Impulsive Leaders 1/10/18

An Olympic Glimmer on the Horizon – North Korea and South Korea Stepping Down the Escalation Ladder – by Patrick T. Hiller

Patrick Hiller

The world is a month away from the PyeonChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. My friends in South Korea have already bought tickets for multiple events. What a wonderful opportunity for the parents to expose their two boys to displays of athletic skills and friendly competition between nations in the Olympic spirit.

All is good, except for the fear of nuclear war triggered by impulsive leaders in North Korea and the United States. Recent rare talks between North and South Korea give us a glimmer of hope that the Olympic spirit transcends the games into politics. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games is quoted saying that “the most important thing is not to win, but to take part.” This is even more important in the current conflict between North Korea and South Korea. The most important part is not to agree on everything, but to talk.

The Olympics offer a unique moment to de-escalate tensions and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. The first talks already led to agreements on North Korea sending a delegation to the Olympics, to hold talks on lowering tension along the border, and to reopen a military hotline. Any small step away from the brink of war deserves support from all nations and civil society. Conflict resolution professionals always look for openings in intractable conflicts such as this one. The opportunities of direct dialog between Koreans need to be realistically addressed.

First, non-Koreans should let Koreans talk. The Koreans are the experts on their interests and needs. The U.S. especially should take a back seat, making support for continued Korean-led diplomacy clear. President Trump has already tweeted support, which is helpful but fragile. With a single belligerent tweet, the President could derail the entire effort. It is therefore important for peace advocacy groups, legislators, and the American public to voice their support for diplomacy over war.

Second, even the smallest successes are in fact big ones. The mere circumstance that after about two years of not meeting, high-level delegations from both sides came together is a win. However, this is not the time to expect grand concessions, like North Korea suddenly halting its nuclear weapons program.

This is the time to positively acknowledge both Koreas successfully stepping away from the brink of war, which could have gone nuclear with the involvement of the United States. These small beginnings have already reduced immediate tensions and open pathways to long-term improvements around broader issues such as a North Korean nuclear freeze, the suspension of military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea, the official end of the Korean war, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, and long-term reconciliation efforts between the two nations.

Third, beware of spoilers. The Korean conflict is complex, enduring and influenced by the pressures and dynamics of geopolitics. There will always be individuals and groups trying to undermine constructive steps. As soon as the Korean-Korean talks were even mentioned, critics accused Kim Jong-Un of trying to “drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S.” in order to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon from South Korea draw the picture of a dangerous North Korea and demand that its denuclearization is the key talking point.

The basic principles of successful dialog historically suggest that talking without preconditions is the most likely way to gain traction among the conflicting parties. Lastly, the current support for dialog by U.S. President Trump might be undone with a tweet. We cannot dismiss the possibility that a demonized North Korea provides a needed diversion from poor performance and low approval ratings. It is therefore important to continuously point to the necessary small and positive steps.

No one knows what the outcome of the current positive small steps and will be. Destructive spoilers can accuse diplomacy advocates of giving a free pass to the North Korean nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses. Somewhat more moderate voices might refuse to acknowledge diplomacy as an effective tool to lower current tensions. Moving out of a large-scale conflict like this one takes a long time and many more small steps will be necessary before any bigger issues can be addressed. Setbacks are also to be expected. What should be obvious though, is the fact that the long duration and the uncertainties of diplomacy are always preferable to the certain horror of war.

Last year, President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” over North Korea marked an escalation just short of war. The talks between the two Koreas in the context of the Olympics are a positive pivot away from fire and fury and toward the hopeful light of an Olympian torch. In the conflict’s trajectory, we are looking at a crucial point—are we moving toward new and even greater escalation or are we stepping onto a constructive path with realistic expectations?

