanie and to Dr. and Mrs. Cohen for making…well for the gift (laughter) and obviously Chic Dambach and I think there are a bunch of other old friends here that deserve mention but clearly Bob Loftis, my predecessor at CRS and then CSO who is here in the middle of the audience. You probably ought to stand up as well because you’ve made it possible for us to build on a pretty solid foundation, Bob. (Applause) He is here now at USIP as well.

So, we stand at a breakthrough moment, a chance to make the US Government more effective and coherent in building peace, and we must seize this opportunity. To do that, we’ll need your continuing help and openness to change.

At CSO, our mission is to prevent violence and accelerate the departure from violence. We’re trying to fashion an organization that can make an impact on policy and programming in the first 12 months of a crisis. It’s a high bar and every time over the last six months that I’ve told people about our mission, I’ve heard the same two words, spoken quite differently “Good Luck!” and “Good. Luck.” In both cases, people want us to succeed but I also hear concern that making an impact in some very challenging places is just too tough.

We know we have a lot of work to do, all of us face difficult challenges not only in the places we work but in the attitudes and the structures that confront us. For example, we know that almost 80 percent of recent conflicts stem from violence recurring within two years of a settlement or ceasefire. Why?

We know that donor countries’ spending priorities in developing countries are remarkably consistent, regardless of whether a country is at peace, civil war, or recovering from war. Why?

We know that an astounding 62 US offices were involved in managing Iraq reconstruction. Why?

To answer these questions, to be more effective, we see the need for some fundamental changes. The US has spent significant effort and money in the last decade to address conflict but whether we spend $3 million dollars or $3 trillion dollars, we haven’t gotten it right.

But with your help, I believe it is possible. But we also know that work like yours at the local level has contributed to the longer term decline in conflict around the world.

I believe we are on the cusp of historical change, as Dick mentioned. I believe this is change we have dreamt of and worked for for a long time. I believe that your work has brought us to this tipping point moment, and for that, I thank you. Making history is not easy, but I believe that if we can work differently and work together, we have an excellent shot.

Many of you have been on this road for quite a long time. It’s not hard to see a narrative arc to the work at both the grass roots and at the international level. Development groups that saw the links between violence and poverty began working addressing the root causes of conflict. Organizations like Search for Common Ground and Partners for Democratic Change began to practice this work more systematically. Academics began to define its boundaries and train practitioners. I’m speaking of this like its distant history but many of those people are in this room today.

Meanwhile, the field began to take shape at high levels everywhere. In the early 1990’s the UN [United Nations] began to recognize our work as a distinct discipline. In 2005 the UN established the Peacebuilding Commission, Peacebuilding Fund, and Peacebuilding support office. In 2008, the UN adopted its latest definition of peacebuilding, only 121 words.

And, of course, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. The QDDR, released at the end of 2010, identified conflict prevention and response as a core mission of the State Department and led to the creation of CSO. Secretary Clinton has told me, and anyone else that will listen, that CSO is one of the most important things to come from the QDDR, so I know she is invested in our success.

By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that CSO is a crowning achievement of this movement. In fact, the US must improve. But I do think that elevating these issues at State, giving them heft, has been on many of your minds for some time and it’s a great honor to get a chance to try and bring it to life.

The QDDR reflects the broader fact that we have reached the critical mass of people who have built a shared language and understanding for the need to analyze conflict, plan what needs to be done, and work together to do it. We are coming to the greater recognition that building democracy, human rights, economic development, or health all build peace. Whether we call it peacebuilding or stabilization or something else, we all need to work together to seize this moment.

Now, where will CSO fit into this rather crowded space? Our ambition is essentially to be more effective in an increasingly dynamic world as Rob and Dick described. As I mentioned, even within the US government we haven’t seen the best cohesion and coherence in our work on conflict.

Effectiveness also means a recognition that the US is going to be a pivotal and vital player but not always a dominant force. We need to be humble, so we’ve got to think about the length of our stay in a place and the resources available right from the beginning rather than saying we’ll get in there and make it up as we go along.

