Devoted: Bringing Passion to Policy, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Feb


There are people who are capable of devotion, public devotion, to justice. They meant what they said and every day that passes, they mean it more.  Wendell Berry

Perpetual devotion to what people call their “business” is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.  Robert Louis Stevenson

I just returned from what was a successful trip to Mexico for Global Action.  We were able to both solidify two significant partnerships (Instituto Mora and OPANAL) and confirm our bona fides in the areas of security policy, peacebuilding and the 2030 Development Agenda.  We were able to have many urgent and at times reassuring conversations with Mexicans about the currently un-nerving “state of play” in US relations.  We even got to see the Mexican president.

But as is often the case when traveling abroad, the most memorable moments were beyond the professional realm:  the smoke plumes rising from still-active volcanoes; the harrowing motorbike rides through the streets of Mexico City with my Mora host, Simone Lucatello; the children on sidewalks sweetly selling small Valentine’s candies; the blindingly magnificent religious architecture that almost succeeds in obscuring the slave labor needed to construct it.

And then there is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a place I have visited previously but also a place like few others I have ever visited.  Several months distant from the feast which bears Our Lady’s name and the thousands who walk and crawl great distances to refresh their souls and offer their prayers and petitions, the Basilica square was still filled with color and movement: people with their signs and symbols camped out by the hundreds; the huge main church building packed for mass at 10AM on a Wednesday; a young women leading prayers in an old side chapel, her voice unlike most any the chapel has hosted over its long history; persons with disabilities milling around the Basilica edges, hoping for the miracle that will allow them to ditch their canes and wheel chairs at least once more before their death.

In its many incarnations and limitations, devotion was on display here – so much devotion.

Devotion is a word that was in vogue once upon a time, even in our elite centers of learning.   We could, during one piece of our collective history, seek training that would allow us to gain cognitive mastery in philosophy and the (then) sciences while leaving space for emotional investments (even passions) of which devotion may well be the most powerful and compelling.

This is a word which now raises eyebrows in elite circles and even in popular culture; something we associate with “religious fanatics” and “true believers” in political and other realms rather than with persons deeply engaged with art, with family, with civic pursuits of all kinds.

Indeed, our goal in professional life too often now is to stay detached, to “be cool,” to hold tight to our agendas and ambitions, to stay “in control” and keep control, above all things. We have aspirations to fulfill, places to go and things to do; but not so much depths to plumb, nor commitments to refresh, nor connections to deepen.   We feel we have to maintain our critical distance, critical not so much in the sense of “evaluative” but critical in the sense of negating and distancing:  What we don’t care for. What we don’t want to commit to or get “tied up” with. The metaphorical “rooms” we won’t enter without first scouting out the “exit” signs.

Despite our often smug penchant for keeping “distance,” or perhaps because of it, I am simply enthralled with Guadalupe.  I cherish it because in that place, people search for things they long for but can’t find by themselves, miracles couched in the (for us, more believable) fervent hope of finding meaning, healing and forgiveness, goals with which most of us worldly strivers can just barely identify.

In saying this, I do not underestimate the limitations and unfortunate consequences of intense emotional commitment – the legions of “rooting interests” and “self-fulfilling prophecies” that hold our cognitive and evaluative sensibilities captive, driving us towards unformed goals without a map and largely without heeding street signs or traffic lights. The lines that separate devotion and addiction can be thin indeed; our devotions can certainly portend the “neglect of many things” in ways that are not in anyone’s interests.

Moreover, collectively, we already “make up” too much of our worldviews, failing to do our homework or hold each other accountable to the testimony of our still-formidable senses.  The “Alt-facts” that now punctuate so many discussions are by no means the restrictive domain of the US president and his sycophants.

And yet there are dimensions of devotion that can enrich and sustain all of our “9-5” contributions, dimensions that can inject both passion and humility into what are largely, for most of us, relatively tepid and episodic commitments to the social and political challenges beyond the walls of our offices and domiciles.

It’s not my place to judge the commitments of others. That people don’t put time and energy into things I care about doesn’t in any way imply that there aren’t other areas in people’s lives for which devotion is still relevant and active.  Folks raise children and take care of sick relatives.  They cultivate beautiful gardens and tutor struggling students. They hold bake sales for fire departments and clear polluted streams. They invest what they can, even as much as they can, without completely abandoning other commitments, other necessities.  Indeed, when we are immersed in our ways of devotion, it becomes easier to forget to feed and bathe the children!