Let the Koreans talk. As a nation the U.S. has done enough damage, as Americans we can make sure that our country is supportive now and beyond the Olympics. This mantra should ring in the ears of our elected officials: Americans support diplomacy over war. Then I can tell my friends in Korea that we have tried to make sure that their teenage boys can visit the Olympic Winter Games and then go back to school without worrying about nuclear war.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

Vehicle of Terror 11/15/17

How to respond when someone uses a vehicle as a weapon of terror – by Patrick T. Hiller

Patrick Hiller

The use of vehicles as weapons to kill civilians has sparked global fear and attention. Such attacks can be carried out in any populated area, against any random group of people, by anyone with or without connections to a network of ideologues promoting fear, hatred and terror.

We do not need experts to tell us that it is almost impossible to prevent such attacks. Two notable attacks in the US were those by James A. Fields Jr., who rammed his car into a crowd of nonviolent protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia killing one and injuring 19, and by Sayfullo Saipov who deliberately drove a truck down a bike path killing eight and injuring at least 11. They acted on behalf of an exclusively “white America,” and the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate across the Middle East, respectively. A crucial, immediate and long-term response is to separate the ideology of hate from those people and beliefs the attackers claim to represent.

Those who commit such acts never represent the majority of the people they claim to champion. Fields did not represent the 241 million white people in the United States, just like Saipov did not represent the approximately 400 million Muslims in the Middle East or the 33 million Uzbeks of his native country. Nevertheless, baseless blanket accusations pitch “us” vs “them,” with “the other” being a group to be feared, hated, and destroyed. This response is used by designated terrorist group leaders and our own government officials alike.

Social relations are far more fluid than the “us/them” propaganda suggests. Peace scholar John Paul Lederach invites us to look at a spectrum where we have organizations and individuals who actively promote and pursue terror and violence on one end, and those who have absolutely no connection on the other end. The broad center of the spectrum is made up by those who have some connection—wanted or unwanted—through a shared common (religious) background, extended family links, geography, race or other factors. Passivity, silence, and neutrality on that spectrum is not helpful. Broad condemnation and unity by those who the attackers claim to represent takes away their claim of acting for a greater good. Just like New York City’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism John Miller clearly stated that Islam had no role in the attack by Saipov, the fact that diverse groups denounced and protested white supremacy in Charlottesville, helped isolate both attackers and their ideology. The “us” becomes a clear majority of those taking a side against violence in the name of an ideology. The “them” now are isolated violent actors without legitimate support, the latter being a key ingredient for recruiting members, safety, and resources.

The gut response when innocents are killed is to do something. In the case of the New York attack, calling the attacker a “degenerate animal,” calling for fear-based immigration policies, and increasing military attacks in a country halfway across the globe—all tweeted responses by President Trump—are worse than useless.

If we can learn anything from vehicle attacks on civilians, it is that the militarized war on terror is as helpful as banning cars. The militarized war on terror is not winnable by design. Increasing military responses sends a signal that the vehicle attacks are working as tactics by a militarily inferior party. Research shows that military action is often an ineffective and even counterproductive tool for countering terrorism. The grievances and narratives employed by terrorist groups are fed by military action—new recruits fall into their arms. The only feasible way is to address the root causes.

Not surprisingly, some root causes for white nationalist-and ISIS-inspired attacks are similar—perceived or real marginalization, alienation, deprivation, and unequal power relations. Admittedly, these causes require more profound societal transformations. While hard, the numerous rights movements –human, civil, women, LGBT, religious, etc.—demonstrate that we can build on those even in challenging times.

And how do we deal with terror groups in the meantime? First, the stated and actual path toward addressing the root causes already takes away incentives and legitimate support for any form of terror. Second, ISIS can be countered directly by initiating arms and ammunitions embargoes to the Middle East, support for Syrian civil society, pursuit of meaningful diplomacy with all actors, economic sanctions on ISIS and supporters, withdrawal of US troops from the region, and the support of nonviolent civil resistance. Creative nonviolence is also one of the best ways to directly counter public acts of white supremacy. When white supremacists march, they can outnumbered, they can be mocked, and they can be made friends and changed. Daryl Davis, a black musician, asked many clansmen “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” He got 200 KKK members to leave the Klan.

