Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a peacebuilding forum hosted by Carnegie Corporation of New York that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from global leadership, as well as the dismantling of U.S. diplomatic and peacemaking expertise, is contributing to rising violence and dangerously undermining American influence around the world.
In a keynote conversation at the conference with William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) and former deputy secretary of state, Secretary Clinton decried what she characterized as administration attacks that are damaging the State Department’s capabilities at a time of increasing risk and violence in global hotspots. In discussing one challenge after another, she criticized what she said was a failure to exercise American influence to enhance peacemaking and stand up for American values.
She called the Trump administration’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria a “betrayal” of the Kurdish allies that, she said, was already leading to war crimes against the Kurds, and harshly condemned the administration’s failure to hold Saudi Arabia to account for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of the kingdom, in a Saudi diplomatic facility in Turkey.
In the case of China, she said the Trump administration had failed to stand up to unprecedented Chinese expansion in Asia and elsewhere through its major construction projects and other investments, focusing instead on trade issues. “They’re also building ports that they’re going to control and they’re going all the way from Myanmar to Djibouti and they’re now also up in southern Europe,” she said. “What are the consequences? Don’t you think somebody ought to be thinking about that and trying to figure out how, if at all, we’re going to be countering it? There’s no business, there’s no work being done in this administration. Everybody waits around to see what the latest tweet is or the latest South Lawn press statement is. That’s how policy is being made, and we are going to pay a really big price for that in the years ahead.”
The exchange between Secretary Clinton and Burns set the tone for a day of sobering, and at times dark assessments of the mounting threats to peace, including nonstate actors, climate change, and divisions caused by disinformation spread by ever more sophisticated and constantly evolving digital technologies.
“Our topic today, Advancing Global Peace, has certainly never seemed more urgent or more complicated, given the intersection of some really powerful dynamics: a much more competitive geopolitical landscape, transformative forces like climate change, the revolution in technology, and the massive migrations of peoples, and, not least, deep uncertainty about American leadership,” Burns said.
Clinton and Burns were among the roster of scholars, former government leaders, UN officials, and distinguished experts in peace and technology who gathered for the Second Carnegie Peacebuilding Conversations, convened by the global family of Carnegie institutions on October 15 in New York City. In the post–World War II era there were many successes in peacemaking, but in assessing current and future threats, speakers focused on several emerging themes, including opportunities for peace.
"The number one uncertainty is what human beings are going to do. When I think about climate policy, I think about it as allocating to various degrees mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. And our actions today will determine how those get meted out and to what populations."
— Kate Marvel, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Urgent Threats: Diplomatic Chaos, Climate Change, Nuclear War
Secretary Clinton said the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria was not only leading to “executions, civilian casualties, really uncontrolled violence” against the U.S.’s Kurdish allies, it was strengthening the positions of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran, all American adversaries. “I think it’s going to be a free-for-all with tremendous and terrible loss of life,” she said.
She objected to the administration’s decision to simultaneously pull some troops from Syria and move U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, in part because of concerns over the Saudi role in the civil war in Yemen.
“Yemen is a disaster on every front,” she said. “The amount of sheer cruel infliction of violence on this population is almost hard to imagine. The human toll is tremendous, and there is no real effort undertaken to try to work out what could possibly be a real end to the hostilities, in part because there’s no broker willing to do that.” She added, “That’s a role that we could have and should have played in the past.”
Other speakers identified not just looming threats but a need for strong policy responses. In addressing climate change, Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained that scientists had developed a solid understanding of many aspects of global warming and the of role of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels as a cause.
“We know what happens on a warming world,” she said. “We know that as sea surface temperatures heat up that’s hurricane food. We expect that hurricanes will get stronger. And we know that as sea levels rise that storm surge can go further inland.… So we know a lot about climate change.”
The great variable, she added, is not scientific but what policymakers will have the foresight to do. “I think the number one uncertainty is what human beings are going to do,” she said. “When I think about climate policy, I think about it as allocating to various degrees mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. And our actions today will determine how those get meted out and to what populations.”
Oscar Fernández-Taranco, UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, stressed the need for rapid responses. “This is part of the changing nature of conflict and the changing nature of displacements and refugee dynamics,” he said. “But I think critical to everyone sitting in this room is the challenge of global climate change and how societies will come to grips in that time because the education process, the political leadership process, the financing process, everything that needs to align for the very survival of the planet and its people is something that needs to happen, in historical terms, extremely fast.”
Nuclear weapons pose a number of significant challenges, said Sam Nunn, a former U.S. senator and the founder and cochair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which works to prevent attacks with weapons of mass destruction. We have entered “a high-risk era of nuclear instability,” he said, particularly where there are regional disputes, as there is between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states. He said he is particularly worried about miscalculations that could trigger accidental war.
“The risk of catastrophic blunder is going up,” he said. “Decision time for leaders in determining whether an attack is real and whether and when to retaliate, releasing their own nuclear weapons, that decision time is all important and that decision time is going down. Technology is driving decision time down.”
Eric D. Isaacs, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, warned that potential cyberattacks were exacerbating those nuclear risks. The “nuclear risk overlaps with the dangers of cyberattacks: digital attacks which are occurring, as you know, more and more could be used to trigger a nuclear conflict or could be used to wreak havoc in almost every other sector,” he said. “An unprecedented scale of the pace of expansion in digital technologies has challenged our ability to adapt to it.”
The Destabilizing Impact of Technology
The abuse of information flows on the Internet is a rapidly expanding threat, and several panelists proposed stronger regulation of the web and a possible breakup of the largest technology companies. What had once been seen as the promising role of digital technologies, especially social media, to strengthen societies by making useful information more accessible has been overwhelmed by the spread of disinformation to divide and manipulate people, several speakers said.
