SPEAKER 1: I would like to welcome you all to this symposium on extremism, security, and the state in Africa. From time to time, every year we choose a theme and around that theme try to organize a symposium to address an issue that is relevant to current events. And we are delighted to welcome you to this conference. It's a two day conference. Today we have our keynote speaker and then tomorrow we have the panels for the whole day.
I would like to acknowledge the co-sponsors, that is, the organizations that have helped us in the organization of this symposium. The Department of Government here at Cornell, the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, the Berger Legal international Studies Program, the Department of Africana Studies at University of Albany, and then the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Thank you very much for your support.
I would also like to thank the speakers and the moderators. Many of you have come from across country and across campus as well. And we are delighted that you're able to come and join us in these discussions. We hope that it will be very fruitful and enjoyable today experience here at Cornell.
Now, we chose the theme of our conflict and extremism because, of course, of the escalating conflicts worldwide. And we were informed, really, by the economic and social costs of these conflicts. And I think this is what motivated us to focus on this issue. Because we see conflicts as diverting resources from productive activities to destruction. And actually, that is a double loss in a way. It is value lost in production. Instead of repairing roads and installing new irrigation systems or food supply system, we have governments instead recruiting soldiers and buying weapons and ammunition and thereby diverting resources to the military.
As I mentioned, there are costs in terms of infrastructure. But there are also social and legacy costs that are inherent in the conflicts. [INAUDIBLE] increase [INAUDIBLE]. Civil wars kill far more civilians even after the conflict is over than they kill combatants during the conflict. And much of this happens through infectious diseases, in refugee and IDP camps, but also through the breakdown of health care services.
So we have a really wide spectrum of effects that come up as a result of conflicts. Quite apart from the actual human cost in terms of fatalities, we have the economic and social costs. Population [INAUDIBLE], forced migration, as we are seeing currently from the Middle East, especially Syria into Europe. People are avoiding and fleeing violence. And of course there are lost economic investments in terms of people not being able to invest in those regions. So all these issues led us to the decision to this year focusing on conflicts and looking at conflicts and extremism.
Now, to start off the conference, we are delighted to have with us Mr. Carne Ross, who is going to be our keynote speaker. He's truly a distinguished person and has a lot, I think, to offer the world to us in terms of his perspectives on conflicts. Mr. Ross is the founder and director of the Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group that's based in New York. He's a writer and commentator on world affairs and an award winning innovator in transforming diplomacy.
Mr. Ross joined the British Foreign Service, where he worked for 15 years. During this time, he served as the United Kingdom's delegations expert on the Middle East, working on the Security Council's resolution such as SRR 1284, which rewrote the Council's Iraq policy and established [INAUDIBLE] weapons inspections [INAUDIBLE]. He also negotiated for the United Kingdom the resolution establishing the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Mr. Ross resigned in 2004 after giving secret evidence on Iraq weapons of mass destruction to an official inquiry into the Iraq War. He testified that at no time during his work on Iraq, that is from 1998 to 2002, did UK or US assess that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction posed a threat. He also argued that [INAUDIBLE] alternatives to war memory targeting Iraq's illegal oil revenues were ignored. This testimony directly challenged Blair's assertions that the war was legally justified by Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction, which posed a threat to British interest.
Currently, Mr. Ross runs the Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit organization which advises marginalized democratic governments and political groups on diplomatic strategy, helping those most affected by diplomatic decisions have a say in international negotiations. His organization has helped the Marshall Islands secure dramatic and positive outcomes of the UN climate talks and currently advises the democratic opposition in Syria.
He's the author of Independent Diplomat Dispatches from an unaccountable elite. And his most recent book, Leaderless Revolution. He has published numerous articles and opinion pieces around the world, including in papers like the New York Times and the Financial Times. And he regularly comments on international affairs on TV and radio stations. His work has been profiled in the New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Time Magazine, Buzzfeed, Der Spiegel and the LA Review of Books, among other organizations.
In 2005, Mr. Ross was honored as a visionary for a just and peaceful world by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. And in 2013, Mr. Carne was awarded the [INAUDIBLE] Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship. He will be speaking to us today on the topic, Perpetual Peace is Gone Forever, Welcome Perpetual War. So that will be the focus of his talk. So please join me in welcoming Mr. Carne.
CARNE ROSS: [? Mona, ?] thank you for that very nice introduction. Thank you for having me here in Cornell. It's a real pleasure to be here. There couldn't really be a more important topic than conflict and development. So it was a privilege to be invited to share some reflections about this subject with you today. And this is the side of the equation that I'm going to concentrate on. The war bit, not the development bit. Because the war bit is what I know about.
As [INAUDIBLE] mentioned, I was a British diplomat for 15 years. I worked on several different conflicts. Israel, Palestine, Kosovo, the NATO bombing in '99, and Iraq, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the bombing in '98, but also the preparations for the invasion in 2003. I worked on terrorism in several different iterations, including directly after 9/11. I helped set up the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and served in Afghanistan immediately after the Taliban fell.
I'm now with Independent Diplomat, the nonprofit that I run that advises democratic countries and political groups around the world. We are involved in several conflicts of one kind or other, including Kosovo before its independence, South Sudan before their independence, today Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara, Somalia, accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka, and of course, Syria, where we advise the democratic opposition and a coalition of over 200 Syrian Civil Society groups. I'm also connected with the Syrian Kurds, who I visited last year in Syria.
