printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice: Bolstering Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding

Rick Barton
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
San Diego, CA
March 14, 2013


As delivered

Well, thank you very much. As I was reading about your community, I saw that General Zinni had been here a few years ago and at the beginning of his speech he said, “You know you’re getting old when the introduction is longer than your career.” So I did have a bit of a generous introduction. Thank you.

The hospitality here has been really wonderful. I flew in from Washington this morning, and they put me up in the casa de paz. I said you know, I really would love to have some nuts--and sure enough there was a basket of fruit and nuts. And it’s been that kind of day. Really pretty much every step of the way has been prepared so beautifully. So thanks for the hospitality.

You’re all very lucky to have Ed Luck in this town. I think you’re going to enjoy his leadership. It’s a model leadership and he’s probably the American with the best knowledge of the United Nations. You’re fortunate to have that range of experience.

It’s also great to be here with Necla [Tschirgi], and obviously it’s a pleasure to be on this panel with Melanie [Greenberg] and the General [Maj. Gen. Jon Broadmeadow] as well. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

You’re really so lucky at the Kroc School to have this wonderful facility and to have great students like those I had a chance to meet with today at lunch. It’s wonderful to have a chance to be part of this with you.

What I’d like to do tonight is talk a little about how we get better at this work and offer you three provocations as well to test how we’re doing. Clearly the subject of peacebuilding has seized the attention of the international community and the U.S. government. But we haven’t really figured out how to get it quite right. We saw the United Nations start a peacebuilding commission, and it’s been a bit of an orphan within the United Nations system. We’ve had people like Ed Luck advancing new theories of how we should behave in this world: the responsibility to protect and other really breakthrough concepts. But, we haven’t quite figured out how to embrace that yet at any level.

At the State Department about two years ago Secretary Clinton decided that the Department should have something similar to the Defense epartment’s Quadrennial Defense Review. One of the major findings of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review was that we were particularly weak in this area of conflict and crises – that we didn’t move quickly enough, we didn’t really know what we should do, and as a result the civilian side really wasn’t up to the military side. And the military kept looking for partners that they couldn’t find. That’s how my bureau was created a year and a half ago, even though it really got officially started just a year ago.

We now have a new Secretary. Secretary Kerry was at the University of Virginia for his first big speech in February. He spoke mostly about budget and how we’re spending our money on the civilian side, but the Secretary said that the State Department’s conflict and stabilization budget is $60 million a year, noting that is what the movie “The Avengers” grossed the first weekend it was out. But unlike the movie, he said, “My people who are working in this field really are super heroes. They’re out there doing this work and risking their lives and whatnot.” I think he also believes that this is something that we’re going to have to do in a more robust and dramatic way.

So, the table is set, but I think that we still are facing three fundamental questions that I put to you tonight. The first one is: Do we really understand modern conflict? The second is: Have we responded well? And the third is: Do we know how to do it better?

I’d like to very quickly walk you through those questions and offer examples of work we’re doing to answer those questions and then join the panelists for a really good and lively exchange.

Do we understand modern conflict? I think the answer is: Not as well as we need to. There are many, many people who are studying it. I believe that the alumni association of Americans who have had direct experience in conflict is several million. So you would think that we would have a pretty good understanding. But the nature of the conflict that we’re looking at now is considerably different from what we’ve seen in the last 20 years. Despite the fact that those conflicts of the last 20 years consumed almost our entire national security apparatus –from Bosnia and Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan – our country was not really at war. Our national security community was consumed by those conflicts. The good news is that we have a lot of people who now understand those conflicts better. The bad news is--well, it’s both good and bad news-–we’re probably not going to have those kinds of experiences again.

I’d just be curious to ask this audience how many people think that we’re going to see an Afghan or Iraq in the next five years in this audience.

[Hands rising]

One or two people. Maybe a handful of people.

That’s my expectation. I don’t see much appetite in the U.S. body politic or in our leadership to head in that direction right now. On the other hand, we have learned a lot and the question is: How do we apply it?

So what kinds of cases are we likely to see?

The way we’re preparing in our bureau right now is by looking at three kinds of cases. We’re looking at hot spots, places like Syria in particular. There are quite a few of those at any one time – usually 15 to 25 sort of percolating around the world. We’re also looking at “too big to fail,” which would be cases like Pakistan. If something goes really wrong there, it’s going to be hard for the world to go into denial. Then we have the gridlock, long-standing situations – Kashmir, the Middle East, Israel-Palestine – that have not moved very much in the last couple of decades. So those are the three kinds of cases we’re looking at. We’re trying to make sure we’re prepared for them.

