Making War Unnecessary
An Interview with Dr. David Hamburg

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Dec. 05, 2003

On the occasion of the publication of Dr. David A. Hamburg's soft-cover edition of his new book, No More Killing Fields, we present an interview by John Dean with Dr. Hamburg.

For a decade and a half, Dr. Hamburg has been the head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, where he now serves as president emeritus. Trained as a medical doctor, Dr. Hamburg was a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and president of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences. He has also served as the director of the Division of Health Policy Research and Education and John D. MacArthur Professor of Health Policy at Harvard University.

Dr. Hamburg's work has been recognized around the world, with tributes ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1994, Dr. Hamburg and former secretary of state Cyrus Vance launched the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, which serves as one of the sources for his book, along with a lifetime of experience..

Much of Dr. Hamburg's career has addressed conflict resolution, which, of course, is the work of lawyers, judges and courts. The rule of law is very much part of Dr. Hamburg's thinking, but he focuses preventing the major conflicts before they occurs, rather than resolving them -- as so often happens -- by violent means after they have erupted.

Alternatives To War

Q: The war in Iraq is not over, rather it is becoming a guerilla war. There is increasing advocacy in the United States for war with Iran and North Korea, notwithstanding world opinion against such war. Terrorism has become global, and it is possible a terrorist group may obtain nuclear or biological weapons. Are there really viable alternatives to incessant killing, or is war the way of civilization?

A: War is not like the weather that comes and goes beyond our power to influence. That attitude is obsolete. The growing destructive capacities of humanity make this the prime problem of the twenty-first century. How we cope with this problem will have a profound bearing on all humanity--indeed on human survival altogether.

So, humans can more powerfully incite violence and do more damage than ever before in our violent history. No group is so small or so far away as to prevent it from doing immense damage anywhere. If we follow our present path--as manifested in Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan, Congo, India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, the onslaught of September 11, 2001, and the suicide bombings that have become common in Islamic Jihad--the twenty-first century will have horrible prospects.

Curiously, a war-seeking orientation is widespread around the world, including some strong political personalities in the United States, the most powerful country in the world's history. While war is sometimes necessary and just, as was World War II, achieving good outcomes by prevention of war is far preferable. Indeed, World War II and the Holocaust probably could have been prevented in the first half of the 1930s through international cooperation. To the extent possible, the carnage and hideous suffering of war--now more dangerous than ever before--must be prevented in just, constructive ways that deal with real dangers and serious grievances fairly and effectively.

Outlines For Preventing Deadly Conflicts

Q: What kind of specific information, actions, and institutions can prevent war before it is too late?

A: We must strengthen an array of institutions and organizations that can use tools and strategies of preventing deadly conflict. This includes our own and other governments, intergovernmental organizations, especially the UN but also regional organizations like the European Union and NATO. There is also a highly significant array of institutions of civil society in democracies: scientific and scholarly community, educational and religious institutions, as well as business, media, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on preventing mass violence.

All these can help but they must be strengthened for this purpose. Above all, the community of established democracies must get its act together, with or without United States leadership.

Q: If we get established democracies to act together, generally speaking, how should this problem be approached?

The prime example of operational prevention is preventive diplomacy. The prime example of structural prevention is democratic development--in both a political and economic sense. Much has been learned in recent years about both kinds of prevention. The world needs strong international cooperation to be effective for both purposes. The two main models are: (1) UN-led cooperation; and (2) cooperation led by the community of established democracies. There are links between the two. Moreover, there is a large role for non-governmental organizations in both approaches. Their potential for helping to prevent war has greatly increased.

Concepts and techniques for reducing the damage of hatred and violence need to be much more widely understood by publics everywhere. One key place to begin such crucial education is with leaders. Another, perhaps more fundamental in the long run, is with children and youth, building a solid foundation for an ultimately more peaceful life moving toward mutual understanding and cooperation among human groups throughout the world.