So I have some familiarity with conflicts. And so I have some observations and very tentative conclusions or suggestions, perhaps, to share with you.
It's pretty clear, talking about 9/11, that the generation that has grown up since 9/11 here in the United States, but indeed worldwide, has known nothing but a state of war. There's the hot wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the US there is today a constant threat of terrorism and American involvement in conflicts around the world and military deployment around the world, whether in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, or Mali. Today I read that the US has opened a drone base in northern Niger, which is the place I suspect most Americans would not expect there to be a US military base. But nonetheless, it just opened.
All other continents are suffering conflict of one kind or other, except Antarctica. Africa, of course, the subject of this conference. I don't need to recite the long list, but it includes CAR, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, North and South. The Middle East needs no introduction. Asia, growing tensions in the South China Sea. North Korea's nuclearization is developing nuclear weapons program. And or a conflict in Kashmir. Yesterday an Indian soldier was killed in Kashmir. Still the place where nuclear conflict is perhaps most likely to break out.
And even Europe, the place which perhaps told itself in the late 20th century that it had reached some stable status of peace and not war. We now see mounting east west tension. We see a years long conflict in Ukraine. And the tension between east and west has recently been manifested by the deployment of medium range nuclear missiles to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast.
Kaliningrad, as you all know, was once known as Koenigsberg and is the Prussian city where Immanuel Kant would walk continually around his perambulations every day and where he wrote his treaties, perpetual peace. But his dream of perpetual peace now seems more distant than ever. Perpetual peace, as conceptualized by Kant, arguably even seems irrelevant today.
His idea was of an interlocking system of republics, democratic what he called republics, whose relations would be so closely locked together in a sort of matrix of relationships that war between them would be all but impossible. And in the late 20th century, this model of perpetual peace didn't seem entirely implausible. But today this paradigm of state to state conflict being the primary risk of conflict seems itself outdated.
Today 80% of the conflicts on the agenda of the UN Security Council, the world's primary body for dealing with peace and security, 80% of its agenda involves non-state parties, not states. Wars within states, not between states. The 20th century, the expectation of stability between states leading to perpetual peace seems today to be naive.
What can we see? What are the characteristics that we can see in conflict today? Bearing in mind we are inevitably having to generalize. Well firstly, as I've observed, there is a decline in interstate conflict. The sort of mass industrial conflicts that we saw in the 20th century are for now past. The mass killing that we witnessed in the Second World War and the First World War, the phenomenon that belong in the 20th century. Although if you are Iraqi or Syrian, you are suffering similar.
In its place we're seeing the rise of what you might call limbo wars, conditions between peace and full on war, what American military theorists used to call low intensity conflict. A condition that is not full war but neither is it peace. And associated with that condition, we're seeing a blurring of many of the lines that defined conflict for us in the past. So the distinctions between soldiers, civilian contractors, civilians, between states themselves and non-state actors, between state institutions, NGOs, and militias, these distinctions are becoming more and more blurred.
If you look at Eastern Ukraine today, you will see eastern Ukrainian nationalists in the Donbass wearing civilian clothes, camouflage. But alongside them are Russian soldiers. Not in full Russian uniform, but Russian soldiers nonetheless. How are we to look at a conflict of this kind? This doesn't fit with the normal paradigms that we have applied to conflict in the past.
Another trend that we can observe in conflict is an increase and an expansion in the forms of violence. No longer are we talking about conflict involving just tanks, warships, and aircraft. Today the lexicon of weaponry includes more IEDs, suicide bombs, assassinations, remote control warfare. The US has recently tested a warship that will sail autonomously for thousands of miles pursuing enemy vessels. Future fighter aircraft will be accompanied by swarms of robot drones to deliver weapons and penetrate enemy territory.
We see an increase in the use of unconventional weaponry, like the use of chemical weapons by Islamic state. We see weapons of ever greater capability and sophistication being used both by states and by non-state groups. In the last couple of weeks, a high speed ferry was attacked and hit off the coast of Yemen using a highly sophisticated Chinese made anti-ship missile. Just yesterday a ballistic missile was fired at Mecca and shot down over Mecca, fired by Houthi rebels who now have highly sophisticated guided missile systems.
I think one of the things that is little understood when we talk about conflict today is how much more capable even conventional weapons are than they used to be. You will have read about the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft systems in its single base in Latakia in Western Syria. But not many realize that the anti-aircraft systems that it has deployed there have a range of 400 kilometers and can shoot targets down at 185,000 meters. This is practically the edge of space. That is an enormous sphere and range of capability that we have not seen in earlier conflicts.
And of course, we see other types of conflict, whole new categories of conflict emerging. Cyber warfare is the obvious example. But also the multiplication of the types of information warfare. Above all, the ever varying means of information warfare through social media.
At the same time, we see an increase in the complexity of violence in any single conflict today, a conflict like Ethiopia or Eritrea's contest over a small sliver of territory between them, a source of conflict for many years between those two countries, that seems now almost quaint when you look at contemporary conflicts in Africa and elsewhere in terms of the numbers of factors that underpin these conflicts.
In Mali, which I know you're going to discuss I think tomorrow, there is persistent conflict in northern Mali, which to use a simplified list, involves at a minimum religion, extremism, the depredations of weak institutions and weak government, the proliferation of weapons from the region, above all from the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, gross poverty, which itself is exacerbated by climate change. The imposition of singular narratives, such as these are wars over resources or these are wars stimulated by ethnic hatred. These singular narratives were always inadequate. But today they are even more inadequate when trying to even have the barest understanding of these conflicts.
