Brains for peace

Ross Hurwitz, a second year SAIS student, writes: 

Science has given the world heretofore unimagined access to the subconscious workings of the human brain. Every day we learn more about how human beings process their experiences of the world around them. These insights present a unique opportunity to reevaluate the strategies that have defined the work of peace builders throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

I had the privilege of spending the summer between my first and second year at Johns Hopkins SAIS exploring the potential of these advancements while working with Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nongovernmental organization focused on finding innovative solutions to some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. For 25 years Beyond Conflict has engaged as a neutral facilitator with world leaders in over 20 countries. The small but dedicated team focuses on the human dimension of conflict, emphasizing the power of shared experiences to help parties see a way beyond obstacles to peace.

For the last 5 years Beyond Conflict has sought to build bridges between conflict management practitioners and scientists researching neuroscience and behavioral sciences. Their work to date has challenged the enlightenment notion that humans are rational actors who act in their own self-interest, influenced by facts and data. Advances in brain science contradict this established philosophy and show that humans are inherently emotional. We only make rational decisions when we feel our identity is safe and supported. This scientific understanding of human behavior is vital to preventing the destructive impact of emotionally based responses to conflicts.

My work with Beyond Conflict this summer focused primarily on the ongoing Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva, specifically how to use this psychological lens to mitigate the negative emotional impacts of victim-hood narratives, which are inevitable in times of conflict. They have occurred from time immemorial and are often used by political and military leaders to instigate crisis. Slobodan Milošević used the 14th century Battle of Kosovo Polje to stir Serbian nationalist sentiment in the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. Hitler used the narrative of betrayal following the Treaty of Versailles to build membership to the Nazi Party. Even the American South still holds onto stories and symbols of its “glorious” defeat in the Civil War, including the Confederate Flag.

Narratives of this sort in post-conflict societies often signify the likelihood of resurgent violence. The recidivism rate of civil conflict in the later half of the 20th century is around 57%. While victim-hood narratives are far from the only factor in this trend, we would be remiss not to consider their influence and seek to temper it.

Victim-hood narratives often convey the emotional, psychological, and even physical impact of war, but they do not have to lead the parties toward future animosity and violence. Neuroscience and behavioral science have shown the potential of inclusive victim narratives, or the ability for societies to recognize a shared experience of trauma with other communities through powerful empathetic bonds.

Beyond Conflict has worked around the world bringing leaders from various conflict zones together to discuss the obstacles facing their respective communities. These discussions have developed into lasting relationships between individuals who, despite all their differences, connect through empathy for each other’s suffering. In this way, once destructively exclusive narratives of victimization become powerful stories that connect people around the world; their suffering is not unique nor do they have to face their challenges alone.

Facilitating the development of these inclusive narratives in Syria is vital to reducing the impact they will have on conflict resurgence. This isn’t an easy task and requires more study and practical execution, but I have no doubt that it is a vital step in creating a self-sustaining peace, both in Syria and around the world.

The human brain is remarkable. Its subconscious workings impact our lives in ways we can only begin to comprehend. It’s vital for future students and practitioners to continue to study this remarkable organ’s potential. Within it lies the key to achieving the lasting peace that so many have sought for so long.

The UNESCO Constitution touched on this idea when it stated: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Research is only beginning to illuminate this potential, but in time I trust that these insights will revolutionize how we approach the important work of building sustainable peace.

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No matter how many black churches

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. We don’t commemorate it May 1 like the rest of the world. Why is pretty obscure, hidden in the mists of past American labor protests, though I’ve always thought it was to maintain the anti-Communist character of the mainstream American labor movement.

Labor Day for us marks the end of summer vacations (even if school has already begun in many places), a welcome day off, and the traditional start of election season, which this year ends November 8. The campaigns are already in full swing. The the probability of a Clinton win, which has been declining  from a figure ridiculously close to 90%, seems to be leveling off around 70%. But two months in American politics is a long time. A lot can still happen.

