Alumni Share: International Conflict-Resolution

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Podcast Transcript


Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode, we will be speaking with Dr. Valery Perry a 1998 Boren fellow to Bosnia. Dr. Perry has worked in the western Balkans since the late 1990s conducting research and working for organizations including the Democratization Policy Council, the European Centre for Minority issues, the NATO Stabilization Force and several NGOs. She has consulted for the UN office on drugs and crimes, and the UN development program among others. She received her PhD from George Mason University's Institute for conflict analysis and resolution, her focus is on post-war political Dynamics, good governance and social reconstruction. Her most recent book, “Extremism and violent extremism in Serbia” explores the issue of extremism through research for an interdisciplinary perspective. Thank you for joining us Dr. Perry

Dr. Perry:    Hi Shabnam how are you?

Shabnam:   I'm well. One thing I found really interesting is that after your Boren, you decided to stay in Bosnia, and you're currently located in Sarajevo correct?

Dr. Perry:    Yes that's correct.

Shabnam:   So why did you decide to stay in Bosnia?

Dr. Perry:    Sure. I first came to Bosnia in 1997 for two short-term missions to do election observation for some of the first local post-war Municipal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then later from some extraordinary elections in one of the country's two entities. It was then that I realized that I would have an opportunity to do some very interesting dissertation research on what the early stages of implementation of a peace process would be. The war had ended in late 1995, and so in those first two years you could really sort of see the way things were starting to change and develop. I came on my Boren Fellowship in 1999 to do my research for my dissertation at George Mason University, and while I was here during that year, I met so many interesting people and I found and I just really started to get a feel for the situation, to really start to meet people, understand the issues, make some good contacts and understand the different dynamics. When the 12 months finished, I decided to stick around a little bit more. I had some interesting opportunities to do some different consulting both with some NGOs but also with the NATO peacekeeping force at the time, and I decided to stay. I was glad that I did, I never would have anticipated that I would stay for over 20 years, but I've been very fortunate to have a lot of interesting academic, professional, research and personal opportunities that have allowed me to really see what was happening in Bosnia-Herzegovina since then, how it's been developing over the past two decades, and how wide range of citizens and diplomats and aid workers and journalists and researchers are all trying to work together to just try to give the country a better future after the tragedy of the early 1990s.

Shabnam:   What motivated you to pursue this career in conflict resolution?

Dr. Perry:    I was an undergraduate at the time that we saw the Cold War beginning to end, and it was a very exciting time. Every time you turned on TV you open the newspaper you would see something happening, either in terms of the Berlin Wall opening up or people having the first multi-party elections in some country. It was a fascinating time to be studying political science, international relations and I realized that perhaps this was a generational opportunity to try to understand and contribute to a world where we would have more of a focus on peace, on human rights promotion, on accountable governance and on using resources and not just from the United States but globally, to improve the situation in which people everywhere in the world we're living. The Cold War had taken a lot of energy and resources over decades, and the peace dividend that was coming at the end of the Cold War seemed to offer a lot of opportunities. Unfortunately, after the initial euphoria when the Cold War ended, we began to see different violent conflicts emerge. I spent obviously my – a large amount of my life now, in the former Yugoslavia which was home to the worst bloodshed on European soil since World War II. However, we also saw other wars popping up in Central Asia and the Caucuses, in sub-Saharan Africa, globally. It became very clear that even though this phase in history was coming to an end, there was, more than ever, a need to understand the dynamics of conflict, understand what makes violence turn into a conflict, and how different actors can try to prevent or mediate an end to a conflict and minimize the human suffering and damage.

Shabnam:   Yeah and I know from your work and from your experience in the field you've talked about the importance of proactively creating conditions to end wars. Could you talk a little bit about what those conditions would be?

Dr. Perry:    Sure. Unfortunately, I think that we still have a lot to learn about how to end a war. Even more importantly is how to prevent a war from breaking out in the first place. Once wars begin, they take on a dynamic that can really feed itself and be difficult to rein back in, it’s like using the old metaphor of trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. However, I think we have learned different ways to try to mitigate the pain and the damage of conflict, but also how to try to become involved to try to negotiate an end to a conflict, an end to a war sooner rather than later. One of these is making sure that you've got the right people sitting around the peace talks, and unfortunately, I think that global players aren't always as good at this as we might like to see them. Due to decades, centuries of international diplomacy, peace treaties are still hammered out by high level politicians, many of whom have often been very closely and directly involved in starting and prolonging the war themselves, so you find yourself negotiating with the arsonist who started a fire while you're trying to find a way to put it out, and this is unfortunate, its natural but it's unfortunate. There are ways we can try to lessen this sole exclusive roll of these elites by trying to at least boost the abilities, boost the presence of other actors that are on the ground trying to collect information from a wide variety of citizens, whether that could be people from different minority groups, different national minority elements in society, women's voices are very often completely ignored during peace talks and just different voices. We can't always assume that just because someone seems to fit a certain ethno-national label that they do, and so trying to sort of have a lot of different voice there around the table, not just the handful of individuals who are often only male at the table, to try to make sure that it will be a bit more balanced.