We are not here searching for a Pollyannish, pacifist utopia. But we are trying to face the emerging realities of the exceedingly interdependent world, which throws us humans together more extensively and vividly than ever before, inevitably producing friction. The capacity for incitement of hatred and violence is much more powerful than ever before and many nation-states have large quantities of exceedingly destructive weapons. Now terrorists have a growing capacity to buy, steal, make and use weapons of mass destruction. Thus, we are coming to a situation in which ancient harsh attitudes and hateful beliefs acquire powers to destroy that dwarf those of our ancestors. Although this is the central challenge of our time, it has been seriously neglected.

Q: What is the most difficult problem, and the greatest need, to reverse this trend?

A: The hardest problem: a small number of counties that are intransigent toward outsiders, mired in hatred, controlled by tyrants--sometimes supportive of terrorists. For them, the international community must seek incessantly to draw them into the community of civilized nations, fostering democratic development, while containing and deterring them as may be necessary with forceful means.

The most pervasive need is for the international community to be prepared and proactive in helping nations or groups in trouble rather than waiting for disaster to strike. For the longer term, this essentially means help in acquiring attitudes, concepts, skills and institutions for resolving internal and external conflicts. It means help in building political and economic institutions of democracy. There can be--and of necessity will be--many different international configurations through which such help can be provided. And it can be done in a way that is sensitive to cultural traditions and regional circumstances.

To offer such help will especially involve relating to moderate, constructive, pragmatic leaders who are oriented to humane and democratic values. They exist all over the world but their situation is often precarious. The international community can reach out to them and provide recognition in the context of an international support network--and in the long run help such leaders to build institutions capable of meeting basic human needs and coping with the conflicts that arise in the course of human interactions.

Thus, intervention in problematic situations need not be military in nature. Indeed, if reasonable measures are taken in other spheres--political, economic, social, psychological--military intervention will rarely be necessary. Still military capability is essential--especially, in coping with aggressive dictators and fanatical haters.

Overall, the prevention of catastrophic violence involves providing conditions under which it is possible to meet the essential requirements for decent human relations and socioeconomic development through the cooperative efforts of pivotal institutions that have the salience and the capacity to do the job; above all, international cooperation for democratic development such as the United States led in Europe, Japan, and South Korea after World War II and the Korean War. There are lessons from these experiences that are applicable in the twenty-first century.

Keys To Preventive Diplomacy

Q: Would you give us a thumb nail summary of how preventive diplomacy should work -- rather than a preventive war, where we simply go on another killing spree which never solves the problem, and creates what today we call "blowback."

A: The international community should not wait for a crisis. Ideally, there should be ongoing programs of international help--offered by governments, intergovernmental organizations, and also by nongovernmental organizations. These would build the capacity of groups to address grievances effectively without violence and establish permanent mechanisms for sorting out conflicts peacefully before they become explosive.

Major new studies converge on key points of preventive diplomacy. These studies send a to-whom-it-may concern message to the international community: to governments, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations of many kinds, and leaders in different sectors. Some recurrent elements of the preventive diplomacy message can be stated simply:

1. Recognize dangers early; beware of wishful thinking.

2. Get the facts straight from multiple credible sources, including history and culture of a particular latent or emerging conflict.

3. Pool strengths, share burdens, divide labor among entities with the capacity, salience, and motivation to be helpful.

4. Foster widespread public understanding of conflict resolution and violence prevention. This gives a basis for hope of just settlement.

6. Formulate superordinate goals--that is, goals highly desirable to both adversarial groups that they can only obtain by cooperation.

7. Use economic leverage: carrots and sticks; what can be gained by peaceful settlement and lost by violence. Clarify incentives for conflict resolution.

8. Support moderate, pragmatic local leaders, including emerging leaders, especially democratic reformers. Buffer their precarious position.