The labor market is one of the key variables. Average monthly job growth has been pretty steady, if relatively slow compared to previous recoveries, since the beginning of the economic recovery two years into the Obama administration:

Average monthly job growthThe cumulative impact is pretty dramatic: more than 15 million jobs added since early 2010, when things started looking up, and an unemployment rate today of 4.9%. This is a sterling record, even if marred by relatively slow economic growth and a decline in the percentage of people looking for jobs.

For electoral purposes, the main point is this: the pace of growth and job creation isn’t likely to change in the next two months, a factor that should favor a Clinton victory. The Federal Reserve is still considering a September rate increase, but a relatively weak job growth figure last month and the absence of inflation are likely to weigh against it.

The big risks to Clinton come from a Trump campaign that has mobilized two powerful forces against her: male white supremacy and distaste for her air of privilege. The former has roots in the economy, as white males have not benefited much from the Obama recovery. Some of them have been quick to blame blacks and Hispanics, who also haven’t benefited all that much from the Obama recovery.  The biggest benefits have gone to high-income people.

The air of privilege is something even Clinton supporters deplore. She all too often behaves as if the rules don’t apply to her. This is most obvious in her unauthorized use of a private email server as Secretary of State, which put classified material at risk and removed official communications from eventual public scrutiny. No one has demonstrated any harm to American national security as a result, and most of the emails have now been recovered and will be part of the public record, but appearances count.

The three presidential debates (September 26, October 9, and October 19) will be important moments as the campaign crescendos. Avoiding flubs is important, but so too is projecting an image that Americans will accept as “presidential.” Trump is thought to have the disadvantage in that respect, but Clinton has an uphill climb too: this will be the first time Americans see a woman in a presidential debate during the electoral campaign. She certainly knows her stuff, on that there should be little concern. But can she communicate the empathy and amiability she is often viewed as lacking?

I grew up thinking America’s political parties would never be able to offer us a real choice, because they nominated people who were indistinguishable in political philosophy and direction. Ironically that is even true of Trump and Clinton, because Trump is not a true conservative and offers ideas like infrastructure spending and “extreme” vetting of immigrants that are either part of the Obama/Clinton platform or already in place as government policy and practice.

But Trump’s lack of original ideas makes him no more acceptable to me than George Wallace a generation ago. He represents an effort to claw back white privilege from a demographic transition to a majority minority country (the Census Bureau projects that to happen by 2043). Those who treasure the most fundamental principles of American democracy–all of us are created equal–will reject him no matter how many black churches he visits in the next two months.

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What Kosovo needs

Koha interview September 4 2016Fitim Gashi of Pristina daily Koha Ditore asked some questions last week. I replied: 

Q: Kosovo is facing numerous discontents as objections about the demarcation of the border with Montenegro and the Association of Serbian Municipalities, wiretapping scandal, the high level of corruption, lack of security. Can accumulation of many problems over the years bring Kosovo to any dissatisfaction and unrest?

A: Sure: dissatisfaction and unrest are possible in any democratic society. We are seeing a lot of those sentiments in the US at the moment. But there is no excuse for violence.

Q: Which are the biggest failures that brought Kosovo to the currently situation?

A: Kosovo faces two anti-constitutional political constituencies: one among the Serbs, some of whom want to return Kosovo (or at least themselves) to Serbia, and one among Albanians who want the option of union with Albania. These are two big challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kosovo state, which is new and still unseasoned.  I think the state will meet the challenge, and that in fact its struggle with these anti-constitutional forces will strengthen it. But that is hard to see through the fog of tear gas.

Q: Largest opposition, “Levizja Vetevendosje,” has called a protest on the day when the Kosovo parliament is going to vote the agreement with Montenegro, to set the border. Can the situation change through protests?

A: Sure. I think peaceful protests might have a big impact on how members of parliament see the situation. But violent protests are counter-productive from the perspective of Vetevendosje, which is risking big losses at the polls. I hope the border agreement will be approved, but that won’t settle anything since Vetevendosje will continue its efforts to undermine the Kosovo state.

Q: The dialogue with Serbia has consistently followed the path of state building. Integration of Serbs into Kosovo system has not fully happened and is not revealing the fate of missing persons. Did this dialogue give the expected results?

