After experiencing two long and intense days with the most
knowledgeable and committed people targeting the root causes of violent
extremism this week in Washington DC I learned two things. First, the acronym CVE (Countering Violent
Extremism) is still debated as a useful acronym. Second, because of lack of funding for it and
persistent inter-agency and international barriers it is not going to work as
well as hoped or needed. Just one Paris
or Brussels like attack here in the US and we (US citizens and policy makers)
are far more likely to turn to the dark side than the light.
But first, the definition and terminology. CVE means
something different to everyone. Agreeing
on each element, its priority and order of implementation is inherently
problematic given that each of the ‘independent’ factors and players that need
to be integrated by multiple agencies after being funded by multiple
Congressional Committees competing with other budget priorities.
The terminology. The first word in CVS, “Countering” seems
rather belligerent in nature (use your word processor synonyms function and
look it up). ‘Undermining, engaging,
preventing, preempting’…may have been better words but the White House just
announced the creation of a CVE Task Force and appointed its Chair. Changing it now will not be easily.
“Violent” is a perfect word.
It seems self-evident that ending violence against innocent people is
always a good choice. At least Christ, Gandhi,
MLK and Mother Theresa believed so. The glitch arises when we comprehend that
our primary tool for confronting violent extremists uses violence. And, in the context of war, even when
collateral damage is highly discouraged (at least by the US)… the violent death
of innocent people is ultimately accepted as the cost of waging war. So using violence that inevitably kills innocent
people is an unfortunate but inevitable product of our military approach to
remove violent extremists from the ‘battle field’. And this inconsistency assists violent extremists
in recruiting more moderate extremists to their violent cause. We seem to believe that war itself is not a
form of violent extremism. For us it’s a well accepted norm when we feel
“Extremism” is an accurate word. But like all tools and technologies it has
dual use. The actions of Al Qaeda and
ISIS are extreme! But in a world where
national sovereignty is the accepted norm for managing relations between
nations and people, and human rights are a rhetorical priority and rarely a
real one, the very concept that human rights should be superior to the rights
of nations is also considered “extreme’.
Even if this extreme may be our
only means of significantly preventing violence against all innocent people.
This extremely logical ideal is not new. After the horrors of World War II (leaving 50
million dead, uncounted millions of refugees, a genocide murdering six million,
and the debut of a new weapon that could vaporize 100,000 people in a flash) insightful
thinkers drafted a list of principles they believed could prevent future
generations from experiencing such unprecedented horrors. The list was titled “The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights” and unanimously passed.
Unfortunately, world leaders then, created a global
institution and international system in which ‘We the People’ were only represented
in a phrase in the Preamble of the new institution’s charter. The protection of human rights had no
functional article. Worse yet, those
leaders congealed a global institution of grand hope but no real power (except
for a few nations with the most military power – that could veto whatever the
rest of the world wanted). This veto
empowered, high-minded talk fest is still known as the United Nations. And, it still retains war and sanctions (which
can be more deadly than war - or spark one) as the world’s the primary tools for
resolving differences between nations and peoples if words don’t work.
Thus, over the last few decades’ wars continued (both hot and
cold). Russia’s military support for Syria’s
murderous Assad is actually legal under international law. Some have argued that nuclear weapons were a
far better deterrent to another world war that the UN. That’s MAD.
What’s worse is that any ‘peace’ up till now has really been just a time
for rearming, inventing new weapons, and planning for the next war. And
under this system and structures war remains an option today.
The UN wasn’t worthless. It saved more lives in ten years with the
global eradication of smallpox than all the lives lost from wars and genocides over
the last 120 years. It demonstrated what
was possible when every nation in the world cooperated in stopping a global
killer. That victory and a few other
minor UN successes have been relatively forgotten in the wake of its persistent
failures. Originally tasked with
addressing root causes…it was never given the power or the money.
