New Solutions for Today's Complex Conflicts

Cheryl Benton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
Washington, DC
August 21, 2013

This video is available on YouTube with closed captions.

NARRATOR: Welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders, where you can watch and participate in the exchange of ideas with moderator Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

MS. BENTON: Hello. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and I’d like to welcome you to Conversations with America. Today I’m joined by Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations to discuss the Department’s conflict prevention and crisis response efforts.

Welcome, Ambassador Barton.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Thanks very much.

MS. BENTON: The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, also known as CSO, is a vital part of the ambitious U.S. effort to be more effective in helping prevent conflict and supporting post-conflict nations’ recovery. CSO advances U.S. national security by working with partners in priority countries to break cycles of violent conflict, strengthen civilian security, and mitigate crises.

Ambassador, could you start us off by telling us why it’s important for the Department of State to have a bureau dedicated to conflict and stabilization?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, as we all know, conflict really takes so much of our time, so every day when you pick up the newspaper, the President’s day is likely to start with something going wrong somewhere in the world. And so these emergencies oftentimes fit – stress out our systems or fit a limit outside of the day-to-day business. And so to have the ability to surge ideas, to surge money, to surge talent, to really give them the kind of special attention they need and actually to have people who specialize in understanding conflict, and doing it at the earliest possible date, because prevention is always much more preferable to having to react to the demolition of a war or whatever.

MS. BENTON: Good. So how does the U.S. Government determine that a country is in need of our assistance? I mean, do you have them in rank order, do you look at the level of conflict, or how do you do that?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, there are lots of ranking systems. People are telling us what’s going on. And then for those of us who worked in conflict – I’ve now worked in over 40 war-torn places – you tend to have a sense of when things are unraveling as well. But we try to use the whole of the U.S. Government. We actually try – we go and talk to the assistant secretaries for regional – for the regional bureaus and we say, “What is keeping you up at night?” And usually, that’s a pretty good early warning right there. But we also talk to the ambassadors, we’ll talk to our colleagues at Justice or Commerce or AID or the Defense Department. And there’s, of course, the intelligence community. So we try to use the range of information and to say what – is this place going in the wrong direction; does it really matter to the U.S.; is there something we might be able to do; and can we stay focused on what’s most important. So that’s sort of the test that we give.

MS. BENTON: So you use this whole-of-government approach as you’re assessing which way to go, how you should do it, et cetera?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: As much as possible. We find that in these really complicated cases, there’s sort of a natural reduction. Oftentimes, people think this is incredibly sensitive, so the fewer people that touch it, the better, but actually the more democratic instinct is to say this is a heck of a big problem; it’s unlikely that any of us are going to be able to solve it by ourselves. The first and probably most dangerous delusion is that you think you have one of these huge situations under control. The best response that anybody can have is this is terribly complicated and I need help. And so that’s – we try to feed that process.

MS. BENTON: Gotcha. Okay. Very good. How does CSO address the changing face of conflict in crises?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, the – probably the thing that we have found that got us – that got the United States into the most trouble in some of our big, big difficult situations of the last couple decades is that we didn’t really know the place or the people as well as we should. So we’ve put a tremendous emphasis on the quality of analysis, the quality of information, the number of context.

So even in a case like Syria right now, which is very difficult, because the revolution was really started by a population of people that we did not know that well beforehand – and then our Embassy was pretty much closed down in country. And we’re having to work with the Syrians from Turkey and Jordan and neighboring countries. So those are all constraints that make it very difficult. But even in that kind of a case, we determine that by running a train-and-equip program with a nonviolent opposition, at the very least, we can get to know more Syrians and we can get to know them better.

And so as we’re going along, we’ll be better informed about what’s going on in the country rather than being just totally dependent on intelligence or on some of the other information sources, that having those personal relationships is really key to being able to take wise action.

MS. BENTON: Right, and have people embrace you because they know you better --

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Right, the trust.

MS. BENTON: -- and have them a little bit more willing, yes, on the trust level. Could you just discuss some of the ways the Department works with other U.S. Government agencies – and I think you talked on that a little bit – as well as nongovernmental agencies and organizations to accomplish its conflict and stabilization goals in various countries?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Sure. Again, we try to think about the partnerships as broadly as possible in a somewhat opportunistic sense. So rather than saying this is this organization’s right to run the whole show, we say who’s best positioned; who’s best prepared. We have – we do have a bias, actually. Our bias is greatest towards the people who live in the country.

