A Conversation with Mark Leon Goldberg

Mark Leon Goldberg is a writer, blogger and podcaster. Mark currently serves as the editor of the United Nations and global affairs blog UN Dispatch, and host of the Global Dispatches Podcast. In 2011, Mark co-founded the Development and Aid World News Service, DAWNS Digest, and he has been named one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 “Twiterrati.”

Mark’s work has been featured in the
New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the American Prospect, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the New Republic, and the Daily Beast. He has appeared as a guest on CNBC, Al Jazeera English and National Public Radio. Mark has a Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Bachelor of Arts from Tufts University. 

I had the chance to speak with Mark about his early experiences with international relations, the development of security studies, the morality of foreign intervention, and various ongoing armed conflicts that threaten global security today.

Mark, in all the work you’ve done, you seem to bring a humanitarian focus to your research and analysis. Were there influential experiences in your life that pushed you to focus on that side of international relations?

Well, I came to the field of international relations at a pretty early age. I remember sitting in front of the TV in my Big Bird chair as a six-year-old obsessively watching local New York media outlets, and that same passion for news consumption stayed with me as I grew up.

My interest in humanitarian affairs probably gained most momentum when I was a senior in high school and the war in Kosovo broke out. Then, during college, a 2001 summer fellowship with Humanity in Action brought me to Amsterdam, where I joined other American and European university students studying various human and minority rights topics. My specific research project focused on the alienation of the children of Muslim immigrants from Morocco. Tragically, we just saw the indirect effect of that same alienation play out in Paris. Belgian citizens turned to radical terrorism when they felt as though society no longer had a place for them.

After my summer in Amsterdam, I spent a summer as an intern for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where I worked on (Slobodan) Milosevic’s prosecution. At that point, I started to ask myself the same question every college kid has to face at some point: What would be my ideal job? I still obsessively followed the news and liked to read, research, and write, and so journalism seemed like an obvious choice. And I knew I wanted to focus on humanitarian causes because, in a way, they have always seemed the least complicated to me. Here’s an example: right now, there is plenty of disagreement on how to handle the Syrian civil war. But if humanitarian assistance could allow Syrian refugees in Jordan, for instance, to provide more food to their families, what objection could anybody have to helping them out? The moral philosophy of giving is so simple. Of course, that changes a bit when actions designed as humanitarian have perverse and unintended consequences, but when something is simple and can help people in need, why not do it?

You received your Masters from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service Security Studies Program. Many people hear “security studies,” and assume a narrow scope: counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, and, especially lately, trying to contain the expanding influence of extremism. But your work seems to suggest that those are only pieces of a complex and developing field. Would you agree with that? If so, how exactly has the field diversified in recent years?

I was definitely the odd man out in the program. In my classes, professors would always ask us to introduce ourselves. Name, where we worked, that kind of thing. Most people were either from the Department of Defense or the “federal government,” which I learned was code for the CIA. They were always surprised to hear that there was a journalist in their midst.

This wasn’t to my disadvantage, though. On the contrary, the field of security studies really had become far more diverse in the decade or so before I started at Georgetown in 2007. The idea that security was far more than just intelligence gathering and supporting the military apparatus, that it really had to encompass trends on the sub-national level like poverty, health, and the environment, had started to take hold.  This shift was brought about in large part by articles written by Jessica Tuchman Matthews in the late 1980s and 1990s. Together, they demanded that the broader concept of human security be more embedded into the study of international relations. Her ideas reflected the views of an increasingly liberal ideological camp, and they inspired me to take classes on the relevance and role of NGOs and other non-state actors in the maintenance of international security.

The 5th Edition of Michael Walzer’s influential book, Just and Unjust War, was published this past August amidst the still-ongoing debate about U.S. involvement in Syria. In your opinion, would U.S. boots on the ground in Syria be a just (in moral, philosophical, or legal terms) response to the current crisis? If not, what is the best alternative?

Like the Matthews articles, Walzer’s book had a profound impact on the way I think about international relations and the world. I read Just and Unjust War in the fall of 2001, immediately following the 9/11 attacks and just as the U.S. was preparing to launch its offensive in Afghanistan, so it was a fascinating time to be thinking about the justice and morality of foreign interventions.

As for the ongoing civil war in Syria, we have to revisit Walzer and ask ourselves whether just war theory justifies a U.S. military intervention in Syria given the current climate. Walzer would remind us that our preliminary motivations to wage war (jus ad bellum) and the acceptability of the means by which we fight it (jus in bello) are the considerations that most often frame the moral conversation. Yet a third evaluative question has to be added to the equation: is there a reasonable chance of success? If the probability of success, defined according to some objective standard, is low, then the intervention itself may unjust.

