Alliance for Peacebuilding: Next Generation 2016 Annual Conference Remarks

David M. Robinson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
Washington, DC
May 24, 2016

Date: 05/24/2016 Description: Assistant Secretary Robinson delivers remarks at the Next Generation Peace Annual Conference 2016 in Washington, DC. © Photo courtesy of Alliance for Peacebuilding.Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here today and for inviting me to participate in this conference. And thank you, Melanie, for that kind introduction.

As Melanie noted, I am here as the newly minted Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. I think it's a good fit. I've spent many of my more than 30 years in the Foreign Service working in difficult and complex places, and that experience has left me with a particular perspective on the work you do, the work that we do together: a perspective on Peace Building. And I'd like to share a few thoughts about that with you this morning.

It's important to listen to that term: Peace building. It means what it says. It means peace is not a noun. It's not a passive state of being. It's a verb. Building. It's something we do. Its action we take. You all understand that, of course, that's why you're part of this Alliance.

At the same time, it's also important to understand, in fact, to insist, that peace is not the exception, and that peace building is not simply the counter point to conflict. Peace, peace building, is the norm. It's our daily work. Wars and conflict are the exception. I know that may seem counter intuitive after years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, but we have to insist on that and, to some extent, to be offended when peace and peace building are interrupted by conflict and war.

I say this for two reasons: First, accepting that conflict is the norm, the natural state of things--and let's face it, we've had conflict since Caine killed Abel-­ distracts our attention, it draws our efforts to doing conflict better, to being better at war than we are at peace. It invites us to spend more time and more money on the machinery of violence than on the tools for building a just and lasting peace. Just look at our budgets.

The second reason I think it's important we understand that peace is the norm is because I am in the business of conflict prevention. The Bureau I lead at the State Department, CSO, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, aims to give diplomats the analysis, the plans and the programs to take steps to prevent conflict, and especially conflict's most pernicious forms of mass atrocity against civilians and violent extremism, before they gain traction. Our job is to make diplomacy more effective as it confronts the drivers and conditions that otherwise may lead to atrocity and extremism.

And that's a heavy lift. It's tough because, in the first place, the very concept of prevention itself is a hard sell. Doctors don't get rich by doing wellness check-ups. Open heart surgery pays a lot better than diet and exercise plans. Similarly, diplomats often earn their reputations by how well they respond to crises. We all work to prevent conflict, yes. It's what every ambassador and country team tries to do every day. But it's difficult to claim you prevented something from happening that never happened in the first place. Maybe you did, maybe you didn't, but how do you know? don't.

That uncertainty, though, does not diminish the task. If anything, it makes our work, helping diplomats understand the dynamics of conflict, more urgent simply because it so often is over looked in the rush to respond rather than developing the fore sight to prevent.

Here's what frequently happens when a crisis erupts or seems about to erupt. Senior people from the interagency community get together around a large table. They get a quick briefing, usually from the intelligence community or the military, and then, as that information sinks in, they look at each other. Then, at some point, someone asks the fatal question, the question that is just as likely to derail rather than launch an effective response, a response that might actually lead to learning and to future prevention.

And here's what they ask. They ask, "So...what can we do about this?" And that is precisely the wrong question to ask at the wrong time to ask it. It's the wrong question because the minute the interagency community asks "what can we do?" about a problem that still may be only vaguely understood, they stop looking at the problem itself and start looking at themselves. They start thinking about their capacity, their personnel, and their logistics. The problem is still sitting there on the table, but now everyone is trying to figure out how to squeeze it into their framework, trying to figure out which familiar program they can throw at it.

We've all seen this happen. Poverty reduction, education, democracy building programs, all get re-branded as countering violent extremism, CVE, when they may have little to do with violent extremism.