A: The dialogue has achieved a lot of results in many areas, but it is still far from resolving everything. The reason Vetevendosje opposes the dialogue is precisely because it has been successful in consolidating Kosovo statehood, which Vetevendosje opposes.

Q: Is the international community responsible for the situation in Kosovo? If yes, which is their fault?

A: The international community has spent a lot of resources and effort in Kosovo, including by writing the constitution, so I suppose you can blame anything that goes wrong on them. But Kosovo’s problems today are largely internal ones that lie entirely within the purview of its own parliament, courts and government. The internationals are now responsible mainly for Kosovo’s external security, which they guard well. I regard the fact that Kosovo’s institutions are now responsible for resolving the country’s problems as success, not failure.

That didn’t satisfy Fitim, so he sent some more questions and I again tried to answer:

Q: Does Kosovo need to change something in the way of doing dialogue with Serbia. Our government  has admitted that there are problems with the integration of Serbs and extinguishing parallel structures? Read more

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Bosnia and Herzegovina’s quandaries

I did a lengthy interview this week with Bosnian Federation Radio on Bosnia’s current quandaries. Here it is in English:

and in Bosnian:

I’ve got a book manuscript drafted that delves deeper into these issues. More on that anon.

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Yesterday Donald Trump lied about what Mexican President Peña Nieto said to him about paying for the border wall (Clinton has been quick to grab that opportunity), then gave a speech on immigration so full of exaggerations and misconceptions that it takes quite a while to read the fact-checking. That was all par for the course. Trump’s campaign is shameless in bending the truth to his bleak conception of the world.

The painful part is this: immigration is not one of America’s big problems. Illegal immigration, in particular from Mexico, is way down.  More Mexicans have been leaving than arriving. Mexican immigrationEnforcement at the border is up. Do what you like about the 11 million undocumented immigrants, it isn’t going to cut the violent crime rate, which is also way down,

violent crime rate 2

or significantly boost low-wage employment. American demographic growth, largely due to its Hispanic population, is one of the saving factors in our economic situation compared to the rest of the world, as it helps to sustain growth in demand that is sorely lacking in Europe, Russia, and even China.

Even Trump’s talk about immigration isn’t really about immigration. It’s about giving working class whites good excuses for why they are economically unsuccessful. Truth is the lower “middle class” (working class for the rest of the world) hasn’t seen any big increases in its net income for almost 40 years. Where income has been growingThat however is largely due to technological change and tax policies, in particular the Republican effort to lower taxes on upper “middle class” (aka rich) guys like me. I much appreciate that of course, but I won’t vote for it because of its consequences for my fellow Americans.

Too bad so many of them don’t see it the same way. Instead they look to a really rich guy, who is proud of his use of tax loopholes available only to the wealthy, to save them from the likes of Hillary Clinton, who wants to lower taxes and improve services to working class people. But those working class people, many of our white, male fellow citizens believe, are black and Hispanic. Splitting the working class along racial lines is a well-worn technique in American politics. It’s how the wealthy stay in power, and wealthy.

Trump is using this technique in ways that many thought were outmoded. He has learned how to express racist views in ways that the press will cover and his white supremacist supporters will cheer. That’s what building the wall is all about. It would have cost close to $5000 per illegal immigrant currently in the US, assuming had been 100% effective and came in at the $25 billion estimate everyone seems to assume. Clearly the wall is not the most economical way to block Mexicans, but it is a politically acceptable way to express hostility towards them.

The wall is of course not Trump’s only proposition. He also wants a “values” test for Muslims. This revival of the Cold War McCarran Act is almost laughable. Many people at Trump’s rallies wouldn’t meet my own values test, which would be based simply on the proposition that all people are created equal. That would include gays, lesbians, and transgender people as well as Muslims, Hispanics, blacks and others who are few and far between among Trump’s cheering crowds. I wonder why that is.

All this painful stuff is of course being broadcast not only in the US but also abroad. Trump doesn’t have to get elected to cause serious damage to America. He is of course entitled to his views, but I am also entitled to protest that he in no way speaks for me or the America I cherish. Still, it’s painful.


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Dear Mr. President,

HossamalSaadiSecretary Kerry last week failed to reach agreement with Moscow on coordinating attacks on extremists in Syria. Even his effort to reinstate the cessation of hostilities and ensure humanitarian access has proven a bridge too far for the Russians.