Still there is something about being around those people in Guadalupe — something about that energy and resolve — that raises for me legitimate questions regarding the depth and sufficiency of my own commitments.  In this world where the buttons are literally flying off our carefully tailored clothes, is the energy and skill that we now dispense sufficient to sew them back?  Do we actually have enough devotion to the world we claim we are endeavoring to fix?

As some of you know, there is a section on the BBC website called “50 Reasons to love the world.”  Of course, as the BBC would readily admit and regularly makes plain in part through its “Planet Earth” series, there are many more reasons to love this planet.  Love it, not play deadly games on it, not scheme around its obstacles, not sap its shrinking abundance and wonder.  Real care.  Real devotion.

In listening to the academics at Mora and to diplomats at OPANAL and back home at the UN –all clearly worthy of respect – it still isn’t clear if we will be able to summon what we need and all that we need to navigate our current threats.  We have information; we have skill; we have our careers and communities of practice.  But are we devoted enough?  Is there some helpful dimension for those of us working in the realm of “sustainable peace” equivalent to the loving energy expended by the pilgrims and miracle-seekers of Guadalupe, the ones who travel miles to the Basilica in wheelchairs — even on their knees — and then, when they finally reach their destination, wish only that they had traveled miles more?

In recent months, I have talked often about the need for us all to find another gear.  I think we have to find a deeper gear as well, one that is simultaneously learned and devoted, competent and passionate.  Despite what seems like so many appearances to the contrary, such synergies are both within our grasp and in our collective interest.  In these unsettled times and their seemingly endless demands, devotion is one key for turning episodic interests into faithful and loving pursuits of the “sustaining peace” for which so many around this planet are currently longing.

Evacuation Route: Mapping a Common Exodus from Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Feb

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I have just completed a (very late arriving) flight to Mexico City soon to join regional diplomats and civil society representatives to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and its key implementer, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

As is widely known, the Treaty of Tlatelolco sets out protocols and responsibilities for a nuclear weapons-free zone that has been both stable and in its own right and critical to the development of other regional security arrangements within and beyond the region.  These include zones in other parts of the world that are helping to “shrink” the political and logistical space far-too-long occupied by nuclear weapons and their possessor states.  Moreover, from the security frameworks set in motion by UNASUR to the more normative security platform organized at the United Nations known as CELAC, Latin American states have to a remarkable degree taken advantage of their relative stability and prosperity to create collaborative security that informs and inspires practices worldwide. These collaborations have simultaneously helped preserve critical policy distance from dependency on nuclear weapons and their security doctrines while deepening regional commitments to address the poverty, trafficking in weapons and narcotics, gender-based violence, and social inequalities – often the result of numerous, intimidating interventions from non-regional states — that have tangibly jeopardized the security of too many in the region for far too long.

At the same time, OPANAL is widely regarded as the gold standard for weapons-free zone implementers, a reliable and visible mechanism to keep governments focused on their own disarmament responsibilities while advocating for measures such as “negative security assurances” to help protect regional states from attack from the nuclear armed states as well as encouraging states to monitor their dependencies (and even at times enabling actions) regarding the protective nuclear “umbrella” offered by the US which the treaty itself seeks to disown.

The last time we attended a major OPANAL event was three years ago under its previous Secretary-General.   Our contribution at that time – which we may have occasion to repeat this Tuesday at the Mexican Foreign Ministry but will surely highlight during workshops later in the week with our welcome partner Instituto Mora – is the importance of simultaneously affirming activities to fulfill treaty obligations while promoting more reliable security and development arrangements within and beyond the geographic zone which the treaty helps to define.

Such arrangements include many of the policy norms, practical program and fiscal obligations embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As we noted in another publication on the 2030 Agenda, and about which we have been motivated to take our own action, there has to date been insufficient interaction between development and security actors.  Specifically, as noted by Laura Pereira and others at the UN, disarmament experts were noticeably uninvolved in the formulation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the so-called “peace goal.”  And while Goal 16 does suggest a responsibility to curb the small arms proliferation and trafficking that negatively impact development processes – a key element of Latin American security undertaken with welcome assistance from the UN regional disarmament office in Lima – Goal 16 makes no mention of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

This omission is noteworthy given the devastating impacts from the use of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) on any viable strategies for development .   As the nuclear weapons community is fond of reminding the rest of us, the “humanitarian consequences” from the use of these weapons is likely beyond our capacities to respond.  We are already painfully aware of the high costs of conflict in Latin America and elsewhere – so many diverse lives traumatized, ruined and often ended by insurgencies, by indiscriminate bombing raids, by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.  When nuclear weapons themselves become a lively option for use, the costs of conflict could literally bankrupt the human treasury.

