From Ideas to Action: "Political Will" in International Decisionmaking
Address by Professor Gareth Evans, Co-Chair of the International Commissions on Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament and Intervention & State Sovereignty, President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, and former Foreign Minister of Australia, Brisbane, 31 March 2010For any of us engaged in public policy issues, domestic or international, as practitioners, academics, media commentators or simply interested observers, one of the most oft-repeated lamentations of them all - one that we’ve all heard more times than we can remember, and have probably uttered ourselves almost as often – is that there is a “lack of political will” to do something that is crying out to be done, and which seems on the face of it to be not impossible to do, even though it might be difficult, complex and take time. Whether, to take just a few familiar international examples, it is delivering sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or Greek and Turkish Cypriots, or Indians and Pakistanis over Kashmir; or intervening robustly to stop mass atrocity crimes in Rwanda or Darfur; or simply getting on with the business of ridding the world of the most destructive, indiscriminately inhumane and militarily unuseable weapons ever invented, over and again we are inclined to say, by way of explanation or excuse, that the problem is simply that the necessary political will is just not there.
I have been familiar with that lamentation, and wailed it often enough myself, through a lifetime of trying to influence public policy. First as a young civil society activist trying to get local, state and national politicians engaged and energized on issues like indigenous land rights, law reform and apartheid. Then as a politician and cabinet minister myself, trying to mobilize my peers within the national government to see issues the way I did and give me the budgetary resources to tackle them. Then also as foreign minister for a number of years, trying to energize my peers in the international community to initiate and follow through collective responses to various problems we faced, whether it was delivering peace in Cambodia, building new regional economic and security architecture, or meeting the challenge of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. Then again as a rather older civil society activist with the International Crisis Group, in the somewhat unusual position of playing the traditional NGO bottom-up advocacy role but being able as well to work the high-level peer group access track. And on multiple occasions over the last twenty years, sitting on international panels and commissions with various of the global great and good trying to not only identify but implement global solutions to problems ranging from conflict and mass atrocity crime prevention to nuclear disarmament. Whether one is inside or outside the decision-making tent, or somewhere in between, the frustrations – I can testify better than most – are just as acute. The biggest constituency, in any policymaking community, is inertia: doing nothing is almost always easier than doing something, and reasons for caution or delay can always be found.
Perhaps it is worth stating one rather obvious general caveat before we plunge further into detail. What is in issue here is not just political will as such, but the right kind of political will. Getting what one asks for in life can be a risky business, and here as elsewhere it is important to stay clear-headed. There was no shortage of will involved in the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, or some other alarums and excursions of both historical and recent memory. The problem of political will can on occasion be not so much its absence as its over-exuberant presence.
The first requirement for getting something done about an international problem is knowledge - ensuring that all the relevant players know that it exists. In my experience this is not usually as inhibiting a factor as it is sometimes claimed to be, but nonetheless there are a number of ways we can improve the chances that this will not be a credible excuse for inaction.
One of the clearest examples remains the United States reaction to Rwanda in 1994. When President Clinton visited Kigali in 1998 he said, in the course of a moving speech to the crowd at the airport, “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed in this unimaginable terror.” But a subsequent report in 2004 by the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute based in Washington D.C., which went to court to obtain the material, disclosed that the CIA's national intelligence daily, a secret briefing distributed directly to the president, vice-president and hundreds of senior officials, included at the relevant time almost daily reports on Rwanda, with considerable detail about what was happening.
More can be done to ensure that the “no knowledge” excuse within governments and intergovernmental organizations is in future totally untenable. An important step would be for them to establish focal points within their systems staffed by officials whose full-time day-job it is to keep track of the relevant information, evaluate it, ensure that it gets on to the relevant desks, identify response options and follow them through. Those who have never been involved in decisionmaking at the highest levels can scarcely begin to imagine how many problems and issues are simultaneously clamoring for attention at any given time, how hard it is to get anyone to focus on anything but the most immediate and urgent, and how tempting it is to deny, diminish or defer a problem in the hope that it will disappear entirely or be seen as someone else’s. The “focal point” approach - still barely in its infancy in most of the governments and organizations with which I am familiar - will make succumbing to that temptation much less easy.