Effectiveness also means boosting the impact of local ownership. Everybody talks about local ownership and sustainability, but I still don’t believe that we do it. And frankly we need to. We can’t travel as freely as we used to, we need to expand our partners, we need to get around standard bureaucratic excuses, and we don’t want to get into a place and end up owning the problem. We’ve got to be much more agile in what we do and who we can count on to do other things.

We must bring a new sense of focus and urgency to this work.

What we are offering at CSO is essentially a process. It starts with determining a center of gravity for each engagement – someone with cross-cutting authority for the network of offices and people involved who welcomes help and encourages innovation. So that if, heaven forbid, we have 62 agencies working in a place, they know what each other are doing and they’re working with each other from the start.

We think of it as a “board of directors” model, engage at the front end as many people as have an interest in the case be inclusive, bring them all to the policy making table, give them a chance to make their best arguments but come to a decision on the way forward so that everyone buys in and no one can take a shot at it later.

With that, we then need a fast, rigorous analysis that is built from the latest, local realities in and outside of the capital. When the Secretary interviewed me for this job, we talked about how when she visits a country, she inevitably ends up with the same list of deliverables, irrespective of the case. It’s often terrorism, aids, refugees, and food security, all good causes. If you tell me which office or Bureau is going out to do the analysis, I can tell you what kinds of solutions they’re going to come up with. We want to avoid an institutional bias or predetermined responses and instead answer the question “What is most needed?”

We just helped with this kind of analysis in Burma. We worked on a seven-person team with three members from AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and four from the State Department including one from CSO under the auspices of Derek Mitchell the Special Envoy. We were just trying to make sure that those local voices are heard and that they drive the thinking that takes shape.

As you know, CSO has its own analysis tool, the ICAF, and I know that many of you have yours as well, and that sometimes they produce different conclusions. We want to learn from you and refine the ICAF in large part to make it more strategic and influential.

The analysis that we all do, should lead to the next step – a single, integrated strategy with two to three priorities that provide direction for all. Many of these places need everything, so you can never be wrong, from infrastructure to schools to justice systems. But the US can’t be in a nation building mode. Jump starting is still plenty ambitious and we can’t afford to work on priorities seven or eight. We need to be on one, two, and three. We have to be catalytic and make sure those local people have the ability to make it on their own.

Next, the strategy leads directly to making sure that people, programs, and resources address the priorities. Burma will be a challenge in this regard. It’s exotic, it’s safe, everyone wants to work there. But to work coherently together will be a centerpiece of our being effective.

Finally, we need to make sure that we are measuring and adjusting our work as we go, learning in real time and not two years after the fact. With this approach I think we in the US government can greatly increase our chances of success and it will help us work better with all of you, hopefully in a transformational way.

At CSO, we recognize that we have the coming year, to prove that we can improve the response to show chance and impact. So for this year, we told the Secretary we have three goals. First, we have to make an impact in two to three places of real significance to the United States.

To do that, we will dedicate 80 percent of our effort to four major cases. Right now they are Syria, Kenya, North Central America, and Burma. Then we’ll have another 8-10 places where we can test new approaches or make a welcome difference by just sending the right person at the right time.

So far, I think we are gaining traction in each of our major priority engagements. Many of you are working in these places and we realize that we won’t know it all or know best about them, so we hope for your support.

In Syria, we are providing a non-traditional surge to empower and reunite a fractured non-violent opposition. As the Secretary announced, that includes providing non-lethal assistance. We are also working with partners to set up an outpost for the internal opposition to coordinate and communicate with the international community.

In Kenya, we are helping to develop plans to ensure peaceful and credible elections, a year before the vote. Incidentally, Kenya is one place where we’ve seen the potential model for broad cooperation and innovation.

In Northern Central America we have a growing homicide and governance problem that could spill over and affect our interests more directly. So we are bringing new urgency to address the violence on a regional basis, specifically to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize.

In Burma, as I mentioned, we are supporting analysis and ways to connect with ethnic minorities at the subnational level.

Our second goal for this year is to build a trusted and respected team.