Conflicts are now also multiparty to add to the mix. In Syria, we have thousands of armed groups. In Aleppo, where the war is raging today in Western Aleppo, sorry Eastern Aleppo, there are a minimum of 20 rebel groups fighting the Assad government in Western Aleppo. But even on the government's side, of course, the Assad regime is assisted by the Russian government. But there are also at least three other military groups from Iran, Hezbollah, and Lebanon itself assisting the Syrian army.
I look closely at the Kurdish situation in Northeast Syria. And not only at the Syrian situation, but also the Kurds overall in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Just in Syria, you have to juggle with a list of groups who include the YPG, the YPJ, the PYD, the KRG, the KDP, the PUK, the PKK, and most recently the SDF. You try and keep that lot straight in your head. But they are just some of the actors in that particular corner of Syria.
And in the Syrian war, arguably we have at least four different conflicts going on at the same time. A conflict between Assad and pro-democracy forces, between the government and pro-democracy forces and extremist Islamist forces. We have a Shia Sunni conflict, we have a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the US and Russia, and between Turkey and the Kurds. You try and disentangle that lot.
What we're seeing, then, in modern conflict is totally bewildering. It is almost nightmarishly complex. Conflicts today in many places are persistent. They are multi-dimensional, they are multi-party, they are constantly dynamic, they are multilayered, they are local, they are regional, they are international, they are ideological all at the same time.
So what are we to make of this? What are we to think about? How are we to think about conflict in this era? I have some observations, which are tentative and contingent, which I think any observation can only be in this peculiar circumstance that we find ourselves. And it's hard to make generalizable rules, talking about Kant, about such a diverse phenomenon as conflict today. But nonetheless, we can make some inferences from what we see.
The first is that traditional institutional approaches to conflict resolution, involving the United Nations, discourses like international humanitarian law, the ICC, even traditional approaches to mediation and conflict resolution embodied in NGOs and the non-government sector. These institutional approaches are, in general, not working. They're not effective.
An associated observation, which is implicit in what I've just said, is that the top down state based or government based response is not working. What tools do states tend to use? They tend to use force. They tend to use cooperation with each other. They use surveillance. These are the tools that the US has employed to a significant degree after 9/11. Although there has been no significant attack in the US since that horrible attack.
Nonetheless, the global war on terror using those tools can be characterized as a failure. We have seen the proliferation of groups associated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to every continent except Antarctica. These groups have adapted to local circumstances, co-opted local circumstances. They've become more heavily armed, more numerous, more diverse than anybody could have imagined 15 years ago.
So the top down approach. The institutions that we developed and refined in the 20th century don't seem to be effective for war in the 21st century, or at least the types of war that we're seeing now.
So what on Earth do we do? What can one offer as prescriptions in this circumstance? And I must say that these are very tentative prescriptions. Because having worked on lots of conflicts, it's very difficult to make ringing statements about what we can do in each of these cases, for the reasons that I will explain.
The first prescription is a very obvious and banal one, which is, though, that we should presume that every conflict is very different. I was involved in the planning for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. I watched closely the intervention in Libya and elsewhere. And it is hard to overstate the ignorance of governments in their conduct of these operations.
I was part of very small policy making teams that were involved in these conflicts. We knew almost nothing about the places that we were going to war in. This is not just my personal observation. This has been confirmed, for instance, by the recent official inquiry into the Iraq War, the so-called Chilcot Report, the inquiry to which I testified, which published its voluminous million word report this summer, which confirmed the observation that I and others made that the government had exaggerated the case for war. But perhaps more importantly, detailed a systematic litany of incompetence by the British government in preparing for and conducting that conflict.
In government and talking about places like Afghanistan and Iraq, I realized that the process of policy making requires an inevitable process of oversimplification. That to take reality from the bottom of the pyramid from the facts themselves, from the grassroots themselves, and to take this reality in descriptive terms and turn it into coherent policy choices that can be presented to senior officials and politicians is to apply an inherent reductiveness, which is always going to lead to inaccuracy and mistakes.
There is something intrinsically wrong with the way that governments think and learn about conflict or learn information and arbitrate that information in complex situations. This observation doesn't just apply to conflict, but my experience is mostly of conflict. There isn't an inherent reductiveness in the way that governments must think in order to make decisions. This is an inherent problem.
My second prescription, if you like, is also an observation, is that all conflict has invariably local causes. Increasingly we talk about phenomena like ISIS, Al-Qaeda in global terms or at least in regional terms. We talk about these phenomena as things which are omnipresent in multiple locations. But even a phenomenon like ISIS had originally local causes.
In the case of ISIS, it was in, amongst other things, the sense of Sunni alienation that followed the breakup of the government after following the US invasion. That was one cause. But this was a local cause.
Likewise, in Somalia people talk about Shabaab as a sort of terrorist militancy, this ideological group that pursues an extremist agenda. Shabaab is now responsible for the proliferation of weapons across the Sahel. It's responsible for attacks inside Kenya and even Uganda. It is spreading as a military security threat. But Shabaab itself originated in opposition to the overthrow of a government by the union of Islamic courts by an internationally backed transitional federal government in Mogadishu, which got rid of the Islamic courts in the government.