But the other side of this policy interaction also demands more attention.  In the two days of events to celebrate the long history of effective OPANAL actions on behalf of Tlatelolco, little mention will be made of the political, social and economic contexts in which weapons of mass destruction could become, once again, attractive options for states.   Even in the program for the international seminar organized for the first day of the Tlatelolco celebration, the words “development” or “human rights” do not appear on the schedule at all.  Climate is mentioned but simply as a way of “ranking” existential threats, not as the basis for building common policy frameworks for eliminating those threats.

Clearly not every event can cover every eventuality.  The seminars we will conduct with Mora later in this week will also evidence conceptual gaps, will also fail to capitalize on openings for growth and response.  That said, people in these anxious times are also anxious to know how things “fit” and we must do a better job of helping them make connections, as a first step through a demonstrable willingness to seek out and make those connections ourselves.

A development agenda that does not find a way to “flag” existential threats, including from weapons of mass destruction, is engaging in wishful thinking.  So too is a disarmament agenda that does not rigorously interrogate the manifold threats to peace and security from poverty, trafficking, discrimination and a myriad of other factors. We need to be in dialogue with the threats we do not directly address, not to solve them all so much but to be attentive to, support and encourage those attempting to transform the world – to evacuate the threatened, if you will — in ways other than but complementary to our own.

There was a discouraging news wire that the US president was recently having a discussion with his Russian counterpart regarding nuclear weapons policy commitments, specifically those embedded in the START treaty.  At one point, apparently, the US president had to pause the call to ask others standing in the oval office what START was.  While this president may well set the bar for policy incuriousness, the fact that so many nuclear weapons are now in the hands of volatile governments and their leaders is of grave concern.  So too are the relatively tepid commitments from these states to contribute to sustainable security frameworks that (they say) are needed in order to make nuclear weapons obsolete.

Nuclear weapons need to go, regardless of other circumstances.  But circumstances in these difficult times require more from all of us; certainly more from those of us in the security field:  more solidarity and communication with the marginalized, more attentive policy linkages, more tangible encouragement for the important work of others.   As many within our “sector” are thankfully recognizing, this is not the time to “double down” on our issue silos or on our self-serving proclamations about the way things “ought to be.”  If we are to successfully apply a healing balm to our deep social wounds – those that threaten our very existence and those that daily eat away at our collective dignity and resolve – we are simply going to have to raise our game. We will endeavor to accomplish exactly that during our busy policy week in Mexico.


Disabling Poverty:  Overcoming humanity’s most pervasive limitation, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Feb


People presume my disability has to do with being an amputee, but that’s not the case; our insecurities are our disabilities, and I struggle with those as does everyone.  Aimee Mullins

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. — Mark Twain

At the UN this week, the Commission for Social Development has been in session, a Commission that takes up issues and policies related to poverty, disability, ageing and youth, seeking to link these concerns in ways that will motivate greater levels of policy coherence and funding commitments by state and non-state entities.

We’ve always tried to be present in the room for this annual Commission as much as we can, in part because of the constituencies it routinely identifies – youth, persons with disabilities, the aged – but also because of its sensitivity to the ways in which poverty acts as a complicating factor in efforts to help these and other  constituents (as noted in a recent UN report) “fulfill their potential in life, and lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives in a healthy environment.”

As we have written about often, “dignified and rewarding lives” constitutes the essential precondition for peaceful and inclusive societies.  Where the elderly are preyed upon rather than protected, where youth are patronized rather than respected, where persons with disabilities – the apparent and the hidden – are left to fend for themselves on our often-dismal social and economic margins, prospects for conflict within societies surely rise.  For too many people in this world, despite our recent, demonstrable poverty-reduction successes, overcoming the effects of poverty is like trying to claw their way out of a deep swamp with plastic scissors.  Many times, there is no enabling environment anywhere to be found; only insecure spaces filled with hidden pitfalls that persons are mostly incapable of surmounting by themselves.