The media, non-governmental organizations and other civil society actors, including research institutes both inside and outside universities (like UQ’s Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect), all have crucial information-generating and disseminating roles in this area. For NGOs and research institutes, the challenge need is to supplement the kind of sharply focused reports and briefings and alert bulletins being regularly distributed by organizations like the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch with more broadly based, coordinated and sustained public advocacy on such a scale and of such an intensity that it simply cannot be ignored by senior decisionmakers.
In the case of the media, there is no question but that good reporting, well-argued opinion pieces and in particular real-time transmission of images of suffering do generate both domestic and international pressure to act. The “CNN effect” can be almost irresistible. But with few exceptions there is less to this than first meets the eye. Part of the problem is that many atrocity crimes occur in security environments too hair-raising to expect news crews to stick around, or in areas where they have been refused access by the authorities, and conscience-shocking and action-motivating images just do not get into circulation. And the other part of the problem is that in the current “infotainment” media universe, most international stories – to the extent they get covered at all – are treated briefly, selectively and without sustained follow up.
It may be that the traditional role of the mainstream media as the basic information source for policymakers, as well as publics at large, is now being superseded, particularly for generations younger than mine, by all the new forms of electronic communication, broadcast, narrowcast and direct personal messaging. But the lesson is that if civil society organizations and activists do want to ensure that decisionmakers continue to have no excuses when it comes to knowledge of mass atrocity crime situations, they will have to continue to work hard to communicate the relevant information by every means that modern technology has to offer.
In the case of nuclear issues, when it comes to militaries, defence ministries, weapons research laboratories and think tanks and research institutes generally there is still a substantial pool of specialist technical knowledge on nuclear weapons systems and arms control strategies. But it is not clear that enough of these specialists and scholars are finding it possible to make the transition from Cold War thinking to that required in today’s world, where – and I will come back how this issue should be now argued – nuclear weapons are far less the solution than the problem. Nor is it clear that the pool is being refreshed at a sufficient rate by new entrants with both the skills and mindset to cope with the huge challenges involved in winding back the whole existing system.
The mainstream media, it has to be said, remains largely uninterested, except in the context of the immediate challenges of the kind posed by North Korea and Iran. And among publics at large, although the younger generation is far more information-technology and social-networking savvy than its elders, it is not clear that nuclear issues are gaining much traction by comparison with other public policy concerns like climate change, environmental degradation generally, resource security, global disease, and financial and employment security. Clearly there is a need, which hopefully will be partly met by reports like that of my Commission, for advocates of change to do a better job of explaining to the media and publics directly why the elimination of nuclear weapons is a good idea. But public engagement is a long-haul enterprise, requiring rather more than a few well-placed op-eds, and public lectures and seminars in major capitals, and even well-managed NGO campaigns.
There needs to be, in my and my Commission’s strong view, a renewed emphasis on formal education and training, in schools and universities. High school curricula should find a place for explaining the history of the nuclear arms race, the huge risks that the world faces if it continues in any form, and the sheer enormity of the horrors that are involved in any actual use of nuclear weapons. And an associated need is for more specialized courses on nuclear-related issues – from the scientific and technical to the strategic policy and legal – in universities and diplomatic-training and related institutions. The kind of programs that are on offer from UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies and elsewhere are a good start, but they need to be much more widespread.
Knowing about an actual or emerging international problem is one thing, but having enough concern to want to take some action in response is something else, particularly if it may involve the expenditure of national blood or treasure. What can be done to encourage in decisionmakers in national governments, and relevant intergovernmental organizations, the sense that they do in fact have a responsibility to take appropriate action which it is within their physical and financial capacity to deliver? Part of the answer is to frame the overall issue in a way that it cannot be readily dismissed; another is to articulate specific arguments for action in a way that cannot be readily ignored.