The Shabaab grew up in reaction to that intervention. That was a local cause too. In every case where you're talking about conflict, even with the groups that have become cross border, transnational, global, whatever you want to call it, every one of them has originally local causes.
I would also contend, this is my third observation and perhaps this is a controversial thing to suggest, that the locality of these causes is also about us. We tend to depict over there, the other, these other people, these people, those places as being the problem, as being the origin and the cause of these conflicts and phenomena. There's this insecurity. But I would also suggest that we are also part of the origins of these conflicts. It's very clear that the actions of the West, particularly in the invasion of Iraq but also the use of drones in Waziristan, are themselves recruiting sergeants for terrorists.
Those two observations, the recruitment potential of the Iraq War, came from not me, but the head of MI5, the internal security service in Britain. The observation about the recruiting power of drone strikes in Waziristan also didn't come from me. It came from Stanley McChrystal, the former head of forces of US forces in Afghanistan.
I also personally think, and this is, again, a provocative and broader point to make, that there is something about modernity and the modern condition which itself is a problem and may itself be stimulating conflict. There is clearly amongst certain groups of people a crisis of identity, a groping for a more certain and assertive form of identity and belief systems. Can this be a surprise when we live in a system that is essentially valueless except for materialism and consumption?
The triumph of capitalism and representative democracy of the Western form in the late 20th century seems to have blinded us to the essential weaknesses of that system. There are grave deficits in that system which themselves may ultimately stimulate violence. And not only over there, but also over here.
My fourth observation and suggestion as, again, also very obvious. Forgive me for making a series of very obvious points. But I make them partly because I feel they need to be made.
Is it any surprise that we're having such problems solving conflict globally when the resources that we devote to war are so much greater than the resources that we devote to peace? The total budget for the United Nations, including all of its humanitarian and development agencies, is equivalent to the cost of approximately two strategic bombers in the US Air Force.
The UN mediation unit. I'm no huge fan of the UN, but I'm just citing these as examples. There is a mediation support unit in the Department of Political Affairs called MSU, which is about three dozen people who are deployed all over the world to help mediate conflicts. That is not funded from the regular budget. The head of the MSU has to go and grovel for funds to the member states of the UN every year to find the few million that that unit costs.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a wonderful man, Prince Zeid, a good friend of mine, he has to perform the same task and patrol the world asking for money to fund his work. We see these offices and think that they are simply funded, that they are these perpetual institutions in the world. But in fact, they're not. They are extremely fragile and small and weakly supported. As Zeid once said, his annual budget is equivalent to the amount that is spent on costumes for pets every Halloween. Our priorities seem to be a bit mixed up.
My next observation and suggestion flows from the characteristics of modern conflict that I was describing. I think in the 21st century, and again, this has been said so often it sounds banal, but we face profoundly different circumstances than we did in the 20th century. And yet there has been no real updating of our paradigms of how we think about conflict or resolve conflict.
I'll give you one example. Two examples, in fact. Obviously, the gravest conflict risk that we face is that of nuclear war. And yet since the end of the Cold War, despite the profound change in the east west relationship, which is still troubled today but very different from how it was in the post-war period, and despite the growing risk of serious proliferation to countries like North Korea and the ownership of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, for instance, which I think is a real risk given its relationship with Pakistan. The possible nuclearization of Southeast Asia is a real risk as well. Very different circumstances.
And yet there has been no serious attempt to update our thinking about how nuclear weapons should be used, deployed. Theories of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, et cetera, et cetera continue to dominate strategic thinking about nuclear weapons. It seems to me extraordinary that these theories and strategies have not been thoroughly re-examined and publicly and politically debated.
The fact that these theories have not been re-examined underpins the decision recently taken by the US administration to modernize America's triad of nuclear forces over the next 30 years at a cost of $1 trillion. That is a decision of extraordinary import that has been taken without any thorough review of the strategy underlying it. A modernization of weapons that will long outlast my lifetime and probably the lifetime of my children.
Meanwhile, back in the more local level, the conflicts that plague us in Africa and elsewhere. I have not yet seen a credible theory of multi-partite conflict resolution. Despite the fact that it's now a banality to say that conflicts are multi-party, we still pursue essentially top down binary approaches to conflict resolution.
I'll give you an example. In the UN's attempts to mediate the conflict in Syria, the UN has essentially appointed two parties to represent the opposing sides in Syria. One is the Syrian government and the other is the Syrian opposition. I'm very much a supporter of the Syrian opposition. My organization works with the Syrian coalition and now the higher negotiating committee. They're a very legitimate group of people. They want the right things for Syria. But even they would not claim that they speak for all the groups in Syria.
And yet all the member states in the United Nations, as well as the UN itself, persist in this belief that talks involving two parties can somehow agree a meaningful peace with Syria. The UN's approach to the other parties, the multitudinous extremist groups, including of course ISIS, but also very legitimate secular democratic multi-ethnic groups like those representing Kurdish parties, are simply ignored. This is obviously not the most sensible approach.
But it also reflects the fact that there isn't really any theoretical thinking about how to address multi-partite, multi-layered conflict of the kind I've described. We still approach conflict very much in the way that we did in the '70s and '80s. Sitting the men around the table, agreeing bits of paper, transmitting them to the forces on the ground, and hoping that will work. It doesn't seem to be working very well.