Of all the poverty-related connections raised during the Commission, the one most “personal” for me is the connection with disabilities. I have no disability myself – only miscalculations and mistakes that I commit, over and over, and about which my circle of friends and loved ones, and the larger world surrounding my life, are much too forgiving.  But I have also seen first-hand how genuine poverty and equally-genuine disabilities reinforce each other. As is the case with many of the other 1 billion people on this planet estimated to be living with disabilities of all kinds, I have seen my former Harlem church family members struggle to overcome the effects of sometimes-severe, physical and psychological limitations.  I have seen some of them toil mightily just to get by, to maintain connections of kindness and avoid discrimination, to find employers willing to take a chance on them or advocates willing to help them pursue more fair and sensitive social policies. I have seen them struggle to find physical or mental health services that could make at least some of the disabilities we widely recognize – and those we don’t quite know what to do with yet – less likely.

It can simply be overwhelming for persons with disabilities who also face the additional burdens of poverty, or for their caregivers (if they exist) trying to make ends meet while overcoming the effects of discrimination of their disabled loved ones.  For some facing severe economic constraints, it takes every ounce of energy, every fiber of resourcefulness, just to keep the sometimes-traumatic and always-insecure impacts and implications of disabilities on a remotely even keel.

In listening this past week to the often hopeful discussions within the Commission, some of us wondered what it would mean to explore the option of seeing poverty not only as a complication to disability but as a potential disability in its own right.  What if we put the same creative energy into finding that metaphorical “prosthesis” for poverty that we have been more and more successful at creating when physical limbs are lost and psychological disorders and addictions proliferate?  What if we could convince states and others to treat poverty more as a “condition” that needs to be addressed – with tools and laws and changes in social perspectives at the ready – and less as a moral failing or stigma to be overcome – or simply ignored altogether?

Given that poverty as we know it is embedded within a host of social and political conditions that breed deprivation and discrimination and impede just and robust societal responses, it will surely be more difficult to address than other “disabilities” – though as the Commission rightly notes, certainly no less essential.  However, this pattern of deprivation, discrimination and inadequate response is common to the more recognizable disabilities community as well.  Indeed, in some parts of the world, we have taken mere “baby steps” towards ending discriminations against persons with disabilities, even as our persistent social inequalities and heavily-armed militias create new legions of disabled, of traumatized, of the fearful and insecure.  Poverty might represent a higher bar for our collective response, but its disabling effects are also far more pervasive.   It is not the first goal of the UN’s 2030 development agenda for no reason.

As I was preparing to write this, I consulted hundreds of photos and “posters” on the internet that focus on one or more aspects of disability.  Many approvingly showed people being kind or courageous, or they depicted welcome examples of how societies are adjusting to differing abilities, challenging both complacency and our dependence on one-size-fits-all approaches to education, health, mobility and other core human tasks.  The solitary image I found in my search that seemed to in any way couple poverty and disability is the one found at the heading of this post.

For that man, as for too many others, the crutches we see from afar could merely hint at the full complement of his potential limitations, including limitations endemic to poverty itself.   While it is unwise to make too many inferences from one photo, we can hopefully come to see that of all the physical impediments and psychological disorders that impede our human progress, it is the pervasiveness of poverty that disables us most.

Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan


Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.

Cooperation Nations:  Creating Circles of Many Winners, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Jan

The only thing that will redeem [human] kind is cooperation. Bertrand Russell

There are days in our office (as I suspect in most others) when dissonance overwhelms clarity, when it seems as though we are hell bent on confirming the darkest, murkiest corners of our human character.  While it appears that Gambia will finally achieve political transition, ominous clouds are descending over Cameroon, a country and people for which we have a special fondness and which appears, more and more, to be giving in to the stresses of Boko Haram, refugees from its neighbors, and the vestiges of a protracted bi-lingual struggle that is now quite out in the open and warns of more ugliness to come.

And then there was Friday’s spectacle in Washington, DC featuring a new president with his own dark and at times insulting message; a day that also called attention to a violent minority within what were mostly peaceful protestors, a minority whose own angry message is unlikely to turn down any of the heat that most in what is now referred to as “the winner’s circle” of governance seem disinterested to turn down themselves.