Therein lies the likely downfall of a hypothetical intervention in Syria. Even if we were able to temporarily put an end to the fighting, what would our end game be? To “rebuild” the country? Iraq taught us the hard way that we are incapable of invading a country, occupying it, and positively influencing its future, especially a country in such a volatile region of the world. It would be foolish not to apply this lesson to Syria, where active jihadism further complicates the security environment.

The question, then, is an obvious one. What alternative strategy, if any, stands a chance of being effective? My instinct is always to turn to diplomacy, and this scenario is no exception. So far, diplomacy is the only approach that has anything to show for it. The U.S.- and Russia-led meeting in Vienna in late November of the International Syria Support Group was attended by vital stakeholders, all of whom indicated a collective willingness to address the problem. The plan they produced was ratified by the Security Council on December 18th, and peace talks are set to begin in the coming months.

Already, diplomacy has proved a more effective tool than military intervention could be. The plan does not tackle certain issues, like Assad’s political future, but it has identified commonly held goals that the U.S. and Russia have agreed upon. D.C.-Moscow consensus on anything is rare, so that deserves recognition. Of course, there are plenty of hurdles that the plan must clear before being implemented fully, but history has shown us that peace plans crafted at the highest levels of government can take hold at all levels of society. The Balkans come to mind as an illustrative example. Yes, the civil war is raging, and yes, ISIS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but overall things are more hopeful now than they were at the start of last year.

As you know, there is a brewing situation in Burundi right now that threatens to explode into full-blown civil war if not addressed. Given the region’s history of ethnic conflict, such a war has the potential for catastrophic humanitarian consequences. How, though, is it possible to bring something like this to the attention of U.S. policymakers when there are other challenges regarded by many as more relevant to our foreign policy interests? 

Burundi is an interesting case. First of all, it doesn’t suffer from the pathologies that stifled interventions in Darfur, or Syria today. It doesn’t have any big power protecting it, like Sudan had China as its Security Council protector and Syria has Russia.

Nonetheless, the international community at large and the African Union more specifically appear to be unified in condemning what has happened there since April of this year. There are, however, two things that are ominous about the current situation in Burundi. First is that its President, Pierre Nkurunziza, doesn’t seem to care what his foreign counterparts think of him. For most leaders, the collective opinion of a vigilant international community would be incentive enough not to plunge a country into genocidal civil war. But Nkurunziza hasn’t been as responsive as one might hope to high-profile denunciations of the hundreds of so-called “political killings” carried out by his military. Second, and related to the first, is that Burundi relies heavily on foreign aid, yet that leverage has also so far proved unpersuasive to Nkurunziza.

Still, in spite of its President’s bullishness, Burundi has teetered for while on the edge of catastrophe for the last couple years without actually spilling over into full blown civil war. We saw the same thing happen in the Central African Republic (CAR) a couple of years ago, where another a situation looked as though it might deteriorate to a Rwanda-esque degree but never did. So we have to ask ourselves how these conflicts have been contained, at least for now.

Since Rwanda, and since the massacres in the Balkans, situations like this have actually been floated up the political priority pipeline. A formal mechanism for handling them, the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), which brings together political, military, and intelligence resources at the highest levels of government to respond more punctually to humanitarian crises, was even established in 2012 under the direction of the likes of Samantha Power.

Even beyond the APB’s creation, Power as an individual has also had a huge impact on the way governments approach civilian massacres and political unrest on foreign soil. In 2013, amidst rising numbers of ethnic killings, she visited the CAR to remind the country’s leaders that America and the world were watching, and she made a similar trip to Burundi in 2014. Although atrocities had already been committed in both places, and though violence has continued in Burundi especially, that sort of high level intervention was and has been helpful, and it’s needed. In a way, she and others have at the very least kept the lid on these conflicts, and she has secured them a much higher position on the U.S. foreign policy agenda than they would otherwise have. There’s an important lesson to be learned here, that we shouldn’t discount the ability of smart and committed individuals to drastically impact the practice of our foreign policy.

Last question, Mark. Apart from ISIS, what is the most pressing security concern facing our world today? 

Well, I’d actually take issue with the premise of your question. I don’t think ISIS is the top security concern for the world right now. It certainly gets the most attention, and it’s certainly a concern. But ISIS is neither the major driver of refugees out of Syria, nor is it an existential threat to the U.S. or Europe. I know it’s out of fashion these days, but I’d still wager nuclear proliferation and the 15,000 existing nuclear weapons are far more concerning than ISIS. One nuclear incident could change the world as we know it.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and were approved by Mr. Goldberg before publication.

Kirby Neuner is a 2015 graduate of Williams College. He currently works as a Program Assistant at Democracy International, a Bethesda-based democracy and governance firm.

Image courtesy of Mark Leon Goldberg.

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