9. Bear in mind the pervasive need of negotiators and their constituencies for respect and dignity. Help negotiators strengthen the cooperation among the constituencies within their own group. Maintain an attitude of shared humanity and possibilities for mutual accommodation.

10. Upgrade preparation for preventive diplomacy in relevant entities--for example, governments, the UN, regional organizations; dedicated units for preventive diplomacy that maintain knowledge and skill in early conflict resolution and knowledge of the region; specific training for staff, updated in light of ongoing worldwide experience; roster of experts on call for leadership organizations such as the UN and democratic governments.

Overall, if guidelines of this sort are incorporated into the thinking of governments, intergovernmental organizations and peace-oriented nongovernmental organizations, it is likely that the risk of drifting into disasters will be diminished.

The Role Of Democracy

Q: President Bush recently gave a speech in which he encouraged the spread of democracy around the world. I gather from your writings, while there is much about the present administration that you might take issue with, that you have become convinced that democracy is part of the long term solution?

A: Democracy is vital to long-term solutions. Democratic traditions evolve in ways that build ongoing mechanisms for dealing with the ubiquitous conflicts that arise in the course of human experience. Democracy seeks ways to deal fairly with conflicts and to resolve them below the threshold of mass violence. This is a difficult process, there are failures, and the transition from a closed authoritarian society to a fully viable, open democratic society can be stormy--and they need international help in turbulent transitional times. But this is the best chance for dealing justly and peacefully with the tensions of humanity.

There are effective means for promoting democracy internationally. For new, emerging, and fragile democracies, it is valuable to strengthen the political and civic infrastructure of democracy through international cooperation. This involves technical assistance, financial aid, and social exchanges to build the requisite processes and institutions, including widespread education of publics about the actual workings of a democracy.

Toward these ends, the democratic community has begun to establish special funds to strengthen emerging democracies. Such funds may be administered through nongovernmental organizations as well as government agencies and international multilateral organizations. Funding, technical assistance, and human solidarity must be sustained over a period of many years to support the complicated processes of democracy building. There is much more to it than one successful election. Sophisticated assessments show that, despite many obstacles, much can be accomplished.

Q: And, of course, there is always the question of money, the economic aspects of democratic development. Would you comment on that aspect of the problem?

A: Economic improvement of an equitable sort is vital to sustaining democratic development. We have learned important lessons from successes and failures of socioeconomic development in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the past half-century. Why are there still widely prevalent threats to survival when modern science and technology have made such powerful contributions to human well-being? What can we do to diminish the kind of vulnerability that leads to desperation--and often to violence? Many nations in the global south have been late in getting access to the unprecedented opportunities now available for economic and social development.

Many poor nations are seeking ways to modernize in keeping with their own cultural traditions and distinctive settings. All this must be adapted to local and regional conditions. There is no cookie cutter for all situations. As a practical matter, international cooperation is essential to be sure that the pooling of strengths can provide adequate financial, technical and human resources to help the process of socioeconomic development over decades.

The international community should reach out in any feasible way to build capacity for nonviolent conflict resolution--ongoing, lifelong, endless ways of dealing with life's problems. This is feasible when most people in a society feel that they have decent life chances; when they are not oppressed and have their basic needs met for child and adolescent development; and live in a social environment conducive to attachment, hope, physical security, and reliable standard of living. Then, there is greater likelihood for understanding and using concepts and techniques of conflict resolution, and respecting laws and institutions intended to achieve fair resolution of conflict without violence.

Successful foreign policy requires not only military strength, but judicious use of that strength along with economic, political, social and psychological assets that hold allies and build friendships for cooperative efforts to shape a better world. The time has come to mobilize the intellectual, technical, financial and moral strengths of the world's democracies, acting in respectful cooperation for mutual benefit to stop the slaughter before it is too late.


Interviewer John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President. (Full disclosure: Mr. Dean has collaborated on a number of projects, over the years with David Hamburg's son Eric, a film producer.)

Ads by FindLaw