Up the road in New York, I sit daily in “safe” multilateral space, full of people whose task it is to create and endorse norms that are intended to impact behaviors within and beyond national borders.  On the US inauguration day alone, the Security Council found common ground with the Economic Community for West Africa on ways to ease what is now a full-fledged political transition in Gambia.   The General Assembly is close to finding common ground on a conference that will endorse protocols for “safe, orderly and regular migration” with a clear priority on “effective participation of all relevant stakeholders” from scientists to migrants themselves. And in ECOSOC, the Forum on Forests cemented details on a document that will highlight the critical role that forests must continue to play in addressing climate-related impacts.

There are holes that can be “poked” in all three of these initiatives, including states running away from the idea that the regulations they are creating on migration governance have any sort of legal force. But the fact remains that none of these would have even a fraction of the global support they enjoy if not for the sometimes torturous but mostly welcome convening and norm-building power of the UN.

With dramatic changes in Washington, that power will surely and soon be put to the test.  Despite the fact that the US has long been the de facto decision maker at the UN, despite all the deference to US interests which most UN diplomats are encouraged to display, new leadership in Washington seems convinced that the UN will need to sing even louder for its supper — deep-throated odes to the needs and whims of US leadership — or risk losing its place at the dinner table.

There have been US-orchestrated challenges previously, mostly behind the scenes, to the fiscal and political integrity of the UN.   And frankly not all those challenges have been without merit.   It is difficult to assess the current threat level at this early stage, one which could well result in more or less the status quo or facilitate a highly dramatic move out of New York with US funding completely severed,  at least until the next electoral cycle.  Multilateralism was never the strongest interest of many of those who bothered to vote in the US election this time around, and there was nothing in yesterday’s inaugural speech that indicated that such dismissive indifference to the UN, at least at high official levels, will abate any time soon.

Thankfully, the UN that I see up close every day is better equipped than perhaps it has ever been to handle this challenge.  More governments are taking the lead on policy, grasping connections across sectors and finding ways to contribute to the global commons and not only reap its capacity-building benefits. More governments are stepping up with ideas, with funds, and with inspiration needed to cooperatively tackle global problems, some of which have become nearly overwhelming in their scope.

Let’s be clear:   While the UN still too often privileges protocol over insight and bureaucracy over character, we have what it takes in this space to meet our global development and climate obligations.    We have what it takes to create safe and orderly conditions for persons fleeing conflict or drought, or merely seeking a safer environment for their children.  We have what it takes to end our reliance on weapons of mass destruction, to reduce threats from pandemics, to solve conflicts upstream so that we don’t have to unravel mass atrocities downstream.

There is enough talent and resolve in and around the UN to help the human race get through this rough, distracted and dangerous patch — with or without the largesse or approval of any single state and its temporary government.

And thankfully, the potency of our multilateral institutions is mirrored, even surpassed, by the potency of global citizens. The extraordinary, hopeful and non-violent marches that swamped the streets of Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York on Saturday and which resonated with many thousands of other women (and some men) marching in settings from Mexico and Australia to South Dakota and Missouri, are the latest, forceful indication that there will be no turning back, there must be no turning back, on women’s full participation, on respect of persons, on gender justice.

But as there is no turning back, there must also be no turning away.   For every woman of determination marching on Saturday, there is surely at least one woman who might feel slighted, or ridiculed; who might be discouraged from participating in marches in part ABOUT participation perhaps because she doesn’t toe the line on progressive orthodoxy; because her views on what makes women empowered don’t jive with the ideational and behavioral expectations of the political and cultural celebrities who seem always to find their way in front of the cameras.

If the myopic grimness characteristic of Friday’s inauguration in DC is to be countered effectively – and the Saturday marches were a hugely hopeful beginning — it will require an expanding tent, what we at the UN like to refer to as “a broader range of stakeholder engagements.”  To counter threats from hostile officials, whether grounded in ideological paranoia or garden-variety misogyny, our mostly like-minded movements – no matter how large and vocal — are unlikely to be sufficient to the current spate of threats, even if those groupings are already better equipped to fill the streets with legitimate concern than the sources of the threats themselves.

The pathway to the change that women are rightly looking to sustain and grow lies beyond elections and their victors, beyond celebrity endorsers and well-worn messaging.  Indeed, it probably also lies beyond the women marchers themselves.  Much like the hopeful agendas endorsed this week at the UN this change does not depend as much as we might think on the largesse or “permission” of any particular government.  But it does depend on our willingness to push the envelope on participation, doing more to ensure that all who seek to share a contributing, even cooperating voice will have that voice respected and, to the highest degree possible, integrated.