My next prescription is related. Which is, of course, above all we should be engaging with all the parties and we should be including them from the bottom up, including small, difficult groups who aren't convenient, who don't have easily reachable email addresses and phone numbers and party headquarters. These are the groups that we should be talking to.
It is a sad fact that even today, and despite the fact that 80% of its agenda includes non-state groups, the UN Security Council does not, as a matter of regular practice, talk to non-state groups. This is a phenomenal thing that when I tell this to ordinary people on the street, they just go how ridiculous and stupid this is.
But it is an everyday fact of life at the United Nations the only member states and officials of the United Nations can address the Security Council or are invited to address it. Occasionally there is a format called the Aria format, which I won't go into, but it's an informal meeting of the Security Council where non-state parties are occasionally invited, but only non-state parties of whom the Security Council already approves in some way or other.
This is an absurdity. It's something that my organization is attempting to address. It will take a long time to address. But it reflects a deeper systemic philosophical problem in the way that states think about conflict. I have been with warring parties around the world when the Security Council has debated them and has made decisions about them and has written statements and resolutions directed at them. And I can say one generalizable rule, which is that all of these groups found the machinations of that body utterly unintelligible.
So a concluding observation, my last prescription, is that when you take it together, what you're looking at with modern conflict reflects the characteristics of complex systems. We're talking about many parties highly connected with one another, the morphing of conflict across the Sahel, the connecting of different conflicts together between Libya and Iraq through the mechanism of loyalty to ISIS, for instance. We're talking about highly connected phenomena which involve many parties which are in a state of continual dynamic change and where parties' agents within that system adapt to changes fairly swiftly. These are local conflicts above all.
These are the characteristics of a complex system. Complex systems are best altered. And the most powerful factor within a complex system is the agent, the individual agent. Top down authorities find it very difficult to understand complex systems. It is almost impossible at any one time to know the state of a complex system, because the moment you know it, it will have immediately changed. And top down institutions rely on the technique of fixing a situation, turning it into comprehensible symbols in order to make policy choices about it. That is precisely the wrong approach to taking complex systems.
An approach that exemplifies what I'm talking about that would be a better approach is a response to propaganda by ISIS directed at young people, young Muslims. I recently saw a rebuttal to ISIS propaganda made by a young man in South London where I'm from. He is from a population who was targeted by ISIS recruiters. And he has been making a series of videos decrying ISIS and trying to persuade other young people not to go to Syria to fight for ISIS.
His video was, of course, infinitely more compelling and persuasive than that produced by governments on his behalf. Not that the effort is not a sincere one to create so-called counter narratives, counter propaganda against ISIS. But it's pretty clear who is going to be the more convincing proponent against ISIS in that choice.
So I'm reaching my final thought, which is simply this. Which is having been part of a lot of conflicts and talked to a lot of people in conflicts, watching this period of great change that we're in and mounting complexity, I feel enormous humility in the face of these phenomena, which frighten me, bewilder me, but also awe me and fill me with curiosity, fascination, but also a desire to come to grips with it. Because I think we're dealing with things that are very new and very interesting, but very difficult.
But one thing I have noticed, which is that in talking with Kosovar's Palestinians, south Sudanese Sahrawis and refugee camps in southern Algeria, Syrian Kurds, young Syrians, Alawites, whoever, what I notice is that, by and large, these people know far better why these conflicts took place and what to do about it than I do. But I'm also struck in the corridors of diplomacy where I spend most of my time how rarely their voices are heard and how rarely they are asked for their views. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for a wonderful talk. A question I have is that, as you know much better than I do, is that conflict is a moment in a more complex causal chain of events. And it's a moment which captures the world's attention. What can be done to capture attention at the moments that lead up to that conflict so you can establish more of a collective effort to recognize that there are other precursors to conflict where we need to intervene?
My own work is in food security. Food insecurity is a driver for conflict. There are multi-dimensional drivers. And it's very hard to get attention drawn to the earlier moments. What are your thoughts about intervening earlier and drawing attention to the earlier moments and understanding where the trigger events are?
CARNE ROSS: You're absolutely right. It's an incredibly important question . And to be fair to the state based system to diplomats at the UN and elsewhere, they do realize this. And there's a lot of discussion about preventative diplomacy, early warning systems. The information is there. And none of these situations arises out of nowhere.
Whether it's Somalia or Yemen, these conflicts were foreseen. Nothing was done about them. Well, I'm not sure that that's fair, actually, because often things were done about them. They just didn't work. And this sort of sense that bodies like the UN, we, the West, have to do something about these conflicts may in itself be a slightly mistaken way of thinking about it. I'm not suggesting that is the way you think about it.
So the information is there. The willingness is there to address it. The piece that's missing is what it is to do and generating the energy to do it. Because often perhaps it involves-- I was talking to the UN special envoy for Burundi the other day, a place a lot of people are predicting is going to-- I mean, is already in serious conflict already, but could get much, much worse. And he has recommended multiple times that the UN peacekeepers to Burundi.
The UN doesn't have peacekeepers on hand to send. It relies on member states to provide those peacekeepers and they don't want to do it. And the reason they don't want to do it is a lot of them are already very overstretched. This is one of the problems I find talking about these conflicts with even very sophisticated, well resourced governments, they are overwhelmed at the moment.
I really don't think our governments are on top of things. And when I talk about certain conflicts that are not on the front pages of the news, we can't get their attention. We can't get the attention of decision makers. Because often even big governments like the US are very, very centralized in terms of conflict decision making. The US policy on Syria is determined in the White House, full stop. And all of it goes down from there.
