America the Gentle Giant

How the United States can shape the world without boots on the ground and bombs in the air.  

Vladimir Putin's cynical efforts to annex Crimea and intimidate the fledgling government of Ukraine make it all too clear that naked aggression in world affairs is not a thing of the past. The United States and its allies must respond firmly when such aggression occurs. But there are other perhaps less dramatic instances of resorting to force of arms. These include unresolved disputes between states -- or ethnic, tribal, and religious disputes within states -- that degenerate into armed conflict.

In many instances these conflicts can be prevented, and there is every reason to try to do so. First, violent conflict has cascading security, political, and economic consequences in addition to offending universal values of justice and human dignity. Second, in most circumstances the use of military force alone provides no easy or attractive solutions. The United States, our allies and friends, and international institutions should therefore invest in equally effective means of preventing conflict, whether used in concert with or in lieu of force. These tools are necessary now. Trends such as the diffusion of global power, the rise of non-state actors, and the spread of potent technologies will only increase their relevance.

A strong national defense is essential to peace. But the use of force is costly, in both lives and dollars, and it is not appropriate to every task. When our nation does use force, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gains won by our troops are often best sustained using non-military means. Few things honor the sacrifice of our troops more than protecting what they fought for, and, wherever possible, keeping them out of war in the first place.

We urge the president, his administration, and the U.S. Congress to prioritize non-military efforts of conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution. Done well, such efforts can avert or reduce the need to use force while advancing U.S. interests in ways that are both potent and cost effective. They can help other countries resolve conflicts through politics and the rule of law rather than through violence, which devastates lives and livelihoods, and empowers extremists and criminals. They can help non-violent citizen movements address the drivers of conflict -- such as corruption and the violation of minority rights -- in their own societies.

Successful models do exist to manage conflict without violence and our nation should do more to support them.

The use of national dialogues, now being tried across the Arab world, has shown recent promise. To date, Tunisia is the clearest example of success, having peacefully transitioned from an elected Islamist-led government to a non-political technocratic government as the result of an inclusive national dialogue led by Tunisian civil society. We need to see this model applied elsewhere and determine whether outsiders can and should provide support.

Similarly, the 2013 presidential election in Kenya, a center of economic growth and a partner in the fight against extremist groups like Al Shabaab, might be a model. This election generally proceeded peacefully, despite violence during the previous election in 2007  that left more than 1,000 dead and 350,000 displaced. Kenyans, backed by an international coalition of governments, international organizations, and NGOs, engineered a massive "peaceful election" campaign that featured broad-based nonviolent coalitions that included religious figures, women, youth, and business leaders, among others. With key elections coming up in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Burma, we must see how to apply these methods to prevent electoral violence in these places.

Local efforts to contain rising extremism in Nigeria, a country with huge potential to become either the engine of Africa's future or a major exporter of violence and instability, have proven their ability to stanch radicalization. Mothers -- the ultimate front line of defense -- are learning to prevent extremism in their own homes and communities, and thereby prevent their children from falling prey to terrorist groups. We must invest in such locally-driven alternatives to violence so we can avoid the expensive military operations otherwise needed to fight a new generation of terrorists.

Consider efforts to digitize property records in Syria. We know from previous conflicts that violence can re-emerge when people displaced from their homes return to find them occupied and their ownership contested. And in Syria we know that extremists are actively seeking to destroy property records. For a relatively small cost, those records can be digitized by Syrian NGOs and stored outside the country, preventing new rounds of violence over property rights. If something this simple prevents lost lives, the approach is worth expanding, even as we consider more ambitious efforts to stop the horrendous levels of ongoing violence in Syria.

Non-violent efforts at conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution require not only greater support, but also a distinctive approach.

First, they require empowering others, particularly those in conflict zones, who can build the capacity to manage conflicts without sustained U.S. engagement. The goal is to help others help themselves, not to make the United States central to others' conflicts or to involve us indefinitely in foreign wars.

Second, they require deep knowledge of conflict zones plus expertise in how to prevent and mitigate conflicts. These are specialized skills that must be cultivated over a period of years, the same way we train our military forces well before they are needed.

Third, they require innovation and commitment to understand better what works and what doesn't in promoting peace. Peacebuilding must employ the same rigor that is now beginning to be applied in fields like global health -- and we need the self-discipline to abandon what is not working.