Humanities greatest failure may be not
ending world hunger. This killer was
taking the lives of nearly 42,000 children under the age of 5 each day in the
late 1970s. Efforts to define terrorism
exist today but there should be no debate that the most terrifying of all human
experience has always been the loss of a child -- or the fear of losing
one. Now that death toll down to about 17,000
a day. But, it’s still a greater death
rate than the Jewish Holocaust. Yet it still
never registers as an issue in any political campaign. That’s more than shameful. It’s profoundly foolish. In 1980 Jimmy Carter’s
bi-partisan Presidential Commission linked world hunger to US national security
making fourteen references to it that were tragically ignored. It concluded “In the final analysis, unless
Americans -- as citizens of an increasingly interdependent world -- place far
higher priority on overcoming world hunger, its effects will no longer remain
remote or unfamiliar. Nor can we wait
until we reach the brink of the precipice; the major actions required do not
lend themselves to crisis planning, patchwork management, or emergency
financing... The hour is late. Age-old
forces of poverty, disease, inequity, and hunger continue to challenge the
world. Our humanity demands that we act
upon these challenges now...” Presidential Commission on World Hunger,
It also stated “The most potentially
explosive force in the world today is the frustrated desire of poor people to
attain a decent standard of living. The anger, despair and often hatred that
result represent real and persistent threats to international order…
Neither the cost to national security of allowing malnutrition to spread nor
the gain to be derived by a genuine effort to resolve the problem can be
predicted or measured in any precise, mathematical way. Nor can monetary value
be placed on avoiding the chaos that will ensue unless the United States and
the rest of the world begin to develop a common institutional framework for
meeting such other critical global threats as the growing scarcity of fossil
fuels and other non-renewable resources, environmental hazards, pollution of
the seas, and international terrorism. Calculable or not, however, this
combination of problems now threatens the national security of all countries
just as surely as advancing armies or nuclear arsenals.”
“The Commission believes that promoting economic
development in general, and overcoming hunger in particular, are tasks far more
critical to the U.S. national security than most policymakers acknowledge or
even believe. Since the advent of nuclear weapons most Americans have been
conditioned to equate national security with the strength of strategic military
forces. The Commission considers this prevailing belief to be a simplistic
illusion. Armed might represents merely the physical aspect of national
security. Military force is ultimately useless in the absence of the global
security that only coordinated international progress toward social justice can
Consider cost from ignoring this
persistent cause of suffering. How different
would the world be today if the US had been made it a top national security
Now our world’s life support system
is threatened by extremes in climate change.
And again the UN’s power to host conferences and deliver promising words
is infinitely greater than its capacity to deliver tangible change. Even the US military believes this threat is
a security game changer. Many scientists
believe is an existential threat to civilization. And, while nearly half the world is focused
on terrorism and the other half on environmental dangers there are other global
threats being largely ignored. One
pandemic alone, like the Spanish Flu, could cost more lives than another world
war. Such a mass killer is inevitable and
overdue. And it is a threat that can be
sparked by gross man-made environmental damages or war, or exacerbated by either.
And each of these threats are rooted in
global injustices that remain a low tier priority.
A June 2015 report titled “Confronting
the Crisis on Global Governance” by the Commission on Global Security, Justice
and Governance (co-chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeline
Albright and former UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim
offered us a two word summary. “Just
security.” The 140 page report details
the persistent reality that without global justice our individual, national or
global security will be vanishing. T
report and its 8 page Executive Summary is at: http://www.stimson.org/programs/global-security-justice-and-governance
And, the threat list is growing. The power and increasingly affordability
and ubiquitous technologies mature exponentially. The dual use nature of all technology is offering
both unprecedented solutions and unimaginable capacity for destruction and
disruption. From the proliferation of WMD, economic
instability, or the evolution of new types of weapons (drones, cyber, bio,
nano….) to the existential threat of artificial intelligence, both our national
institutions and anemic global institutions are increasingly dysfunctional to prevent
or even cope with them.
There is one overarching reason why. We continue
believing fooled that independent nations using independent agencies can
effectively resolve globally interdependent problems.
In the CVE conference and in every other thoughtful
discussion had, there are several word phrases stressed repeatedly. The “need for a comprehensive approach”, a
“holistic approach”, a “whole of government approach” to address ‘root causes’. And,
of course, the word “prevention”.