So you can talk to dozens of people about Syria in the US administration who will get it, who will get that we need to do something about the Syrian Kurds, we need to stop the Turks attacking the Kurds, blah, blah, blah. But funneling those decisions up to an administration that is dealing with multiple conflicts all over the world and expecting decisions on that-- and I'm afraid it is still the US who the world turns to make decisions about a lot of these places-- it's not successful.
Often when we talk to governments, the response we get is this bandwidth quote. We don't have the bandwidth. I've never really understood what bandwidth is. I think it's something to do with the radio. But anyway, that's what they say to us. And that, I think, is actually the problem. So I don't think it's the information. There's a lot of Security Council members who say, oh, we must have an early warning system. They've instituted horizon scanning.
And the Secretary General, the ban, when he came in, he started this big data mining project called Global Pulse that was supposed to provide a kind of early warning system. And they discovered that the UN already had about 18 early warning systems. They just didn't know about them and they weren't coordinating with each other. The information's there. But I think the appetite, certainly Western governments, but also elsewhere, to do anything about these places is very limited.
South Sudan clearly would be a lot better if there were 10,000 highly trained peacekeepers there to go and kill some of [INAUDIBLE] troops. That would sort things out. But they're not going to be there. They don't want to send them unfortunately.
AUDIENCE: Conflict resolution can only work if there's a willingness on the part of the parties to compromise, at least to some extent compromise and understand the opposite viewpoints. But when that willingness does not exist, when there is no tolerance, [INAUDIBLE] can think of religious intolerance. You really are in a box. What can you do in a situation like this?
CARNE ROSS: With respect, I'm not sure I agree. Because I think people, parties stop conflicts for a number of different reasons. Usually because they've had enough, in some way or other, that people are telling them this has got to stop and you just got to stop this. It's what a lot of Syrians are saying now to everybody. This has just got to stop. Don't care what the terms are. This has got to stop. Or because they've been forced to stop.
And I think this idea that parties come together and find some compromise between them, I can't think of an example where that's actually happened recently. So the idea of a kind of dialogue, a reasoned dialogue where people make compromises which are all matching each other and then wrapped up in an agreement, that's not how it works, I don't think. And I think it's--
AUDIENCE: But if it is enforced from the top, it cannot work either.
CARNE ROSS: I totally agree.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] acceptance on the part [INAUDIBLE].
CARNE ROSS: I think one of the sad things I have observed is that the parties often are ready to compromise. The Syrian opposition is quite ready to compromise with Assad and allow some kind of transitional period, allow people guilty of war crimes not to be prosecuted, stuff like that. Israelis and Palestinians, plenty of willingness to compromise certainly. But often peace processes are not about. Serbia, Kosovo was basically about forcing Serbia to accept that it was never going to have Kosovo again.
Israel Palestine is not-- I think one of the myths that has perpetuated that dispute is this idea that the Palestinians and the Israelis have to sit down and find some magical [NON-ENGLISH] between them. Basically what's got to happen is Israeli has got to be forced to end its occupation. That's how this conflict is going to come to an end.
What is there to discuss? It's not that complicated. They have agreed the terms of what it's supposed to be. Two state solution. Shared deal over Jerusalem. Return of refugees. That's a sentence right there. So it's not that complicated. And I think this idea that it's super complicated, it's got to be agreed with everybody, people got to show restraint, I've never seen that.
I've never seen that. And when it has been necessary, I've actually seen it. I've seen Serbs in Kosovo, Albanians sit together, make jokes with each other even though the previous week they were burning each other's houses down.
AUDIENCE: What about the fundamentalists?
CARNE ROSS: Well, that's a more tricky one. And mark my words, we will have to talk to them sooner or later. Because also the fundamentalists, the extremists, I mean, they want to change our way of life, blah, blah, blah.
I don't think this is really true. I think if you can produce a proper political settlement in Iraq, we're a long way from that, and a reasonable political settlement in Syria, it's going to be very, very hard for ISIS to perpetuate itself. And it certainly won't hold territory. And certainly there are some types of extremists you just got to fight them. I'm sorry. I don't believe in talking to everybody. There are some you can't.
AUDIENCE: Who is to blame [INAUDIBLE]?
CARNE ROSS: That's a pretty big question. Any conflict in particular or just globally? God's got a lot to answer for.
OK, well I'll make a stab at this. Well aware that this is an impossible question answer. I personally think that the right that we have culturally given to certain people to wage war, which actually is the state by and large, but also in other circumstances, leaders, have been given an implicit right. That is the fault.
I have seen perfectly reasonable people who I would like to have dinner with do things that have caused thousands of deaths. But it's not them who's getting their throat slashed. It's other people. And I don't understand why in the 21st century it is still seen as morally legitimate for governments to use force.
It is still basically accepted as axiomatic that governments have the monopoly on the use of violence and that that is what we agreed to. We've consented to that in order to protect our security. And I think there's something very wrong about that.
I don't think anybody should have the right to use violence, including the state. And I think as long as you are giving somebody the right to use violence, you're giving moral permission to the use of violence. And so when the state uses violence you are giving implicit permission to others to use violence.
This is always the excuse of armed groups fighting states. Well, the state is using violence against us. They're not listening to us. So we have to use violence against them. And this sounds Aldous Huxley or HG Wells, but I would love to see a world where violence is not accepted in any circumstance by anybody, that it's always morally impermissible. And I don't see that that's such a wrong thing to want.