We at the UN must work much harder to honor our promises to include all states and their constituents in global policy. On the domestic side, we would also do well to keep our doors – and our ears – open to the voices of those many, still-marginal women and their still-marginal neighbors, persons tempted to brood in the darkest corners of our national psyches in part because they feel, rightly or wrongly, barred from access to brighter spaces.

A Pound of Cure: The new UNSG Seeks Upstream Alternatives to Downstream Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jan

Let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.  Maya Angelou

The Security Council was a bit more festive than usual this week as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and five new members of the Council – Sweden (as president), Italy, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Kazakhstan — made their first presentation in chambers under their current status.

All five states have so far handled their duties with aplomb, especially Sweden which was thrust into the presidency on its very first day back in the Council. Bolivia, taking over from an often-combative Venezuela, was equally feisty, criticizing the large Council powers – in this instance especially the US – for playing unfairly, largely through their manipulation of both Council working methods and policy outcomes.   We always appreciate a concern for fairness and hope that Bolivia can help find the clarity and tact needed to bring the non-permanent members together to address working methods and power imbalances long in need of correction.

But on this day the stage belonged to newly minted SG Guterres who has not only hit the ground running, but as outgoing US Ambassador Power noted, he is also running hard.   And he appears to be heading in a direction different from most of his predecessors – not only keen to address crises, as he is now attempting to do in Cyprus, but even more to keep crises from happening in the first place.

Guterres’ “upstream” approach is fully in keeping with directions advocated by Global Action and many other NGOs.  As he himself noted, while preventing conflict is not always straightforward, it is clearly more cost effective than rebuilding failed states after conflict – costs related to the repair of damaged infrastructure as well as healing for traumatized families who have already watched their intimate spaces and the communities beyond crumble around them.

The UN has, as many speakers in the Security Council on this day acknowledged, a full toolkit to address conflict and crisis at earlier stages.  What we do not have, as Guterres himself advised, is a reliable, robust early warning mechanism that would allow us to engage potential adversaries through re-energized tools including diplomacy, mediation and good offices. What we also need, in our own view, is a Secretariat more committed to over-ride political obstacles and bring fresh and actionable information to the Security Council at a point when preventive measures are most likely to bear fruit.

Even with that, conflict prevention remains a high and daunting bar. Two days after the Guterres statement, the Council met again for an update on conflict in the Lake Chad basin, a long-festering crisis defined by Boko Haram atrocities, one that is constantly evolving as climate change, drought and other social and environmental factors destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, inflame local tensions, and create massive flows of displaced persons for reasons that go beyond terror-related threats.

It is not an overstatement, as noted in the Council by the Nigerian Ambassador, that a “shrinking” Lake Chad has become a “tinderbox” for regional conflict, an area (as shared by Senegal) characterized by significant “resource depletion” that lies at the core of regional instability.   Add in the presence of trafficking networks in arms, narcotics and persons (cited by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi) as well as high child mortality rates in regional camps for the internally displaced (as described by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien), and you have the makings of a protracted crisis that only becomes more difficult to resolve whether Council calls for “action” by Ukraine’s Ambassador and others are heeded or not.

Given the deep severity of longstanding crises such as Lake Chad, you would think that the notion of preventive maintenance would have wide resonance for diplomats, in part because their own lives are veritably punctuated with preventive obligations.   We feed and inoculate children we love so they can grow strong and better resist disease.  We educate children so that they can achieve decent employment and self-sufficiency. We service our vehicles so that they won’t leave our families stranded at the sides of highways. We conduct boiler maintenance in our homes so that we are not without heat on the coldest winter days. We put coats on our children because we don’t want them to get sick and because we don’t want to have to take care of sick children.

Waiting until things go horribly wrong before we act is widely considered to be grossly irresponsible – to ourselves and to those for whom we are actually responsible.   This principle applies in virtually every area of life – except at times inside our large multi-lateral institutions.   In these places we authorize massive funding to rebuild societies that did not need to face destruction in the first place.  We seek to rehabilitate so many thousands of victims who did not need to suffer in the first place. We develop a formidable infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian relief to persons subject to unspeakable cruelty the causes for which were anything but inevitable.

