Why Political Will is Not Enough

by Kathy Gockel
Independent Policy Analyst

A review of Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers. Chaired by Madeleine Albright and William S. Cohen. Washington, DC: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Institute of Peace and the American Academy of Diplomacy, 2008. 174pp.

Preventing Genocide: a Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, states that because genocide “requires planning and is carried out systematically” then its signs and symptoms can be recognized and addressed. This linkage between planning and systematic action gets to the very heart of the report, “Preventing genocide is a goal that can be achieved with the right organizational structures, strategies and partnerships – in short with the right blueprint.” The problem for the U.S. Government? It currently lacks the blueprint.

Therein lays the strength of the report. It offers constructive analysis of the current challenges impacting the U.S. government’s ability to effectively address genocide and then provides pragmatic recommendations as to what must be done to make future efforts more effective.

The report rightly starts with the challenge of political will. It asserts that if genocide prevention is to become a priority then it has to be set as one at the top. That starts with the President. As stated in the report, “Attention from the President and his or her close group of senior advisors is the most prized commodity in Washington policy circles. When high-level officials are actively engaged, progress is usually possible.” There is also specific attention paid to how members of Congress need to use funding (a recommended $250 million annually to the international affairs budget) and mechanisms, such as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, to place genocide prevention higher on the agenda.

Political will is then linked to the second major challenge: the lack of a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to policy formulation and implementation. The report offers concrete examples of how current “gaps” impact U.S. policy. For example, there is no one person or group in the Administration with responsibility for coordinating genocide prevention efforts. As the report states, “Preventing genocide appears to be a responsibility held simultaneously by no one and everyone in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus.” It goes on to offer specific recommendations as to how this gap can be addressed such as creating a standing interagency mechanism, an Atrocities Prevention Committee, directed from the White House and co-chaired by senior officials from the NSC and State Department.

The report is also fair in pointing out why some of these gaps currently exist. For example, Chapter 5, “Employing Military Options” states, “The most important tools for military preparedness are national policy, doctrine, plans and training.” Taking that idea forward to look at the current state of affairs, the report states that the 2006 National Security Strategy addressed the need for armed intervention when perpetrators of mass killing defy attempts at peaceful intervention. Yet the report also notes that no clear evidence was found of “corresponding high-level or internal military follow-on guidance to prepare for such a situation…” and then goes an important step further by pointing out that, in the context of the need for a military doctrine on genocide, “…senior U.S. leaders have not directed the Department of Defense to prepare for missions where the prevention of genocide is the primary goal.” Therefore, current military strategies and preparedness are not “specifically designed to prevent and react to the escalation of violence leading to genocide.”

Another strength of the report is its focus on the breadth of policy options available. It points out current perceptions in the international community that U.S. policy focuses too much on force and not enough on preventive measures that draw more on diplomacy and development. Therefore, a range of specific policy options, the majority of which do not require the use of force, are offered throughout the text to address specific signs and signals. It also notes how specific signals can be used as “triggers” to prompt policy reviews at crucial intervals before the situation becomes a crisis requiring military intervention.

The major critique of this report is that it focuses too much on Washington. An important component of an effective whole-of-government approach is empowering the field personnel who are closest to the situation. Agency silos and turf battles in Washington often block timely action and agreed-upon inter-agency recommendations from the field. Establishing inter-agency field structures and mechanisms and providing the field with the necessary authority and resources to act are critical to a more effective US response. This must include technology, personnel and funds to establish networks that tap into the knowledge of international officials, NGO personnel and local citizen groups.

A related critique centers on a rather weak argument as to how US policy integrates into and supports existing international efforts. Yes, the report is directed at US policy and policy makers. The need for international partnerships is also mentioned throughout the various chapters. Yet providing more specific examples in the chapter on International Action regarding existing efforts by other international actors – IGOs, NGOs, business and civil society – and how the U.S. can bolster those would better highlight a U.S. commitment to partnerships. And not just those partnerships established and led by the U.S.

For example, a specific recommendation of the report is for the U.S. Secretary of State to create a formal genocide prevention network. It would be helpful to note established networks and mechanisms that already exist such as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P.) The Global Centre was established in New York by international NGOs and is supported by eminent world leaders and like-minded national governments. The UN Secretary General also has a Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide and a Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect. Has there been any effort by the U.S. Government to find out if and how these two actors have built networks to establish such a network? Related to that, if such a network does not already exist, would it be more effective for these officials to develop one rather than the U.S. Secretary of State, particularly given some states’ concerns that the U.S. will impinge on their sovereignty too quickly? The report also notes that the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide has very limited resources. Should the U.S. provide more funding to his office? If not, why?

Yet, overall, in spite of its heavy Washington focus, the report does an excellent job of helping the reader understand the challenges that must be overcome if genocide prevention is to become not only a priority but a reality.


Kathy Gockel is an independent policy analyst. Her clients include the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at National Defense University and the Hollings Center. She was also a fellow on the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project at Search for Common Ground. Gockel was previously a program officer in the policy analysis and dialogue department of a private foundation where she led policy programming initiatives on US - Middle East Security and the United Nations including R2P. In this capacity she met with two of the UN Secretary General's top advisers on the issue - Ed Luck, Special Adviser focusing on R2P, and Francis Deng, Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide. Gockel holds an MA of global studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Her focus areas were human security and economic development. She also holds a Master's of business administration and spent fifteen years in the private sector prior to switching careers to international relations.

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