CARNE ROSS: Well, there is a special circle of hell reserved for those people. Hopefully they'll be there by then.
AUDIENCE: You argued for a movement away from that binary thinking [INAUDIBLE] and more towards a multi-party way of dealing with conflict. Looking for a framework for how to understand this and go about it. I wonder if you have any ideas yourself and you can elaborate on some of your thinking that could be possible in this regard.
CARNE ROSS: It's a really good question. I do have some thoughts, which are basically principles which I think if we follow those principles in the doing, then we would come up with a kind of way of dealing with it. It's not really a framework.
But one principle is you talk to everybody. You include everybody. So in Syria, the mediators, the UN is not talking to everybody it should. The second is that you attend to what they say. Because one of the things I've found in my work is that most armed groups do not say the thing you're expecting them to say when you ask them. They do not say the thing that they are depicted as wanting. They usually say something more reasonable or unexpected. So if you attend to that and actually listen to them, again, it's a very basic thing, that would be another principle I would follow.
And the third thing, I do again come back to the state based approach as being problematic. In Afghanistan, we went in with this idea that we would create this sort of multi-ethnic pluralist government through a thing called the loya jirga that would rule this thing called Afghanistan.
Personally, I don't think Afghanistan should really exist as a state. It is ungovernable as a state. It has never been governed successfully as a state, except maybe for a very brief period. And forcing all of these folks into centralized box creates tension because it creates the question, who's in charge? Who runs it? And they can't agree on that. They've never successfully agreed on that.
When I talk to the Kurds in Syria, they say the centralized model of the state in Iraq and Syria, what they call the Ziggurat Model, is itself part of the problem. That as long as you try to create a centralized state, you're going to have conflict. That instead what they seek and argue for is highly devolved government, self government. I mean, what's going on in Rojava, the self governed areas of Kurdish Syria, is remarkable. I've written about it. And it's basically an experiment in bottom up government without the state. And it's working.
And I think that is also plausible. Because you create a state, you create a centralized authority, lots of bad things start happening. Number one, you start creating a class of politicians who are largely venal and corrupt. Sorry, but most of them are. Kosovo, Sudan, you name it. Most of them are. The brave, uncorrupt, clean leader, that's a rare phenomenon.
Number two, you create a contest over resources. Who gets the moolah? Because most of these countries don't have diversified economies. There's no source of wealth except two things, natural resources, oil, or aid money. So South Sudan basically you've got oil. 98% of government revenue is oil. So the basic question is, who gets the money? And it's huge amounts of money for a deeply impoverished country where there's one road that's five miles long.
So you create these contests, which I think are unresolvable. We're so arrogant that we think we set up a thing called a parliament and a supreme court that these things will just work. These things are often very inconsistent with local tradition, local cultural practice. I've been very impressed by Somaliland, which is the place I worked with for a long time, which is an indigenous self designed democracy of following local traditions. It's been very successful, peaceful. Nobody talks about it as a result. But it's actually the most peaceful part of the horn for a very long time.
So these are the kinds of things I would suggest. And I know I'm coming onto a model of government. But I do think again, over and over again what we try to do is we try to recreate what has not worked in the past. The sykes-picot dispensation in the Middle East has been a catastrophe. So why are we trying to recreate it? Why does the US say we must respect the borders of Syria and Iraq? Why?
There should be a Kurdish state, obviously. Just a base of rights, the wishes of the people. There should be a separate Somaliland. Even Norway doesn't accept the sovereign wishes of the people of Somaliland should be respected. I don't understand that. If a large majority of the people want their own state, give them their own bloody state. I don't care if they're Scottish, Catalan, or Somali. They should have their own country. So highly devolved government. These kind of things. I think not being so bloody prescriptive.
I'll give you a good story. Before Kosovo was independent, I knew Kosovo's political leaders really well. And I would go around and talk to them and say, OK, what's this going to take? What's the deal here? And one of them is a guy called Hashim Thaci, who is now I think he was President. Can't remember what he is now. He might be Foreign Minister now.
I said, so what's the deal? How are you going to get your own states? And he said, oh, we'll give Serbia the north, Northern Kosovo, which is mostly Serb now. Used to be mixed, but it's now mostly Serb. He said, we'll just give them the north. Oh, that's interesting. You'll just do a territorial swap basically? You got the north and we get recognition? He said, yeah, that's the deal basically.
And you know who wouldn't agree to that? The international community. Because they persisted in this mythical thing called a multi-ethnic Kosovo. It sort of exists now, but the north is still basically governed separately. It's not really integrated into the rest of Kosovo. Serbs in the area have a pretty horrible time. Hasn't really worked. There's continual tension between Serbia has not yet recognized Kosovo to the detriment of both of them. It's just an example.
SPEAKER 1: Any other questions? Yes.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] You mentioned climate change as a contributing factor to [INAUDIBLE]. Could you elaborate more on that [INAUDIBLE]?
CARNE ROSS: Well, I mean, I think it's time we started connecting the dots between desertification in the Sahel but also other places. Repeated droughts, crop failures, et cetera, et cetera with conflict. I mean this is a platitude again. These problems underpin a lot of conflict. And certainly Sudan, they've been part of huge motor of conflict for some time. Climate change is going to make it worse, a lot worse.