Thus, any CVE strategy or tactic devised is an admission
that we have failed at prevention. And
every effort to integrate CVE tactics using existing institutional systems and
structures is doomed to fail. Because every existing institution and system
is based on the mental concept of independence -- and overcoming this barrier will
require a systemic approach an independent unit is incapable of. Like the prioritization of the universal protection
of human rights over any and all independent nations. A holistic global approach to human rights
makes sense but is obviously unachievable if our collective worship of national
sovereignty endures. In our era of hyper globalization, our
freedom, security and prosperity is at the mercy of a non-systemic governing system
(i.e. global chaos).
There is another word often used in reference to terrorism, war
fighting, and limiting power. After the
first Gulf War Marine Corp General Zinni
(CENTCOM Commander) championed the ‘federating’ of US forces to maximize
their effectiveness on the battle field.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq
and long before the creation of ISIS, Senator Biden (now US Vice President)
suggested the federation of Iraq. Others
have recently suggested federating Syria and Libya as a means of maximizing the
security of vastly different sects committed to the freedom of practicing their
own religion. This systemic structural approach
was used in the creation of our own nation.
And even here, it’s safe to say that
it was the ideal of putting the protection of human rights above states’ rights
that allowed for our nation to be created, survive, and eventually thrive. But only after we corrected the fundamental
flaws in our original Constitution that counted Blacks as only 3/5ths of a
human being and women as unworthy of voting.
Don’t hold your breath for a world federation any time
soon. But no one should hold their
breath for the prevention of violent extremists in a world of so many political
barriers (national and global) to protecting the fundamental human rights of
The important thing to recognize now is that time is NOT on
our side. Another word commonly heard
among those fully aware of the threats we face (terrorism, climate change, WMD
proliferation, economic instability, cybercrime, evolution of weapons in air,
sea and space, AI…) is “urgency”. Urgency in saving lives – and the foundation
of our freedoms and security…our economy. We can
no longer afford a dysfunctional government only responds to crisis. Up front investing in the systems and
structures essential to preventing extraordinarily expensive crisis is a must.
The late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once
said, “Structure is destiny”. Until we
have a fully integrated global structure of governance that effectively
protects everyone’s human rights with the legitimate use of force, we will continue
to see the forfeiture of our freedoms, our security, or our prosperity.
Don’t believe those who say we don’t have to trade freedom for
security without yielding our independence.
If we believe our actions or inactions don’t have consequences we are
forced to make this trade. Independent
efforts by definition fail to acknowledge our global interdependence. We do not face a ‘freedom/security’ dilemma. We
face a trilemma. Freedom, security and independence. We can only pick two…so pick wisely. Independence
is a myth that exists nowhere in the universe.
Ridding our minds and political documents of this mythical mental construct
is our only means of maximizing both our freedom and security in this entirely
and irreversibly interdependent world. This
is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized. We are free to do what we want. We will never
be free from the consequences. Making the
UDHR an enforceable global document won’t create utopia or heaven on earth. But it will reverse the trends that taking us
toward hell on earth. For now, many CVE
professionals will keep their jobs. Some
may even acquire funding for their pet CVE programs. But don’t expect enough success or funding to
bring sustainable security and protection of our most cherished freedoms -- if grave global injustices persist.
Woody Allen once said “Mankind
is facing a crossroad - one road leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. I sincerely
hope we choose the right road”. Our
current view has hidden a third road. It’s
the road that most American’s have already pledged to take under our flag. “Liberty and justice for all’.
Here’s a new
word. 'Anosognosia'. It is a medical term that explains a condition
of a person suffering from a disability, but is unaware of that disability. Our disability is imagining we can resolve
interdependent problems with independent governments and agencies. We all know the word that describes doing
something over and over again. Expecting a different result. This may sound crazy. Even extremist. But let’s try something both new and old.
"A human being is part of the whole, called
by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his
thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical
delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest
us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle
of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its
beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but striving for such
achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation, and a foundation for inner
security." -Albert Einstein. As quoted in Quantum Reality, Beyond the
New Physics, p. 250.