There is no magic solution to eradicate the discussed forms of terror. There are, however, many ways we can respond to vehicles being used as weapons that make such incidents less likely in the future. If we don’t use these alternatives, it is not because they are not available, but because of artificially imposed constraints, lack of interest, or self-interest. The broad social spectrum gives us ample opportunity in our respective contexts to take the contested area away from the terrorists and dissolve any hateful ideology at its roots.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

Bully at the Wrong Place 9/20/17

The bully showed up at the wrong playground – Trump’s misguided address at the United Nations  – by Patrick T. Hiller

Patrick Hiller

“It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience,” Swedish foreign Minister Margot Wallström expressed about what global and U.S. audiences helplessly had to endure during President Donald Trump’s September 19, 2017 address to the United Nations General Assembly. President Trump acted like a bully, but unaware that he showed up at the wrong playground.

The United Nations was founded after World War II “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…”. There is no doubt that the United Nations has never fully reached its potential, and without fundamental reform it never will. The spirit, however, is laid out clearly in the UN Charter. While being center stage at the United Nations General Assembly, an assembly where global collaboration is emphasized, Trump bragged about the United States, fueled division, and threatened other nations. The threat to “totally destroy North Korea” is beyond any form of acceptability, regardless if it is rhetorical or real. It is therefore important to challenge Trump’s own words. We must not forget that he is the Commander-in-Chief with the authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Trump: “Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terror but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.” The U.S. has 6,800 nuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy human life on the planet many times over. The U.S. is also the only country who has ever used them.

Trump: “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life… No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.” This indeed threatens the entire world, but it applies to every nation pursuing or holding nuclear weapons. No exception. In fact, Trump is making a strong case for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

Trump: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” This is a threat of committing mass atrocities against approximately 25 million people and most certainly killing millions more in South Korea or Japan which would bear the consequences of such a war. A threat that can only be realized by launching a nuclear war. This needs to sink in. U.S. President Donald Trump used his United Nations General Assembly speech to threaten nuclear war against a sovereign country. It is also a direct violation of the UN Charter, which reads that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

The notion of having “no choice” other than taking 25 million human lives is the most troubling element of the entire address. No choice? How about starting real negotiations without pre-conditions? How about engaging North Korea on multiple levels of diplomacy (direct and indirect) and initiate citizen-diplomacy to humanize “the other” 25 million North Koreans. How about moving away from tit-for-tat playground mentality toward problem-solving approaches through recognition and respect, even in an adversarial relationship? How about identifying and referencing other successful difficult diplomatic breakthroughs (hint: Iran Deal)? How about engaging conflict resolution professionals who understand preventing war instead of professionals who understand fighting war? Wouldn’t a self-declared Master-of-the-Deal always be aware of and one the search for choices to prevent a bad outcome?

It is without question that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, testing, and rhetoric are troubling and must not go unanswered. It is also clear that the North Korean people are suffering under the Kim Jong Un regime. However, we are witnessing a very dangerous pattern of conflict escalation by two nuclear armed leaders whose legitimate power rests upon their strong-man talk and actions. In this pattern, a move by one must be answered with a stronger countermove by the other. This is unacceptable to Americans, North Koreans and humanity.

The biggest stick on Trump’s playground must never be used. Leaders and citizens of all countries­ – with or without nuclear weapons – need to rise to the occasion to see the real and present danger of these weapons. How fitting that one day after Trump’s speech, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was opened for signature. Citizens, civil society organizations and leaders now need to throw their force behind the treaty. Clearly, Donald Trump was a bully at the wrong playground, sidelined except for his unwelcome destructive potential, while the smart ones take real steps to give us hope that humanity moves in the right direction and avoids nuclear catastrophe.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.