New areas of conflict opening up thanks to climate change. The Arctic, for instance. There's now going to be a big contest over territory and resources in the Arctic. So it's just kind of there. And again, I think it needs to be incorporated into a richer understanding of how conflict comes about. Israel Palestine is another good example. Water. That's the old chestnut, actually. It's long been recognized that water is part of it. But it is getting worse.
SPEAKER 1: Any other questions? Yes.
AUDIENCE: I have a quick one. It sounds to me like you are advocating something more radical, maybe that's what I'm hearing. You want to stay [INAUDIBLE]. If we look at some of the boundaries of many of the countries in the world, they are totally artificial. So very different people have been brought together in a country with some ruler.
And that's created some of the problems in Iraq, in Syria, and everywhere else. I can say the same thing about Ghana where I come from. The boundary was totally official. Different groups of people were put in together. So now if we take that as a [INAUDIBLE] point. We said, OK, this region was [INAUDIBLE] by some force they want their own country. [INAUDIBLE]. What do you think?
CARNE ROSS: I'm all in favor of it.
Let me be clear. Because this is particularly important in Africa. And there is a profound allergy in Africa against secessionism for very well known reasons, but basically by governments and mostly venal people who run governments in Africa. Because they want to keep that countries together. I'm not sure it's really the democratic wishes of their people.
I think we need to develop normative criteria for legitimate self-determination. And these are pretty obvious, that it's done peacefully, democratically, with absolutely cast iron guarantees for minorities, and without the intervention of outside powers. You follow those four normative criteria, and you've got reasonable self-determination. And there are plenty of places that need it.
And this sort of blanket prohibition that we've got against it is idiotic. And it's actually just storing up conflict for the future. There's loads of places where this needs to happen. And it can happen perfectly peacefully. It doesn't need to be conflictual if we allow it to and if we propagate those norms. This is not implausible. There should be a UN committee for self-determination. Of course, there won't be because the member states of the UN won't vote for it, just as turkeys won't vote for Thanksgiving.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. I mean, many of us would probably be happy if Texas seceded.
Certainly I wouldn't vote for it. But I was looking at your book before. And you haven't mentioned a word that's very important in the book.
CARNE ROSS: I know which word you mean.
CARNE ROSS: Oh, [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: The economic system that [INAUDIBLE] many of the reasons why states hold on, why governments hold on to resources and plus all the powers that [INAUDIBLE]. Economic connection with [INAUDIBLE].
CARNE ROSS: I mean, this is the most radical part of my exposition to you. I don't believe in capitalism. I don't believe in representative democracy as it is currently formulated. I think these two are two sides of the same coin of a system that isn't really working and is actually proving disastrous in some important respects.
And I believe in the end of power, the end of coercive power of one person over another, whether economic power or political power. So I ultimately believe that government should not exist and I believe that enterprises and resources should be cooperatively shared and managed between us on a system of equality. That's what I believe.
So I do think by and large that capitalism and government states reinforce each other. Because they are about power. They're about certain groups of people having power and others not. And we in the West have created this myth that we continue to believe that somehow representative democracy will bring justice in the future. We know it's not just now. You can see it outside your door. But somehow we've kidded ourselves into thinking at some point in the future, it's going to be all right. And capitalism persists on that myth too.
And I think it's about time we woke up to reality, that it's not delivering. That injustice is getting worse, not better in some fundamental and important respects. And the only way you address that is by addressing power. That's the only way. Who's got it and who hasn't? How do you make sure they even it out? It's not that complicated. Once you get to a power analysis, it's pretty clear what needs to happen to the state ultimately. And indeed capitalism. Final question.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned modernity as a contributing factor [INAUDIBLE]. Could you elaborate on that just a little bit?
CARNE ROSS: OK. The questions are provoking me to be more and more controversial, so we should probably stop. I have never felt my life had more meaning, apart from clutching my children or my wife, when I've been at war. War was exciting, gave me meaning, was exciting in a way I still miss. I miss the moments when I was involved in wars, whether I was in Afghanistan or Syria or writing telegrams about war for the British mission.
There is something wrong with that. Why is it that the rest of my life couldn't give me that sense of purpose and meaning? What was missing in that? And of course what I think is missing is when you observe the incredible vapidity of modern culture and the individualistic way in which we are encouraged to behave, which denies our basic humanity towards each other. It is no surprise that there is this void in one's own soul, which I think is a void in many people's soul.
And if I was a young man in some crappy suburb of a town in Belgium looking forward to my life running a kebab shop, being racially abused every other day by other Belgians, I would think going to fight for ISIS in Syria was pretty damn exciting. And I would seriously consider it. It's not really about a belief in God and the dominion of Islam. It's about something else. It's about this thing, this moment when we rally to the flag.
Soldiers report that they never felt their lives were richer than when they were at war. Even though it was terrible, they also felt that. Is it not possible that we can recreate that in times of peace? What is it that is missing? And there clearly is something missing. That, I would suggest, is a function of the modern condition.
SPEAKER 1: So [INAUDIBLE]. Please join me in thanking our [INAUDIBLE].
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Carne Ross, founder and director of diplomatic advisory group Independent Diplomat, delivered the keynote address at the Institute for African Development's two-day symposium, "Development, Extremism, Security and the State in Africa," held Oct. 28-29, 2016. The event was co-sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies; the Department of Government; the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies; and the Berger International Legal Studies Program.