In the case of mass atrocity crimes, the framing question continues to be crucial. So long as the issue was cast in terms of “the right to humanitarian intervention”, with the policy choices being either to send in the Marines or do nothing, there was never a prospect of any kind of global consensus being reached about how to respond to even the most catastrophic genocidal situations, like Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia: the global North focused on coercive military intervention but the South, for understandable enough reasons, was deeply resistant to any opening up of the traditional sovereign immunity from any external intervention in internal matters. The great achievement of the Canadian-government commission I co-chaired in 2001, whose basic recommendations were unanimously endorsed by the UN at head of government level in 2005, was to re-conceptualise the whole issue in terms not of the “right to intervene” but the “responsibility to protect”, placing the primary responsibility on sovereign states to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes, a secondary responsibility on others to help them to do so, and only then – if a state proved unable or unwilling to act appropriately emphasising the responsibility of the wider international community to engage in any way necessary to halt or avert catastrophe.
If the responsibility to protect is to be more than just a general principle still honoured more in the breach than the observance, it is crucial to ensure that in particular cases as they arise the right arguments are directed to the right people – by individuals or organizations who themselves have credibility with the decisionmakers in question. From my own experience, both in government and beating on the doors of government, one has to recognise that there are certain individuals, at or near the top of the decisionmaking food chains whose attitudes are going to be decisive, and good arguments have to be found that will both appeal to them and be useful to them in explaining and defending their decisions. There are four different kinds of argument that matter in this respect in most contexts, not just the immediate one of mass atrocity crimes: moral, national interest, financial, and political.
While cynics might take the view, not without good cause, that politicians and public officials do always rather like to be seen as acting from higher motives, however base their real ones may be, it cannot be assumed that moral imperatives, important as they are in every culture, will have sufficient momentum on their own to carry the day. Part of the problem stems from basic characteristics of the human psyche, with emerging experimental evidence that Stalin was not far off the mark when he reputedly said that “One man’s death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Against that, it is strongly arguable that the course of history has shown human society steadily expanding its “circle of empathy”, from an initial kernel of relations and friends, to the clan, the tribe, the nation, and wider and wider groups including other races, with this phenomenon much reinforced in recent times by ever growing international movement and communication, and the cosmopolitanism associated with that. From this perspective, the basic case for responding in some productive way when one becomes aware of an actual or imminent mass atrocity crime, rests simply on our common humanity: the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings.
The most obvious way in which local considerations intrude into international decisionmaking is in the invariable requirement that all governments will have that a particular course of action if possible advances, and at the very least does not prejudice, their state’s national interest. (This is a variation of course on a very old theme about the primacy of self-interest in most human affairs, in which context I remember Paul Keating once telling us in Cabinet about a very formative piece of advice that he had received from the former populist Premier of NSW, Jack Lang: “In any horse race, son, always back the one called Self Interest. He’ll be the only one trying.”)
In the context of mass atrocity crimes, national interest arguments are in fact much easier to make now in relation to the kind of “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” about which the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was so famously dismissive in the lead-up to Munich. This is because of what we know now about the capacity of failed, failing, rogue and phantom states, in this ever more globalised and interdependent world, to be a source of havoc for others. Put simply, states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks.
The specific arguments can and should be made With 23,000 nuclear weapons still in existence, with a combined destructive power of 150,000 Hiroshima bombs; with 2,000 of them, even twenty years after the end of the Cold War, still on dangerously high minutes-to-launch alert; with all that we now know about how close the very sophisticated US-Soviet command and control systems came, on multiple occasions, through machine or human error, to delivering catastrophe; with all that we know about how much less sophisticated some of the newer-weapon-states’ systems now are; and with all that we know now about the extraordinary potential for delivering misinformation or worse through cyber attack; with all that we know now about the potential threat posed by non-state terrorist actors getting their hands on nuclear weapons or material; and with all that we know about the various weaknesses that continue to exist in systems for storing and securing such weapons and material – it is sheer dumb luck, not a matter of good political and military leadership or inherently reliable systems management, that the world has not so far sustained in the 65 years since Nagasaki a major nuclear weapons catastrophe.