We want to be the people in the US government who can bring everyone together to find solutions to conflict. We’ve brought in an entirely new leadership team, refocused our predecessor organization S/CRS, and are restructuring the Civilian Response Corps and other core resources. We are reducing the size of the permanent Corps to a proven leadership cadre who can lead our engagements.

At the same time, we are expanding our reach to deploy experts from inside and outside the government on a “pay as you use” basis. So instead of keeping a large standing staff, just in case of any eventuality, we are moving to the ability to deploy the right person to the right place, just in time, while expanding our partnerships.

For example, this is one of my favorite stories, we recently got a call from the US Ambassador in Liberia seeking our help. The day before the presidential runoff in November, a demonstration turned violent and one person was killed and eight were injured by gunfire. Some felt the police were implicated. The Liberian commission set up to investigate the incident didn’t have the capacity to conduct an inquiry which in turn put the credibility and the goodwill of the government at risk. CSO sent an expert from the Justice Department in our Civilian Response Corps who ensured that the investigation was on track.

Liberian investigators interviewed 70 or 80 people and found a 15 second slice of video of the demonstration that showed specific police firing on the crowd. It actually happened in three different ways. One of the Liberian investigators first saw a plain clothes person in a rather exotic shirt with a heavy arm band firing into the crowd. Actually the video showed a pop, a little bit of smoke and you could hear the noise. And still photography confirmed who that person was, it turned out that it was a high ranking member of the presidential guard.

That same 15 second clip was shown to the Department of Justice investigator who then saw another policeman in the same frame shooting, this one in uniform, shooting into the crowd. He then showed that same video clip to the Commission members, the Liberian Commission members, and one of them then saw a third person in that same 15 second clip firing into the crowd. That became the critical evidence that has led to police suspensions, further investigation, and the president of the country taking responsibility. It’s a great case for the rule of law and for the strengthening of the political process.

It also shows that who we are and how we work is as important as what we are trying to do. To make quality impact in the first 12 months of a crisis, takes agility and innovation that’s different from the way the US often works.

Our third goal is to work in a more agile and innovation way.

Part of that is developing a model for expeditionary diplomacy in the field and part is working as an antidote to the bureaucracy in Washington. As we know, the bureaucracy can move like an elephant it is powerful but very large and so you can reasonably predict where it’s going and make sure to not be underfoot. Our goal is to work in a more nimble, speedy fashion which means with more help from our partners.

I used to ask audiences, would you rather spend $500 million dollars on the largest US embassy in the world in a place like Bagdad or would you rather spend $500 million dollar to train 500 Americans, $1 million for each of them, so they would be capable of working in a place like Bagdad? How many of you would favor the embassy?


So we pretty much agree, almost unanimously. But I’ve got bad news for you. Since I started asking that question they built the embassy and it cost a lot more than $500 million dollars and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

So we’ve got to find a way to do things differently. Violent conflict has unofficially dominated U.S. foreign policy for years. So we need to expand the community of people who recognize its centrality and can address it head on. There’s a lot of room for improvement and I hope that we can join in doing that together.

I want to take a moment now to address the tension that we sometimes feel when non-governmental groups and governments find themselves in the same space. The US has its national interests at heart and NGOs often strive for neutrality. Those are not always the same thing. I think the key is to be very honest about when our interests are in sync and when we might need a little space. We should feel like we can help each other but also keep our distance, when necessary, without it being a snub. Good, open communications should make that possible.

With that, I want to offer you a challenge. When I was at CSIS, we went out to measure progress in Afghanistan for the first time. Almost everyone I spoke to was telling us how what they were doing was working while the larger enterprise was not going well. So we had a situation where we heard 100 success stories that somehow added up to one very questionable, larger effort. There’s no mathematical equation that allows 100 pluses to equal a negative. Of course, almost everybody had an explanation. But it completely reinforced the flaws in the approach that we take to these places.

So here are some questions that I wonder if you are asking yourselves. Are you working in places that really matter? Even though it’s impossible to be transformative, is the larger situation getting any better as a result of your involvement? Even if you’re doing brilliant work, what’s happening on the broader scale? Asking these questions is part of our goal and, I hope, part of yours.