One other a lesson that I think we've learned from the experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Dayton peace agreement is that if you want to have something done during the peace implementation process, it really does help if you included in the peace treaty. The Dayton peace agreement was interesting because while it included very detailed blueprints in terms of security guidelines and benchmarks for separating the formerly warring forces, for moving artillery and infantry, etc. It also involved a number of annexes about various civilian aspects of state building and peace-building, ranging from holding free and fair elections to ensuring that people who had been forced out of their homes during the bloodshed had a right to return, but also some interesting elements such as establishing a commission to try to preserve national monuments, to try to protect or rebuild some of the cultural heritage of had been willfully destroyed quite often during the war. This was useful, this was quite innovative in terms of demonstrating that a peace process also has to be about the society, the culture, the voters who are selecting the type of government that they want.

I think a third lesson that I would give in terms of how to end a war, is that a good policy that’s poorly implemented is going to be bad policy. This is where I think we've seen that over the past nearly twenty-five years now, those elements of the peace agreement that were taken seriously by both domestic leadership and citizens but also by international actors involved in implementation had the best chances of actually being implemented and actually remaining in place. Those aspects of the peace agreement that were ignored, that were seen as not really that essential, that we were started half-heartedly but then not really followed through, those are the elements that have been in the most week, and quite often the most fleeting. People have said this for years, but when you sign a peace agreement that's not the end of the work, that's just the beginning, and it's going to take a long time and all of the stakeholders in the community but also among international actors who are interested in supporting a constructive peace to really buckle down and commit to the implementation.

Shabnam:   What impact has them the trend in authoritarian leaders, especially in modern times had on societies and governments as it relates to peace and conflict?

Dr. Perry:    Sure. I think one thing that we've seen over the past 30 years, but really throughout history and in very recent history as well, is that authoritarian leaders can a merge anywhere, and it's also a reflection either of a lack of functioning checks and balances, a lack of effective domestic power sharing being spread among various levels of government from the most local to the highest state or national level government, and a lack of a robust and functioning sense of mechanisms and systems that all need to basically serve as being a check on power. We've seen throughout the 20th century and also the 21st century that citizens can either fall prey to authoritarian tendencies, but sometimes they can actually vote for them. Just because someone is in an authoritarian or even a dictatorship position, doesn't always mean that they seized power. Sometimes authoritarian leaders or authoritarian leaning leaders can be voted into office, and this can vary off and be a reflection of discontent among citizens, but also a reflection of some failures in terms of various systems that can rein a free and independent and open press, a functional method of voting and electoral unit construction and designation, that means that there's not always a very good connection between the voters and the people they're voting for, and also a strong judicial sector which can serve as a constant check on any potential authoritarian pulses. I think that while some societies might think that they’re immune from these tendencies, but we’re seeing that's not always the case. In the European Union now there's been quite some concern about some authoritarian tendencies that can be seen in Hungry and in Poland for example. We’ve also seen this quite strongly over the past years in Turkey, but these are by no means the only countries that have experienced this trend, and I think we need to dig deeply to see what the structures are, what the social conditions are that lead to this, and what some of the structural incentives and drivers can exist in a society leaning towards that direction.

Finally, I think the most important thing to remember is that even if a society seems to be voting for some authoritarian leaders, this is very often just a very short-term reaction to a frustration with social conditions. At the end of the day people in every society want just a few basic rights in terms of governance, and those include having a right to pick who governs them, and then secondly having the ability to hold them to account so that it’s a responsible governance, and when those break down you can see a rise in authoritarian tendencies.

Shabnam:   Thank you Dr. Perry. I know you also recently published a book as well on extremism and violent extremism in Serbia, where you discuss how many countries in the region and especially in the case of Serbia are vulnerable to far-right nationalism and Neo-Nazi movement that are more of a threat because they're viewed as examples of “normalized political expression.” I wanted to ask you what makes Serbia at risk for violent extremism, and can your findings be paralleled to other nations?