Add to that the risks associated with new states – and not just North Korea and Iran – joining the ranks of the nuclear-armed proliferators, and of the likely dramatic increase in the number of civil nuclear power stations in the next twenty years or more being accompanied by more new states acquiring national uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities (‘bomb starter kits’, as these have been called without undue exaggeration), and it is evident that there is simply no scope for complacency about the nuclear future. Maintaining the status quo is simply not an option.
If these messages are to really penetrate the minds of decisionmakers, and the publics that hold them to account, I suspect it will take rather more than the advocacy efforts of my commission – and even those of key policy leaders like the US ‘gang of four’ (Kissinger-Shultz-Nunn-Perry) who have been making important hard-nosed realist arguments for the last three years that in the world of today and the future retaining nuclear weapons is far more dangerous than their elimination, or President Obama himself. It will take a mass campaign of real bite and impact, for which a key tool is happily coming to hand with a film ‘Countdown to Zero’ – by the same team that produced the hugely influential Al Gore film on climate change, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – due for worldwide release later this year.
The next critical ingredient is some process capable of translating knowledge and concern into actual action: process in the sense both of a clearly identified strategic solution and the institutional and organizational means to advance it.
In the case of mass atrocity crimes there are five major process areas which need further attention if the new norm is to be effectively implemented in practice, which for present purposes I will simply list, without any discussion in detail. There is a need to untangle any remaining problems of definition so as to ensure to the extent possible that there is agreement about what are specifically ‘responsibility to protect’ situations, and what may be better thought of as more familiar conflict or human rights violation cases: a regularly published watchlist, perhaps prepared by the Global Centre on the Responsibility to Protect in New York, with input from regionally focused groups like the UQ Asia Pacific Centre, would be very helpful in this respect. There is a need to ensure that there are early warning and response focal points established within all the key governments and intergovernmental organizations. There is a need to have in place civilian capability able to be utilized, as occasion arises, for diplomatic mediation, civilian policing and other critical administrative support. There is a need to have, at least in a standby capacity, rapid response military capability, to ensure available support in the most extreme cases which cannot be otherwise addressed. And there is a need to consolidate informal mechanisms for quickly mobilizing and sustaining political support when ugly situations arise, particularly a global NGO coordinating mechanism and a governmental group of ‘friends of the responsibility to protect’, frameworks for both of which now exist, but need further development.
When it comes to nuclear policy, there is here is no shortage of available institutional machinery through which to advance both non-proliferation and disarmament objectives, and a good deal of my recent nuclear Commission report has been occupied with describing it, and recommending its further and better use. The key contribution I believe we have made is to spell out in a very pragmatic and hard-headed way a sequence of action agendas – covering the short term to 2012, the medium term to 2025, and longer term beyond 2025 – which will eventually get us, step by realistic step, aiming first at minimizing and then at ultimately eliminating weapons stockpiles, a nuclear weapon free world.
There are eight benchmark events or issues on which we need to focus in the coming months. If there are positive moves forward in more than half of them, we are in good shape to sustain the momentum that has been generated, above all else, by President Obama in his pathbreaking Prague speech just on a year ago, in April 2009, in which he articulated his vision for a nuclear weapon free world and spelt out some important US commitments to rapidly advance that process. But if there are negative results in half or more instances, there is every unhappy prospect that – notwithstanding all the efforts of those of us on the Australia-Japan Commission and in many other parts of the world – the whole nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation file will go back into the sleepwalking mode it has been in for the last decade, with potentially disastrous consequences.
In short, the key issues this year are the US-Russia bilateral strategic arms reduction treaty (which has now at last been agreed between Washington and Moscow, but needs to be ratified by 67 votes in the US Senate, perhaps a tall order); the US Nuclear Posture Review shortly to be announced, which may prove to be a big missed opportunity in terms of genuinel