MS. BENTON: Right, of course.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And then we move to the international community and the U.S. Government, so that rather than thinking that the U.S. is going to take ownership of a case, we’re more inclined to say how do we find something that’s promising that’s going on that we can help to make more successful, or to increase the likelihood of success.

So in Honduras, we saw some very exciting things going on, but we recognized that the history of Honduras often dictated that these initiatives would never be successful. So it was a good idea; how do we help it have a 51 percent chance of success rather than a 20 percent of success? That also allows us to get in there right away, which is, again, a weakness of larger institutions such as the international community has or the U.S. has, that our bureaucratic responses sometimes can take weeks or months. And oftentimes, when these places are on the edge of conflict, you really have to be there right away. So we try to look at the 0-18 month period as what can you do in that – and that almost forces us to use local partners. And many times, the NGOs know them better, but many times, AID knows them better or DEA knows them better or – so you never know who has the preferred relationships.

We have – in the case of Syria, one of the partners that we worked with just brought a very good rolodex. They brought a good file of names. And we didn’t know that many people, and that was part of what we were looking for that we knew we needed.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Very good. Local buy-in is also essential for an effort to be successful and sustainable. So how does CSO address local ownership of its work? And I think that’s probably one of our critical questions.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And I think – I mean, one of the really exciting ones was Kenya. The USAID democracy and governance people pulled together an important meeting with the key recipients of United States assistance. So they were mostly Kenyans, sometimes international organizations, NGOs as well, but they were – we were spending – the United States was spending $800 million a year in Kenya.

And when we got this group together in the Rift Valley, which was considered to be one of the most dangerous hotspots that might generate election-related violence, because this is – this had been the hottest spot four years ago – we asked, “What do you all think is the most important problem facing your country this year?” And they all said – irrespective of the program they were running, they all said election-related violence.

MS. BENTON: Interesting. Yeah.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: They recognized if there was violence, then the AIDS program might be wiped out, the – all the other programs might be wiped out. So we said, “Are you doing everything that you possibly could to address that problem?” And they said no. “Would you like to do more?” They said yes. “What might you bring to this conversation?” And the first person to speak was running a horticulture program that the U.S. Government was supporting, and he said, “I don’t know that I have much to offer, but we do have 4,000 farmers here in the Rift Valley that we’re working with.” And I said, “I have a familiarity with American politics, and in American politics, if you started with 4,000 farmers, you could probably be elected the governor of any state but Texas.”

MS. BENTON: That’s the mother lode right there. (Laughter.) Right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: So then they liked that, and so they gathered together very quickly. The next person to speak was running the AIDS program. She said, “We visit over 200,000 households a week.” And so – then the question was: Okay, how do we use this as an early warning system for the police so we get a much richer relationship there? And how do we use it to guarantee – to improve the integrity of the election? And they then got working on it.

MS. BENTON: Interesting.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And what they needed more than anything else was – they said, “We’re going to keep doing our jobs 24/7, but what we would like to have is if we could hire – if you could help us hire one or two people for the next four to six months, the period of time before, during, and after the election, and put them on our staff, then we will mobilize our resources to address this.” And so that’s exactly what happened. So they created their own champions of peace. And we were – so again, rather than our sending hundreds of Americans into a case that would take us months to discover and would be very expensive, we were really calling upon the local people.

MS. BENTON: Right. So it’s country-led. And that’s --

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Which we hope to – that’s our --

MS. BENTON: That’s the goal, right? That’s the goal. How do our efforts to stabilize countries benefit the American people as well as advance our national security interests?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, I think that most of us recognize that a stable world is more likely to be growing economically, it’s more likely that people are getting educated, it’s more likely that people who are not suffering are not going to be either the sources of or employed to produce mayhem.

MS. BENTON: Right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And so there’s no question that we have benefited, the United States and the major countries of the world, have benefited from a 60-year peace dividend. We have not – since World War II, none of us have fought with each other, except for in the Cold War.

MS. BENTON: Right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And economies have grown like crazy. More people have escaped poverty than at any other time in history, and that’s – a more stable world is good for our business interest, it’s good for our citizens, it’s good for us, we’re not going to be terrorized. And I think it’s pretty central to –


AMBASSADOR BARTON: When people think they’re going to die, that’s number one on their minds.

MS. BENTON: It’s like a cold chill. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR BARTON: They’re not worried about anything else.

MS. BENTON: Right, right, right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: So if you believe in these sort of hierarchies of human interest --


AMBASSADOR BARTON: -- making sure that people are safe and able to go about the rest of their work is usually what is at the top of our interests. So that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a big job --


AMBASSADOR BARTON: -- and I – we got plenty of work to do still.