CSO's job is to address that problem. Our job is to analyze the conflict itself, without regard to any other filters--governance, human rights, illegal trafficking, existing programs--to help our diplomats accurately visualize the challenge they face before deciding what to do about it. In CSO we call this maps and gaps. We analyze the data, we visualize the data, and then we layer on the assets we may use to address the problem, and look for the gaps. Our goal isn't to find the silver bullet. That never exists. Our goal is to help decision-makers ask better questions that may lead them to better solutions. And the better we do that work, and the more we learn from it, the earlier we can position ourselves to prevent the problem in the first place.

And we continue to make progress. To those of us committed to peace building and reducing conflict around the world, countering violent extremism is the great challenge of our time. Countering violent extremism is the ''next gen'' challenge for peace. From ISIL to Boko Haram to al-Shabab, these organizations are the antithesis of you, of the Alliance for Peace Building. Where you seek to address root causes of violence and foster reconciliation, they seek to inflame grievances, encourage violence and make reconciliation impossible. Where you seek understanding, respect and tolerance, they seek lethal exclusion.

Yes, this is about right versus wrong. This is a conflict that has a right side and a wrong side. Decapitating innocent people with a rusty knife is wrong. Immolating people, drowning people to make a point is wrong. Enslaving people is wrong.

And we will continue to use hard power to fight the people doing that. We must. But we know this is not a war that can be won with bullets or measured by body counts. This is a war that will be won, a peace that will be restored, by organizations like you working at the local community level around the world. Together, we will learn how to prevent the appeal of violent extremist organizations from attracting disciples. We will learn how to recognize and build community resilience against the push and pull of extremism. We are committed to that outcome. We are committed to creating more initiatives and programs to produce that outcome.

The State Department and USAID have developed and will soon release a joint strategy to counter violent extremism by focusing on prevention. And it's a strategy that will rely heavily on analysis and partnerships, on understanding and cooperation, rather than on unilateral action. And that's important because, while none of us has a silver bullet, we all have our assumptions or conventional wisdom that, when all is said and done, might not be so wise.

I well remember experts saying with great assurance that violent extremism • result of poverty or lack of education. Well, our analysis now shows us that terrorists are no more likely to be poor or unemployed or come from poorer countries than people who reject extremism. In fact, survey data suggests that people who are extremely poor are less likely to support violent extremism than those who are not as poor.

Similarly, deep religious devotion, far from being a risk factor for extremism, actually indicates a lesser likelihood of joining an extremist group. And getting tough on law and order, when getting tough means using state-sponsored violence, actually increases the likelihood of extremist organizations gaining traction rather than reduces it.

Those findings were not self-evident a short time ago. We need to keep building on them, all of us together, and understanding how they apply to specific communities. Toward that end, on the margins of last year's UN General Assembly, we launched the RESOLVE Network, Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism, funded by CSO and based at the United States Institute for Peace. RESOLVE promotes opportunities for researchers, practitioners and policy makers to come together locally and internationally to build effective and sustainable responses to the drivers of violent extremism. It promotes the kinds of partnerships that make us wiser together than any of us is alone.

Now, I am sure there are some folks, maybe here today, who will argue that countering violent extremism has little to do with peace building. I think they are linked. As I alluded to a moment ago, countering violent extremism is not just about the battlefield, nor is it just about divining an individual's motivation for joining a group like ISIL. It's about what goes on in communities, in classrooms, in houses of worship, on sports teams and in family gatherings. All of those are the building blocks of peace. And they should be the roadblocks to violent extremism.

Scientists recently found evidence of the oldest known mass atrocity: men, women and children were hacked to death more than 10,000 years ago and buried in a common grave. It's tempting to say that violence on that scale is normal. We are, after all, confronting it in Syria and other places today, 10,000 years after those people met their gruesome fate. But violence and conflict are not the norm and must not be allowed to the norm. They are aberrations. Peace builders, not extremists, are the norm. Our job is to understand that and to act on it so that, together, we can learn how to prevent those toxic aberrations from ruining more lives. That's not Pollyanna idealism. It's commitment. It's a commitment to prevention. And I believe, I hope, it's our shared commitment. Thank you.