We’re looking at the next dramatic event and how the United States can be a more intelligent responder and anticipator and intervener and catalytic force. These are the questions of our time. In this space, we see these questions in their rawest form. People are actually killing each other because they can’t figure it out. And there’s nothing more profound in human life than people killing each other because they can’t figure it out.

So we’re at the most fascinating, most delicate, most demanding, most responsible moment imaginable. And we’re trying to say “Is there some way the United States can help so it doesn’t lead to something much more tragic?”

We need your help. If you ever hear me say we’re on top of this, we’ve got it under control, give me a call or send me an email because we need all the help we can get. There is plenty to be done. We need to keep building the momentum for this work in Congress, elsewhere in the government and with our partners of all stripes. We need to expand the base of people who believe in this work. And, as I said, it can’t be business as usual.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: I’m wondering, you know, in this more complicated world we’re in, we will want company on the journeys you’ve mentioned, internationally. That is, on the questions you’ve raised, we’ll want to ask them within a lot of governments. I’m wondering if in your initial soundings with counterparts, and other governments, and NATO, and so forth if your questions are resonating well?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Yes. [Laughter]. I’ve always wanted to give at least one Mike Mansfield answer. As you all know I’m more likely to go on than to be as succinct as he was. But I still admire his skill.

The answer is yes. Whether we’re talking to the combatant command leaders here in the US government or the UK government or even the colleagues that I had a chance to work with when I was at the USUN in New York. There’s a great recognition that we’ve really got to go at this in a much more creative fashion.

And one of the things that I noticed having worked on this for 20 years in maybe 30-plus places now is that we tend to be influenced by our most recent experience. I think that puts us at risk in this country because our most recent experiences are huge ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it suggests that this next round of conflicts that we’re looking at really have a very different flavor and a different flavor from what we saw in the 1980s when most of what we saw was shaped by Bosnia – although there were also other catastrophes going on.

So I think that part of it is just to make sure that we’re accumulating this knowledge rather than thinking that we’ve actually go it. For me, one of the things that’s been most fascinating is I never know where I’m going to get the parallel experience. I was surprised to find in the Congo that there was more Haiti than I’d expected. And in Angola there was more of Serbia than I would have expected. Normally we would put regional experts [on the problem]. So it’s part of – what we want to do is have an intellectually challenging enough environment that there’s a creative tension within the Department of State so we don’t end up rushing to a consensus view within the U.S. government that this is the way to do something, but really to make it a more rigorous test.

That involves a kind of “give and take” with regional bureaus in particular that’s going to have to be more dynamic than it probably has been in some time. And that’s one of our significant challenges.

But the other thing I would say about these counterparts in other governments, just getting more specifically to your question, is that we’re still all relatively small boutiques. And we’re still all kind of finding our space within our larger bureaucracies. So we have to come together.

When I was working at OTI, I always used to say it’s nice for us to be doing what we’re doing, but we can’t be a professional team that just practices all the time. We have to be in the league, you have to have people who can go out. And so competition and creative tension should be part of this model. So that’s why you almost never hear me use the word coordination although I do believe that we have to work as well together as a fine textile.

QUESTION: I am from Greece, actually, and I found myself working on this report that I wasn’t expecting, in my lifetime, to do. It has to do with Greece as a failed state and the liability in terms of regional security in case Greece becomes a failed state. So the question that I have is how many steps ahead can USIP be in around the world in cases like Greece and others that are not there yet but they are close to becoming so. So considering the limited government process in terms of money and resources, how many steps can USIP be before things get bad?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: I can answer for CSO and then say that we have partners like USIP that can probably get out ahead of us even farther in some of these cases. I would hope that many of you would be well ahead of us because that would give me some greater sense of confidence that we’re on top of this.

One of the things that worries is me is that I’m quite sure that in some cases and in some places – I don’t think that this is true in the case of Greece – but the US military often times has war plans for all manner of places on earth. It strikes me as a minimum requirement that we should have comparable civilian thinking. And the fact that we don’t, I think, would shock many tax payers.