MS. BENTON: Right. But I imagine the issue of safety and security is a universal --

AMBASSADOR BARTON: It’s universal.

MS. BENTON: -- for people all over the globe. Yeah.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: You don’t have to be educated to know that somebody’s about to kick you in the head or shoot you.

MS. BENTON: Right. Right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: You pretty much – that’s an instinct that every human being seems to have.

MS. BENTON: Right. I think it was Pavlov? No, that was the other one. (Laughter). Okay, so I wanted to go –

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Yeah. That’s right. Maslow.

MS. BENTON: Maslow. That’s the one. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Pavlov (inaudible) the dog.

MS. BENTON: The dog, right. (Laughter.) I wanted to now go and respond to some of our Twitter questions that we received today.


MS. BENTON: @JQG asks: How do you assist crisis-affected people to access the information they need and have the capacity to communicate? Good question.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, I really – yeah, I’m really glad to hear that, because inversely every one of our engagements in every country that we work in, we’ve – we have put mass communications as one of our tools, one of the ways that we want to approach the problem, because we have to get information to people much more quickly. And oftentimes it’s been restricted.

MS. BENTON: Okay. That’s right. That’s right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: The governments have said they’re really not going to let you do that. We’re always looking for new ways of doing it. For example, in Syria we have helped to fund almost a dozen local FM radio stations where we have provided highly portable FM transmitters and the equipment. And they are set up so that the people of the area can get reliable information, because all of the information is controlled by the Assad regime at this point.

Now, some of them are on the air for two hours a day, some for four hours a day. In a couple of cases, there are four television stations as well, and those television stations, instead of having traffic reports, they basically have reports on where it’s safe to – for you to go every day.

MS. BENTON: Is that right?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Now, that’s the kind of information that has high value.

MS. BENTON: Oh, yeah.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And so there – for example, in Aleppo at one time, we had – there were – we helped to support – it’s, again, a Syrian initiative – and this is overt. This is being done by the State Department, not by the intelligence community.


AMBASSADOR BARTON: We helped to support 35 stringers who would then – were all over the Aleppo area, the largest city in Syria, and the business center of Syria, and they were calling in this information, and that was being provided on a ticker.

MS. BENTON: Wow. Okay.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: It’s not a fancy television station --

MS. BENTON: That’s okay. Right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: -- it’s just a ticker, so people turn it on and they can see what’s going on in their town. So – but we value the information, the flow of information. We just think that if people have information, they’re able to make wise choices.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: And otherwise we have to make choices for them, and we’re pretty far away.

MS. BENTON: And we just don’t always know, do we?

AMBASSADOR BARTON: No, we certainly don’t know.

MS. BENTON: Right. Our next question comes from @FindingHumanity, who asks: How does @StateCSO vet partners in target countries while considering local political dynamics? I think you touched on that just a little bit.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Yeah. It’s really one of the keys to being successful. If you’ve got great partners, you’re more likely to be successful. We do have some vetting, in particular in places like Syria, because of the worry of extremists or terrorists. So we do try to do additional checks on everybody who goes through our training exercises to make sure that they are not on some – on a list or other that might indicate that they have a terrorist connection. But in most places, what we do is we meet people, we get to know them, we see their body of work, and sometimes we give them a little test. So we say, “Well, that’s a good idea. Let us support you in that mission.” And if they do well, then we give them a little bit more. So --

MS. BENTON: It starts a whole process for you, I can imagine.


MS. BENTON: Just was just getting into it, and it looks like we’re – our program is already over, Rick – Ambassador. And it’s probably my least favorite part of the program – (laughter) – but it is time to conclude Conversations with America. I would like to ask you, Ambassador, if you would share your final thoughts with our viewing audience.

AMBASSADOR BARTON: Well, just, thank you very much for this. Any opportunity we have to engage the American public we are – we feel we’re stewards of their tax dollars –


AMBASSADOR BARTON: -- but also of their values. So if we’re not doing those two things pretty well, we need to hear from them. And obviously, these kinds of exchanges open up that opportunity for us to hear and to get feedback and to get ideas of how we can do it better, because this is tough work and you need ideas.

MS. BENTON: And I think it’s so critical with not just this program, but anything we do in the State Department, to engage America --


MS. BENTON: -- so that they understand, like you said, where their tax dollars are going.


MS. BENTON: So I’d like to sincerely thank you for joining us today. I believe the people have gained a great deal of insight into how the Department is working to prevent conflict and assist with stabilizing countries around the world. Thank you so much to each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you.


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