Fourth, they require public-private partnership and a willingness of government to support and act in concert with networks of businesses, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and universities -- especially those based in conflict zones. Peacebuilding must be a team sport.

Fifth, they require a sustained commitment of attention and resources. Complex conflicts rarely end quickly but a combination of politics, budget cycles, and the personnel policies of U.S. government agencies complicate efforts to take the long view. But a long-term, sustainable approach is precisely what these challenges require.

Finally, they require embracing exciting new tools for understanding and managing conflicts. Ushahidi, a Kenyan-based non-profit software company, developed crisis mapping tools widely used in Kenya during the last presidential election that are now embraced by groups ranging from the United Nations to the U.S. Defense Department. Advances in big data, combined with the rapid spread of cheap mobile technologies, are opening major new opportunities in peacebuilding. The United States should take the lead in developing and disseminating these new tools.

It is time to apply the same level of commitment and innovation to preventing, mitigating, and resolving armed conflict as we do to fighting wars. These are essential national security capabilities and enhancing them will save lives, conserve tax dollars, and reinforce America's image as a global force for peace. But we need to act now.

Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images


Francis's Papal Bull

Why is a progressive pope allowing anti-gay bishops to preach hate?

A president struggling in the polls at home traveled to the Vatican last week. He was hoping that a photo with the wildly popular Pope Francis might boost his dismal approval ratings. But because the president had been championing historic LGBT legislation to appeal to his base, some wondered if the pope would actually use their meeting to chastise the president -- reminding him how the policies he favors are out of sync with church teachings.

Barack Obama, right? No -- the president in question was Nigeria's embattled leader, President Goodluck Jonathan.

Late last week, the media reported, analyzed, critiqued, conjectured, and speculated on every aspect of Obama's meeting with Pope Francis, including whether or not the two men would discuss same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights in the United States. But five days earlier, with little attention or fanfare, Pope Francis received Jonathan, fresh off the president signing a bill criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria.

According to the law, enacted in January, any citizen who enters into a union with person of the same sex faces a 14-year prison sentence. Gay Nigerians who simply assemble with like-minded others could also face jail time. Jonathan is facing a tough reelection battle next year, and the law was widely seen as an effort to shore up support among conservative Nigerians. Since its enactment, journalists have documented frightening stories of violence committed against gay men.

Catholic bishops in Nigeria, in a letter to Jonathan, heralded the new law as "courageous" and "a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage." They weren't the only religious leaders happy with a stepping-up of repression against gay Africans. In February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that threatens openly gay Ugandans with lifetime prison sentences. While Catholic leaders rejected the 2009 version of the bill, which contained an infamous death penalty provision, some bishops -- as well as Anglican and Orthodox leaders -- have been vocal in their support of the most recent measure. (Africa is the Roman Catholic Church's fastest-growing region, in terms of membership.)

In response to the developments in Nigeria and Uganda, the Vatican said nothing. The pope also said nothing publicly on the issue of gay rights during the Nigerian president's audience last week. (An official Vatican announcement said that the two men talked about "the protection of the dignity of the human person and his or her fundamental rights," but did not specify further. At least one media outlet in Nigeria reported that Jonathan "justifie[d]" his country's new law in his audience with the pope.)

Had this all happened just over a year ago, when Pope Benedict was routinely reminding the world of the Catholic Church's opposition to gay rights, it might have been unsurprising. The church's fear and rejection of LGBT people was palpable then, with few exceptions. But with the softer, gentler touch of Pope Francis, and his widely heralded reputation as a liberal reformer, the Vatican's recent silence has raised some eyebrows -- and some ire.

Violence and discrimination against gays and lesbians around the world is very real and, in places, growing. From Nigeria to Uganda to Russia, efforts to codify rampant homophobia and lend legitimacy to the mobs that torment sexual minorities have widespread backing. That some Catholic bishops support these laws seems anathema to the Gospel that they are supposed to uphold, their critics argue, in particular to the central tenets of acceptance and kindness -- a stance to which the pope seemed to lend his support in much-lauded comments last year.

Why, then, won't Pope Francis speak out more directly against political leaders like Jonathan and against his own bishops who support draconian treatment of gay people? Some say failing to do so threatens to derail his conciliatory image, hinged on engaging in dialogue with a changing world. As Bob Shine of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, wrote in late March, "It is time for Pope Francis to speak out clearly and forcefully against Uganda's law, and other similar anti-gay laws around the globe. He can save lives."