Dr. Perry:    Sure. To answer your last question first, definitely. Serbia and its role it today but also its position in the former Yugoslavia is quite interesting in terms of being a canary in the coal mine in some ways of some various trends that can develop and evolve. Either when there is a complete sudden vacuum of power in an institution that can function, but also as a culmination of what can be years of social and economic disintegration of various sorts, that can all create the conditions in which our leadership can evolve that can be conducive to the rise of extremism and violent extremism. When we look back at the dissolution of Yugoslavia back in the early 1990s that culminated in bloody wars and several of the Republic's that used to comprise the former Yugoslavia, it was surprising at the time because people had fallen in love with the idea of simple and easy velvet revolutions like we saw in Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and the Slovakia Republics, but really the Yugoslavia experience pointed out the many more pitfalls that can exist when you've got an unrepresentative system, and when you've got a leadership that, unchecked, is willing to basically manipulate certain crisis situations and social dynamics for various ends that are almost always related to power. The wars that we saw were very strongly grounded and manipulated through nationalism and the notion of an “us” and an “other” that could not live together, and could not find a way to ensure the rights of one another and in a fair and democratic system. Since the wars ended, we've seen that some of the different social conditions that allowed the war to erupt in the first place really have not been ameliorated completely I have not been addressed. Whether that would be the development of strong and robust institutions in terms of an independent media, judiciary etc. but also some social issues related to reconciliation and recognition of the war crimes that happened in the region, and the dynamics of the war that played out in the western Balkan neighborhood. This is not to say that Serbia is the only country in the region that has a need to reflect on these issues, but as the largest of the republics in the area, and having been the seat of the capital, and a number of other historical factors, it does have a special position.

When we’re looking at more contemporary instances of extremism and violent extremism it important to keep in mind some of the broader global context. The issue of how we can prevent and counter violent extremism in the western Balkans really began to emerge as a policy interest in and academic field of interest when we began to see the war in Syria evolve and – right to the point where we were able to see the rise of ISIS and the declaration of a territorial maledict in Syria and Iraq. When this happened, we saw an unexpected phenomenon, foreign fighters from around the world going to that part of the world to take part in this project and this was surprising and fascinating to many people. Even though there was a bit more understanding of people from the region, from the Middle East and North Africa going to fight in this war, there was quite some shock that around 1000 adult males from the Western Balkan region went to Syria and Iraq to participate in this experiment either as a soldiers or in other capacities. This led a lot of policymakers in the region, domestic and international, to wonder what would drive individuals to suddenly decide that they were ready and willing to go to a war-zone to fight for a cause, to contribute to a cause. I think that this was an important a conceptual distinction to understand because far too often there can be a knee jerk reaction to label such actions as terrorism, and the people engaged as terrorists, without recognizing the broader context of political violence in which such phenomena can take place. For that reason, while I'm not discounting that there have been many acts of terrorism in the name of that cause, as well as many others,  but understanding the notion of violent extremism is important and understanding not only the ideological drivers that make someone choose that path, but also some of the structural social drivers that can suddenly lead an individual or community to do all that violence is the only way that they can really exert some sort of an agency over their lives. Efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, while they very often do involve work with the security services and police to try to strengthen those capacities, they are also very much centered on some of the hearts and minds issues that we've seen throughout conflict resolution, we’ve seen them for decades, trying to ensure that people feel their basic human needs are being met, trying to ensure that people believe that there's a sense of justice regardless of your color of your skin or your creed, that the system is not stacked towards a kleptocracy, and that individuals have a right to education, a right to their basic human rights, and a right to live a normal life. All these drivers together can create an environment in which – where violent extremism can emerge. The book project that I did stemmed from work I was doing when I was in Serbia working with the OSC mission to Serbia on a project that was focused on trying to prevent violent extremism in that country. It was very clear from the beginning that the only way that they thought they could be understood either in terms of practice or in terms of academic work, was by understanding all the different manifestations of extremism in that or in any country, and how they interact together. In Serbia the two main versions of extremism that were evident were far right or ultra-right-wing nationalist extremism one side, and then what is variably considered like a violent political Islam, or violent Salafi Jihadism on the other side. As soon as you recognize that there is more than one type of extremism, you recognize what is reciprocal radicalization, which is how individuals or communities falling on one side of the spectrum or the other feed off of the other and in fact often it need the other in order to build up their own base of support. Communities don't radicalize in a vacuum, they radicalize against an “other” and this is what we really try to explore together with other authors who contributed some excellent chapters on all manifestations of extremism in Serbia. We hoped that it would give food for thought not just for Syria but also the region and more broadly.

Shabnam:   Would you say that there are conceptions or misconceptions that people in government still have that could actually be counterintuitive in addressing these issues and the peace process?