Syria is now in the sixth year of a war that has killed half a million people, displaced more than half the population, threatens the stability of friends throughout the Middle East, and has damaging repercussions among our European allies. Your remaining months in office provide an opportunity to steer this horrendous conflict towards a peaceful settlement. If you refuse to do more than you have done so far, it will discredit your efforts to reduce and reshape US commitments in the Middle East and haunt your legacy.

Your policy has been a judicious one. You have tried hard to keep the US focus on the most serious threats to our national security: the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. You have avoided military clashes with the pro-Assad coalition, including the Russian air force, the Syrian armed forces, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as its surrogates. You have provided military assistance to non-extremists prepared to fight the Islamic State as well as billions in humanitarian and other assistance to civilians.

The results in the past year have been good when measured narrowly against your objective: to block the main threats to the US. The Islamic State is losing territory, especially along the northern border with Turkey. The successful operation with Turkish support took Jarablus and blocked an unwarranted move there by the Kurds. This will cut off ISIS’s vital supply lines and reduce its revenue. An attack on ISIS’s capital Raqqa next year is a real possibility. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria has disowned its loyalty to Al Qaeda central, though it maintains goals that are anathema to US interests. We are currently talking with the Russians about jointly targeting what is now call Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS).

Your judicious approach has however had unintended consequences. Fully backed by Russia and Iran, Assad is gaining ground. Attacks on JFS, should the talks with Moscow eventually prove successful, will give him an opportunity to gain more. Over a million civilians are besieged. Few new refugees are escaping. Talks on a 48-hour humanitarian truce for Aleppo have bogged down. The stalwart rebels of Daraya have surrendered, after a four-year siege. It is clear the Syrian regime is again using chemical weapons. The Assad forces and their allies are killing the non-extremists America supports, driving others to make common cause with extremists. There is declining hope for a political transition to a non-Islamist, democratic regime that will preserve Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The US should not abandon that goal. Here are three things you can do in the next few months that will demonstrate American will and reignite diplomatic efforts in favor of a negotiated political solution to the Syria conflict that meets US requirements:

  1. Support legislation in Congress that imposes sanctions on those responsible for harm to civilians.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 would levy financial, trade, travel and arms sanctions on those who are responsible for human rights abuses and those who facilitate them. While its practical impact might be limited, because few of the perpetrators are likely to come within US jurisdiction, it would send an important signal and could raise doubts in the Syrian security forces about carrying out illegal orders to harm civilians. We should invite the EU to join us in imposing sanctions.

2. Ground the Syrian air force, both fixed wing and helicopters. 

John Kerry is still trying to get the Russians to do this, as the quid pro quo for cooperation with the US in attacking the former Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. If he fails, you should tell the Russians and Syrians that any Syrian aircraft responsible for bombing civilians will be subject to attack by the US. Few Syrian pilots will be prepared to take the risk. If they do, even shooting down one or two such aircraft, or striking them on land, would likely ground the entire fleet.

3. Get Hizbollah out of Syria. 

Lebanese Hizbollah has provided vital ground forces to Assad, especially in the fighting around Aleppo and along the Lebanese border. This Shia militia also contributes to Islamic State and Al Qaeda recruitment of Sunnis, as its activities illustrate all too clearly that the fight in Syria now has a sectarian dimension. Hizbollah is a terrorist organization that has killed Americans and will likely do so again in the future. If the US is fighting terrorism in Syria, it should not be immune. We should tell the Russians and Iranians that we want Hizbollah out of Syria or it will be subject to US attacks, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

You could also consider a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, to protect opposition-held enclaves in the north and south for example. But that would create target-rich areas that have to be continuously defended, both on the ground and in the air. The options above are less burdensome and would signal more unequivocally US determination to protect Syrian civilians wherever they live.

These moves would also improve the odds for a diplomatic solution. Once Assad is deprived of the air and ground assets that have enabled him to survive and even given him an edge in the fighting, the conditions will ripen for a negotiated outcome early in Hillary Clinton’s presidency. That would be a worthy legacy.

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