“Technology and the way it’s connected individuals has created a dark side of the web that is outside many governments’ purview and reach,” said David Miliband, the chief executive of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and former foreign secretary of the U.K. “That’s created a new force of destabilization.… It’s net added to insecurity.”
Jessica Tuchman Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) and now a distinguished fellow there, agreed. “In the late ’90s, we had no idea, nobody did, that cyber technology, digital technology, and the Internet would be a thriving, powerful force of fragmentation and disinformation.”
"Digitalization has also driven us towards a kind of politics of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ because what the digital does to us is it appeals to our prejudices. So what’s happened with the digital is that it’s made us all more vulnerable to the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them.’"
— Timothy Snyder, Yale University
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, said that the Internet had been especially damaging by erecting ideological barriers rather than bridges between groups with different opinions, reducing dialogue and hardening differences.
“Digitalization has also driven us towards a kind of politics of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ because what the digital does to us is it appeals to our prejudices,” said Snyder. “So what’s happened with the digital is that it’s made us all more vulnerable to the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, described those divisions as particularly dangerous. “What’s a dangerous side of technology? Well, presently I think it’s social engineering. I really worry that it has created — we used to call them birds of a feather, an ability to hang out with people of like minds and forget the facts and just sort of believe what you say. And we’re right now in this amazing disruptive political system where that is exactly what is happening.”
Snyder suggested that the U.S. should consider applying antitrust laws to reduce the market dominance of the biggest Internet companies. “These companies are just too big,” he said.
Some of the panelists said that addressing these issues was beyond the grasp of any single country, even the U.S. They stressed that multilateral institutions, NGOs, and civic organizations needed to step up and place greater energy behind the search for creative solutions.
“When governments are in retreat, businesses, NGOs, civil society have to step forward,” said Miliband. “And in that time of government retreat, my very strong feeling is that there’s a responsibility on those of us outside government to be mobilizers of change. We have to be the incubators of new solutions.”
Declining Leadership, Rising Complacency
The consensus was that three major factors were fueling the global threat: a loss of will on the part of the U.S. and other countries to actively embrace collaborative engagement for peacemaking; the declining strength of democratic institutions internationally; and a failure to adequately confront aggressive expansion and attacks by players ranging from nonstate actors to China and Russia.
The IRC’s David Miliband said, “The great fear I have now is that we’re going to move into a vacuum because America is such a big player that if the democratic countries of the world don’t have a leader on the international stage, then you don’t just get a vacuum at the local level, you get an age of impunity at the international level, where the norms and laws that were built up so carefully for hundreds of years and took form in the 20 or 30 years after 1945, those norms and laws get broken.”
Added Michelle Nunn, president of CARE USA, “I do believe this is a place where the moral voice for human rights, for international law is missing in the U.S., but also globally and in the world, and it makes an enormous difference.”
A problem stressed by several participants was an erosion of democratic institutions and the breakdown of the social contract in some countries. The UN’s Fernández-Taranco noted that a “decrease in the quality of democracy around the world and … increasing mistrust between people and their governments,” were contributing to the disruptions.
These scenarios are contributing to a complacency that is undermining peacemaking, said the Carnegie Endowment’s Mathews. She expressed concern over whether Americans and others who had long struggled to tame global problems previously had the will now to continue in that role, and how that withdrawal is allowing the mechanisms of peace to atrophy.
“This sense that we don’t have to fear a return of the constructive fear we dealt with — that we lived with — for 50 years in the Cold War, building an international arms control regime that consumed a huge fraction of the best minds of the people who cared about international peace for all those decades — we’ve just let it drift away,” she said. “The work of 50 years, it’s gone.”
“Optimistic About the Future, No Matter What”
The successful containment of threats is largely in the hands of multilateral bodies, which need to formulate workable solutions and build the needed consensus to take them on. In looking for strategies, CARE USA’s Michelle Nunn emphasized the need for reform of traditional organizations to make them more resilient and responsive to these challenges.
"You’ve got to make yourself believe that we can once again do things together, overcome our divides, listen to each other, as hard as it might be, trust or try to rebuild trust in our institutions."
— Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former U.S. Secretary of State
“I think that those of us in civil society are called to a kind of audacity and creativity that is difficult and challenging but imperative at this particular moment,” she said. “We have to look at how do we take some of these calcified institutions, take a hard look at them ourselves, democratic institutions, multilateral institutions, and think how are we going to revivify them as we go forward.”
She urged, in particular, that they place more women at the head of initiatives as well as younger leaders, because they are offering some of the most effective solutions.
“We know that … there’s a higher correlation between gender equality and peacefulness than GDP,” she said. “We know that, if you look at that sort of study over 20 years, that there’s a 35 percent increase of the longevity of peace processes when women are involved.”
Michelle Nunn added, “Really creating gender equality would open up a latent set of possibilities that I think could be transformational.”
While a streak of deep pessimism ran through the conversations, there were some positive takeaways. Erik de Baedts, the general director of the Carnegie Foundation – Peace Palace in The Hague, noted that in one troubling flashpoint, the dispute between India and Pakistan over the status of Kashmir, Pakistan has said it will bring a recent escalation in the conflict to the International Court of Justice for resolution, potentially stopping these nuclear-armed states from resorting to military action. “There is always hope, I think,” de Baedts said.
Secretary Clinton sought to end her remarks on a note of hope for future peacemakers, some of whom — students from nearby universities — were in the audience as invited guests.
“You’ve got to make yourself believe that we can once again do things together, overcome our divides, listen to each other, as hard as it might be, trust or try to rebuild trust in our institutions,” she said.
She concluded, “I would hope that young people see the opportunity for public service as what it is — a determined effort to be optimistic about the future, no matter what.”