Unfortunately, in the realm of international diplomacy, prevention is not as simple as getting children vaccinated, keeping insurance policies updated or changing the oil in our car’s crankcase.  We can be more “preventive” in our personal lives in part because of the extra degrees of control that we exercise in that realm such as when determining how our children eat and learn.  In the realm of diplomacy, however prevention runs up against a Charter conundrum (not to mention UN culture) – that states maintain rights to territorial integrity and sovereign equality until states choose otherwise or until circumstances on the ground are sufficiently dire and compelling enough to warrant more focused international attention.  In other words, the presumption of authority lies with states to resolve problems before other states (or the UN itself) can claim a vested interest in so doing.

This, as indicated by Guterres, is a culture requiring both acknowledgment and refreshment.  If states remain free to refuse guidance and assistance (from the UN and other states as well as from the wisdom of their own citizens) right up to the moment when they are forced to confront national versions of the “gates of hell,” then our “love of prevention before illness” will remain as an aspiration for poets but essentially beyond the reach of diplomats. We can’t make states accept that “love” no matter how sincere it might actually be.

And as a number states will readily attest, it is not always so “sincere.”  Among other examples within this institution, we have rarely displayed the honesty and care to do a “full cost accounting” of armed conflict and other crises.   If we had to sit with and dwell upon our massive and often ineffective expenditures related to our current “conflict management” preoccupations–including the proliferating armaments that we tolerate in too many security environments, weapons that generate much trauma and distrust but little in the way of sustainable employment or sustainable peace — we would surely hesitate more than we do now before authorizing coercive responses that are rarely timely let alone particularly “loving.”

Perhaps this is indicative of what prevention dictates in multilateral settings; perhaps this is the culture change that can make “up-stream” engagements more productive and hopefully more likely. We can embrace future opportunities (which the new SG will hopefully provide) for sober, honest and respectful sit-downs with ourselves and our communities of policy regarding our expensive and unsustainable habits of response — the weapons we churn out but also the peacebuilding actions we postpone and the diplomatic tools we leave dormant in our toolbox, all of which make recourse to armaments (and other coercive measures) more inevitable than helpful.

If SG Guterres is to succeed in his efforts at policy redirection, if the UN is to remain politically relevant and fiscally viable in the face of evolving conflict threats, then we can no longer accept the crushing expense associated with sluggish action; neither can we ignore our patterns of irresponsibility towards those we presumably care about, patterns arising from our failure to engage threats at their most propitious moments as well as the failure to keep our most effective tools of diplomatic engagement close at hand.

Policy Scrabble:  Words that reveal; Words that bind, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jan

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain

The UN has had a quiet week.  Perhaps the most notable event was the formal transition to a new leadership team headed by SG Guterres and, in the Security Council, a bit of relief that the Kabila government in the troubled DR Congo has seen the wisdom (or at least uttered the words) of agreeing to a political transition including (relatively) expedited presidential and parliamentary elections in that country.

In a Presidential Statement issued in the Council by Sweden’s Amb. Skoog, DR Congo leaders are urged to continue on the path “to organize peaceful, credible, inclusive and timely presidential, national and provincial legislative elections no later than December 2017, leading to a peaceful transfer of power.”  President Kabila might well pursue this request.  He may also find new “reasons” to stall.  To that latter end, he might even invent a security crisis (beyond the many we already know about) or make some “trumped up” (pun intended) claim about the unreliability of MONUSCO and other UN partners to honor their own security or development promises.

In the gaps between declaration and intention lies a conundrum for the Security Council, indeed for the entire UN system. We are an institution of words — we make statements, give speeches, make presentations, write reports and resolutions.  Words and more words, statements made year after year, at times where little but the page heading has changed, words that bear little resemblance to circumstances on the ground, and which are rarely challenged by those who might well know better. Part of the muted skepticism of diplomats which is not uncommon across the UN, stems from so many discernible disconnects between the words we utter and the actions (if any) we eventually and collectively take.

It is frustrating, in and out of the UN, to see what has become of words.  Political cultures in the UN and in many member states seem to have lost their moorings when it comes to straight talk, not only the validity of the “facts” we cite, but in the contexts we provide for the judgments we make.  In this, “truth” (for all its contemporary imprecision) is more than simply disregarded; indeed in some political circles it is actually ridiculed as “old school” in a manner not unlike the social approbation cast on users of flip phones or cassette players.   The “truth,”, as we note often and with increasing urgency, is now simply what you can convince others is true.  And a “lie” is simply something someone is not prepared to hear, especially if it is about themselves and/or their policy choices.  Shrinking standards.  Flimsy evidence.  Thin Skin.  Ignoring the people paid to know about facts and contexts essential to finding the “right words.”