So all of us need to do that kind of forward thinking. It doesn’t matter who gets to write the first op-ed piece or draw our attention to it.

For any of us who spent any time in Bosnia, the trip from Zurich to Bagram, that one and a half hour flight seemed like a pretty sudden way to go from Europe to – from heaven in Europe to hell. It certainly gave me that very raw introduction to that very front end. To never be arrogant about what you have.

So we should be anxious about these places because a little anxiety is what prevents disasters. So since most of you are in the prevention business, I mean you recognize that. It’s not a great feeling – being worried about stuff doesn’t make you feel great. But, it’s better to be worried about it than to see the eventuality. So, I think that places like Greece, we should be alert to.

Probably for CSO, our focus is going to be on three kinds of cases: hot spots, too big to fail, and long-standing conflicts that don’t seem to be breaking loose. And you can see which kinds of places fall into each of those. But then what we do in each of those might be very different. You might have a full scale operation and implementation and really be trying to push the U.S. government to make sure that the assistance there is focused and in another place we might just be doing advanced, strategic planning, or advising an embassy, even. And that’s certainly the model that we’ve been building upon.

QUESTION: A question about the richness of the U.S. government and those parts that may not have been involved in collaboration. The Peace Corps has its own identity and is at a distance from intelligence gathering. But certainly the people on the ground have such insight and such commitment to the well-being of their countries. Is there any way their insights can be fed into this process? And also the Fulbright Program – there are now many people from all parts of the world who are now in the United States and American overseas. They have insights, they have knowledge that others don’t. Is there a way to tap into this extraordinary intellectual resource?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Sure, and I think an awful lot of the processes that I’ve seen at CSO invite that kind of broader participation. The part of it is to differentiate between formal sharing of information and informal.

My feeling when I was at OTI was that everything we were doing was basically in an overt space. And being in an overt space meant that we were transparent about the information that we were collecting, so we should be sharing it with anybody. And if the intelligence community or whoever else wanted to know what we were thinking then that was fine because it was public information.

And I feel that that’s one way to sort of get around this worry that people have about their insights being misused by the official world. What I do is open, and I’m sharing it with anybody who has an interest in promoting peace in the place. I think that’s probably the easier formula for people like the Peace Corps rather than their being seen as information gatherers for the US policy apparatus.

On the other hand, one of my favorite sayings ever was a retired intelligence officer who was living in Princeton when I was teaching there. He stood up one day and he said, “I found that after I retired I had an advantage that none of my former colleagues had. I had open and free access to open information.”

I think it’s interesting. Now, we get some analysis data from the intelligence community that’s actually based on totally available information. So they saw that as a weakness in their own work and it’s actually quite helpful to have them collect it.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask whether there’s any part of your office that’s working on cultural recovery issues? Smithsonian did a lot of work in Haiti after the earthquake. But in addition, I was thinking we had a brief discussion yesterday with Ambassador Derek Mitchell about what the Smithsonian is doing in Burma, kind of environmental conversation research which really over the last twenty years has been building a foundation that can be very helpful now. But particularly on sort of the cultural artifacts, the Baghdad Museum kind of issue. Is there anybody in your bureau, in your office, who’s looking at that issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: The answer is not specifically, no. But I would like to be able to say, and I think we’re working on, to really understand these cases you’d better not approach them from just a political optic, or an economics optic, or an anthropological optic – by the way I met more anthropologists in Haiti when I was working there in the 90s than any other place on earth – or as a sociologist. It’s really when you get this convergence of violence in a society, when it breaks down this badly, it’s usually a witch’s brew. And to understand it, you’ve got to have all of those disciplines at play. And so that’s part of what we’re trying to build at CSO. And I hope that our talent – to be respected and trusted – it’s going to have to have that kind of breadth of understanding.

Whether the cultural issue would rise to be one of the two or three top priorities of the place is difficult to say. But, it’s possible and it shouldn’t be excluded any more than it should be the default position that we take.

So I’m really hoping that we’ll have the freshness of analysis that will be sensitive to those kinds of opportunities, but not be captive of any one when it gets there.

Well, thank you all very much. I really appreciate it. 

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