But we don’t want tolimit ourselves to individual cases. We also want to look at regional situations. For example, Mali might be more of a regional case right now and not just Mali. We’re also looking at issues – such as religion in conflict, or youth in conflict – that are broader and that may have a more global message.

We’re trying to take on the world this way and trying to create some definition so that we can improve our anticipation and our preparation, which we think is one of the critical dimensions of this challenge.

On the second question (Have we responded well?) I think the answer is: Not really. But not necessarily for a lack of trying. When I got started in this work in the early 1990s, I went to Sarajevo, I went to Rwanda right after the genocide, and our biggest initiative of the office that I was running at AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] was Haiti. So three very different kinds of cases, but all explosive.

A lot of people who worked on those cases felt that if we’d had a little bit more involvement from the U.S. military, if we’d been more expansive in our engagement, we might have been successful. Fewer people would have died. And some of those people took those lessons into the Iraq case, in particular, but I don’t think that they have proved that to have been the missing piece. There was more to it than that.

So, one of the things that our new bureau has been saying is whether the United States was spending $3 million or $3 trillion, we were not getting the results that we really needed.

So what is needed most? What can we do? Obviously a lot of this starts with realistic expectations and sound analysis of what’s going on. Also,we need to identify local ownership right away because our country doesn’t have a great colonial instinct. We don’t really like it. It doesn’t fit our sense of how society should develop. So when we go in and take over a place, we’re usually, I think, heavily disadvantaged. We also don’t want to stay in a place that long – even though we stayed in Afghanistan much longer than I think most Americans had expected.

So in our case, we’re looking at three particular ways to make ourselves better. The first one is just understanding the place better.

Syria, which we’re working on right now, is particularly challenging. The people who began the revolution in Syria were off our embassy’s radar. Then when it [the revolution] started, we had no embassy there, and without an embassy it is hard to understand a place.

We’ve had to operate out of Turkey, exclusively. We have a train-and-equip program that depends on citizens coming out of Syria and getting into Turkey--and Turkey is sometimes unenthusiastic about overt assistance to these people. But we’re doing because the Secretary of State and the President want to make it clear that we want to help these people. Therefore, it has to be overt. So you have that initial resistance within the country. Then you have to get them the equipment that we’re providing. At the beginning of this program, we had actually to depend on donkeys. So here you have a sophisticated State Department program that’s dependent on donkeys to get across borders. This is non-lethal assistance to the non-violent opposition – a tightly-defined, very legalistic definitionSo you can see how the challenge can be fairly substantial.

We decided that to make this training and equipping effective we needed to get to know more Syrians. We didn’t want to just hope that some leader would come along who would be just right and would solve all of Syria’s problems.

So we used this opportunity to get to know hundreds of Syrians and to give them some very practical help in things like FM radios. The opposition now has the ability to do national broadcasting on FM radio, thanks to U.S. taxpayer assistance. This is a very practical way to help this leadership grow up and become more responsive to the people they hope to lead someday. But it also gives them a lot of very real daily public safety info. Rather than getting traffic reports, they’re finding out which parts of the city can they go to without being killed. These are the kinds of things that you can do that really make a difference.

The second thing that you have to do is focus on two or three things that really matter--that have to go right if you’re going to be successful in one of these countries. I know that a number of you have had experience in Kenya, so I’ll give you an example of what we did there.

We got involved about a year ago in trying to address the threat of violence in the Kenyan elections. The feeling was that the worst thing that could happen to this key ally would be for the country to boil over the way it did four years ago – when more than 1,300 people were killed and hundreds of thousands left their homes. There was a very great fear that it could happen again.

And what we were able to do is to move into the U.S. embassy and really focus all of the United States government’s resources on that problem.

I’ll just give you a quick story to try to bring it to life.

We had a meeting out in the Rift Valley, which was one of the most violent areas four years ago. The attendees had been brought together by USAID’s Democracy and Governance Office. They were essentially people who ran a range of programs that had nothing to do with politics. But they were substantial programs.

Rather than go around and have them tell us what they were doing, we asked them right away, “What do you believe is the most serious problem facing your country this year?” Whatever their programs were, they all said: “election-related violence.” It would unravel all the progress of the last ten years – the new constitution and the reforms that came after the last election.

We said, “Are you doing everything you can to fight against that election-related violence?” They said “No.”

“Would you like to do more?”


“What do you have, what might you bring to that?”

The first person to raise his hand was somebody who ran a horticulture program supported by the United States government. He said, “Look, I don’t know that I have much of value, but I have a network of 4,000 farmers in this area that I would be happy to get involved with a Champions of Peace effort.”

I don’t know how you feel, but as a former politician, I think you can get elected governor of every state in the Union except for Texas with a base of 4,000 people. So it’s a very significant number. It’s quite an organization.