To the persuasive go the spoils.

As we wish we never had to write again, we have lost the discursive dimension of words, that is, the deployment of words to reveal and relate.  Words for us have become like what we used to call “sweet talk” a way to get someone to part with something you want rather than a means for establishing and building connection.  We are often content now, it seems, to be merely sellers and buyers, looking for a good deal – in business or politics – but having fewer and fewer convictions of a world we want to live in beyond the material plane, and even fewer notions of whose lives are impacted by the convictions we hold (or don’t).  Indeed, “convictions” themselves are becoming just another means to massage an audience into believing that someone “cares” even in those (thankfully still) uncommon instances when there is not a drop of evidence to support the presence of a caring impulse.

This phenomenon is neither new nor confined to the current spate of populist currents grabbing headlines around the world.  We in the more elite centers of influence actually cashed in many of our linguistic chips a while ago.  We made bold promises to people from our lofty perches and then smirked at those same people when they fell for our pitch.  We created and advertised technology that promises connection but is actually closer to a full-on selling machine.  We now often text people instead of calling them in part because the brevity of texting lends itself to the making of demands and the establishing of preferences.  On the phone (admittedly not my favorite device), people can hesitate or even object to our plans and strategies.  Negotiations might be needed.  We might have to explain ourselves.   Nope.  Not happening.

When we speak, too often it is to manipulate outcomes.  We also speak to be accounted for, which we often see in Security Council as protocol demands that all 15 members insist on weighing in on a particular security issue when perhaps half offer real substance to contribute to policy going forward.   Less and less do we speak to reveal, to tear away the shroud of politics and let people – even high-end diplomats – glimpse the mistakes that we lament, the circumstances of threat that keep us awake at night, the worries we have that maybe – just maybe – we’re in over our collective heads this time.

President Kabila, egged on by advisers and UN officials, might be sincere in his desire to effect a peaceful political transition for DR Congo.  From what we know about corruption and spoilers in that country, as well as cross-country tensions of a political and ethnic nature, the challenges of transition will be formidable even if the hopefulness of Kabila’s words is to be matched by the sincerity of his transition strategies.

But what if that isn’t the case?  What if this promise of transition turns out to be just another smokescreen, just another delaying tactic, just another bait and switch to throw political opponents and the international community off their respective games?  How will we know, and do we have what it takes to discern what would be yet another gross political insincerity in a manner timely enough to divert its course?

The fear of my office is that at some level, perhaps unconsciously, we have become so accustomed to empty phrases and broken promises that we have forgotten that there is another way, another objective for the words which currently fill our world to brimming, another path to contribute to holding others –even our leaders, even our inner circles – accountable to rhetorical commitments.

The populist movements flaring up around the world are not merely skeptical of “truth” in some self-authorizing and self-defeating fashion; some abandon “truth” in large measure because it was first abandoned around them – democracies bought and sold; media filling the airwaves with escapist nonsense and then telling only (the easy) half of any story; educators cultivating youth with skills for non-existent jobs but not for their very-much-existent lives; an economic system that aggressively disrespects the needs of workers so that the super-rich can continue their own shrouded competitions.

Is it any wonder that so many people have stepped away from civic life, preferring rooting interests and reality television to investments of themselves in still-grand civic projects?    I think not.  Indeed, if we are serious about addressing this malaise in our civic culture we must first avoid the temptation to do in political and diplomatic life what the Wall Street crowd did after the 2008 collapse – keep our heads down for a time and then go back to the familiar, insulated and, in the case of the mega-investors, lucrative business at hand:  with “sweet” words to match, of course.

This won’t work for us.   Not this time.  If people are to come to believe again in we who deign to manage institutions of culture, governance and economy, we must adopt softer, less judgmental and more straightforward communications, even about our greatest policy concerns and hardest policy challenges. We must insist on honoring the promises embedded in the rhetoric of all our leaders. And we must work harder to find the right words to let people know –many times over and despite a generation of appearances to the contrary — that we believe in them as well.