Dr. Perry:    I think it can be difficult - I think it's very good to think about political violence when you're thinking about peace processes, because you really can't disconnect them. This was why I was very interested in studying conflict analysis and resolution from an interdisciplinary perspective, which moved beyond just realpolitik international relations theory to take sociology and anthropology, psychology and some of the other human aspects of conflict that can create the conditions both for war and violence, but also for peace. I think that one thing we've really seen over the past several years has been that it's not helpful to think that only one ideological religious group is capable of committing terrorism or political violence or committing acts of violent extremism. I think that after the terrible massacre in Christchurch New Zealand in 2019 we began to see an appreciation of how all of these different extremisms do feed off of each other and interact, because that murderer in New Zealand had been inspired by various different global far right-wing movements, nationalist movements, and this included some of the violent ideologies that we saw in Yugoslavia and particularly in Serbia during the wars in the 1990s. Even though everybody wants to try to find easy solutions to complex problems, all of these dynamics are systemic and they all require a broader understanding of the structural sources of conflict if we want to try to find ways to prevent them.

Shabnam:   Thank you for sharing with Dr. Perry. I think it'll be really useful for us moving forward. It’s super applicable to what's going on nowadays. The other thing that I kind of wanted to bring up is in addition to being an academic, you're an academic practitioner, so you've actually not only studied this in depth and wrote books on it, but you've actually practiced in the field, and you were actually completing your PhD while you were on your Boren in Bosnia, so my initial question was did you plan on initially just pursuing academia after your Boren? How did you go about becoming a practitioner after your PhD?

Dr. Perry:    I was always equally fascinated by academia and the idea of living and working in a university environment, teaching young people in an interesting and engaging way and really turning on an interest in them for study and for academic work and for research. At the same time, I was also very much drawn to policy and to how you can actually try to take what we're studying, what we're learning, what we're trying to understand, and use it to make the world a better place in the here and now. When I came to Bosnia on my Boren, I had every intention of finishing my PhD and then going to get a job at the state department or some place in Washington DC, and then perhaps later trying to do some academic work as well. However, being in the field gave me a certain amount of flexibility to try to explore all of these aspects at the same time

At George Mason’s Institute for conflict analysis and resolution, they always talked about the three different pillars of the program which were theory, research and practice. Being on the ground gave me an opportunity to try to develop all three of these, and even more importantly to try to bridge these. I'm always really amazed at the number of diplomats and practitioners I will meet who aren't really familiar with the research, who haven't read the latest up books on these topics let alone being familiar with some of the underlying theory. Similarly, I'm always fascinated by academics who will come and do field work for 10 days or 15 days to write a book without having any real understanding of how policy and practice work on the ground in a way that's important to what they're looking at. Whenever I speak to students in different study programs or different lectures here, I always note that it's best to have an understanding of all three of these elements if you're going to be pursuing a career in international relations or conflict analysis and resolution, and that if it's possible to try to balance all three at the same time, that can be extremely welcome and necessary, but that even if they do select one for their career path, that they shouldn't ignore the others and should make sure they're always informing themselves of the other pillars are in that triangle.

Shabnam:   Would you have any advice for someone who maybe has expertise in a specific field in academia but may want to enter policy, government or development that may not have that practical experience as much?

Dr. Perry:    Sure. If you want to work on international issues of development, of human rights, of issues of peacebuilding, State Building etc. You can never really overestimate or underestimate the importance of being in the field and seeing with your own eyes what's going on, talking to people, talking to people and communities about what impact policies have on their lives, and policies are just in briefing books back in an office in a capital that is divorced from the human element, and we have to understand that every policy is going to impact a woman, a man, a child and it's extremely important way. I think that spending some time during one's master’s or PhD program, spending some time in the field is very important, and then also while working, trying to get out to the field as much as possible is completely valuable in terms of ensuring that you can make a strong contribution. I also think it's extremely important to write, and I'm always suggesting to students and to young professionals the need to try to write, because by writing about some of these issues that they've seen or experienced, by trying to turn a master's thesis into an academic article, it turns on a different part of your brain that forces you to think about some of these issues in a way that more directly bridges theory and research, and that can then inform the practice. This then has the benefit of not only helping someone to work through these issues in their own mind, but also then make a contribution to the literature and then demonstrates a possible future partners or possible future employers that you thought through these issues, and that you're also capable of writing. Those are always my first two tips to young people who ask me how they can get involved in some of the same issues I've been fortunate to work on over 20 plus years.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will connect with Dr. Valery Perry discusses her experience working in the Western Balkans in Conflict-Resolution. Her focus is on postwar political dynamics, good governance and social reconstruction. Throughout this episode, Valery will discuss her work in the field of Conflict Resolution, her recent Book: Extremism and Violent Extremism in Serbia, and being an academic practitioner.