The next person to speak was a Kenyan running an AIDS program. He said, “We call on 200,000 households each week. And none of these people are engaged with this issue.”

So, they very quickly pulled together their own group. We got the Catholic bishop from the area and the Episcopal bishop of the area and got them all involved with their own initiative, which is called Champions of Peace. They provided two really critical functions: mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to make sure that the election registration process was as dynamic as it could be; and, secondly to create an early warning system for the local police. Because everybody was saying the police were incapable of dealing with the problem if it arises. And yet, here you had hundreds of thousands of people who were being put into touch with the police and the information flows. The ability to react much more quickly and prevent violence improved greatly.

Such activities illustrate how you can focus on what’s most important and then find a way to bring it to life.

And finally, if we’re going to be better responders, we’ve got to bring speed and a sense of urgency. Now almost all international programs, including many of the U.S. government, are not able to move in the first 12 months of a crisis. So, one of the things we’ve tried to do is devise ways to get into a case within days or weeks.

One way you do that is by depending much more on local people. So in Kenya, rather than bringing in Americans, we paid for almost 200 Kenyans to join all these local organizations and take their existing networks and put them into play in this political space.

In other words, we took an apolitical population and made them highly political for the purpose of addressing the country’s most important issue. But you’ve got to do that within days or weeks or you’re likely to miss the mark.

We’ve started to answer the final question: Do we know how to do this work better? I think the answer is yes, we do. We’re learning like crazy. But, there are additional ways to do things better, and I will give you a couple more.

The first is to start with joint, independent analysis. If we send in the counter-terrorism people or the refugee people to do the analysis, I think you can all imagine that they will come back and tell us is that there’s a terrorism problem and that there’s a refugee problem. That’s fine, but adding up the problems ends up producing a diffused response rather than a highly targeted response that focuses on the two or three critical problems that face a place.

I think that’s something we’re driving toward. There’s still a ton of bureaucratic biases or entitlements. You have to cut through that on a daily basis if you really want to change that, and we’re working on it.

You have to drive resources to a few targets, and you have to have liquidity. For example, we’re finding with Syria that we are going pretty much on three-month appropriations. That makes it pretty hard to have a longer view of what needs to happen in a place unless you change that model.

We need to focus on some of the activities that will attract other donors, as well, because this is one of those places where you don’t want to have every country coming in and doing its favorite project. We tried that in Afghanistan – we tried franchising parts of the country – putting the Italians in charge of one thing, the Germans in charge of another. It did not produce the integrated response that we needed.

But what we’re finding in Syria right now with the UK, Canada, and several other countries is that when we build platforms together, it’s easier for us to put our resources and our talent behind those platforms rather than every country going off and doing its own thing.

And, as I said earlier, I think the surge of local talent is absolutely critical to success.

One last idea that I’d like to share with you is that as we look at these countries there seems to be a common thread that we’re developing. It’s kind of a philosophical frame for how we’re approaching these places. And the way that we’re thinking about it is that there are silenced majorities in many of them.

What is a silenced majority? Well, in a place like Syria it could easily be the business community. It’s almost always women. It’s often youth. These are people who are either apolitical by choice, or they don’t want to risk what they have, or they have never been invited to the game. And these are operating majorities in almost every country we work in.

But the issue becomes: How do you mobilize them? How do you find them? How do you give them the space to feel confident that they can be the change agents within their country?

Those are the folks who we’re looking for in many, many of these places because going back to the usual suspects – whether it’s the ruling parties or the predictable opposition – does not usually produce the kind of change you need in a conflict case.

I’d like to finish up very briefly with some encouragement for the students here because I think the last place that we to really make sure that we have huge improvement in the people working this space. We have a talent deficit at nearly every level in the peacebuilding field.

I know that there are a lot of people here who are interested in this kind of work, and I want to encourage you to pursue it. There’s risk, and it’s chaotic, so you’d better be comfortable with chaos. But there’s nothing more compelling in life than finding people at the most vulnerable moment, at the time when neighbors are attacking neighbors, and you have a chance to step in and really make a difference. People are looking for help. They’re expecting it from somewhere. That doesn’t mean that we have to take over the problem, but these people recognize that their problem is much bigger than themselves. And they’re looking for some outside assistance. So, I would encourage you to get involved.

I once had a boss who said that the best people to go into this work are 37-year-old ex-Jesuits. But it doesn’t have to be that bad. There’s plenty of room for almost all of us. The creativity is needed as well.

I hope that gives you a sense of some of the challenges we need to address. I’m looking forward to joining the panel for this conversation and to hearing your questions.

Thanks very much.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.