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The Catholic Church still teaches that sex between two men or two women is "intrinsically disordered." Yet last summer, Pope Francis captured the world's imagination when he decided to emphasize the other half of that controversial teaching: the side that says gay people must nonetheless be afforded dignity and respect. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pope told a reporter on a flight to Rome from Rio de Janeiro. He even used the English word "gay" rather than opting for the more clinical term "homosexual," which is sometimes used maliciously.

Later that year, the pope lamented in an interview that the church had become bogged down by its obsession with opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Progressive and openly gay Catholics cheered. The Advocate, the nation's largest LGBT magazine, put the pope on its cover. Some bishops even seemed to drop their guard a bit and challenge traditional Catholics to think more broadly about the issue. The bishop of St. Petersburg, FL, Robert Lynch, wrote on his blog, "The Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming." Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, meanwhile, said that "homosexuals are not criminals" and do not deserve incarceration, according to Britain's Catholic Herald.

Conservatives struck back, however, noting that Pope Francis hadn't changed any doctrine. Words were just words; formally speaking, the pope was in line with his predecessors.

But in the Catholic context, words and symbols can have enormous impact and profoundly change lives. "Francis's new tone has done immense good. Many gay and lesbian Catholics have told me that they feel welcome in their church for the first time in years, sometimes for the first time in their lives," James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America told me. Martin also thinks that what the pope has said should make bishops around the world reconsider how they engage on gay issues. "In countries where [gays] are in fact judged, and judged harshly, one of the most important moral voices of our time is saying, 'Stop.' It's a critical step forward," he said.

Still, even among those pleased by the pope's relatively liberal approach to gay rights, there are many people left wondering why he's stopped short -- why he hasn't condemned the worst abuses against gay people. This concern even prompted a Twitter and email campaign, #PopeSpeakOut, earlier this year.

The disconnect between the pope's words and actions stems partly from the fact that Pope Francis appears hesitant to become involved with what the Vatican considers local issues, which includes national laws punishing gay people for their sexual orientation. And although counterintuitive, this hesitance actually reflects a certain liberalism about the internal dynamics of the church: Catholic progressives, used to the rigid, authoritarian rule of Rome over the past few decades, have long wanted to see the devolution of power away from the Vatican. This was the only way, they believed, that lay people -- with more access to bishops than to Rome's highest echelons -- could gain some input in the church's decision-making processes.

Pope Francis seems to have taken this concern to heart: Part of his much-celebrated reforms appears to include returning authority to local bishops. In November, in his first major written work as head of the church, the pope said, "I ... must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization."

But bishops, not a centralized Roman bureaucracy, are the men funding campaigns against same-sex marriage in the United States, and they're the ones supporting laws that imprison gays in Africa -- or do them even worse harm. Liberal Catholics, in other words, are seeing both the good and the bad of what they wished for.

Now many human rights advocates say silence from the pope, regardless of internal church issues, isn't acceptable; human dignity should trump bureaucratic reform. In October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a letter to Pope Francis asking the church to use its influence "to protect people in sexual and gender minorities from further abuse." To achieve this, HRW said it wanted the pope to "[p]ublicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities" and support the "decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties for people in sexual and gender minorities."

As for whether his voice would matter, it's certainly possible for the pope -- especially this pope -- to use his global platform to drive a conversation, perhaps even sway opinion. He led a massive protest against Western military intervention in Syria last September, for instance, rallying Catholics for a worldwide day of prayer. He has showed the world that he knows how to mobilize believers.

What's more, even during the hostile climate created under Pope Benedict, there were some positive rumblings at the Vatican that show Pope Francis likely wouldn't have much to lose in speaking out against egregious violations of LGBT rights. Responding to protests against its unwillingness to back a U.N. resolution on sexual orientation, Rome said in 2008 that it would support eliminating criminal penalties for homosexuality (even while it would not support same-sex unions and some other policies). More recently, Pope Francis's personal representative to Uganda, Archbishop Michael Blume, expressed concern about Uganda's anti-gay bill and wrote that he hoped the Holy Spirit would give Museveni "wisdom" as the president considered signing it into law.

Given his own public comments ("Who am I to judge?"), Blume's words, and other signals, it's probable that Francis is against repressive, anti-gay laws. And already, in his first year as pope, he has taken an important step toward a new dynamic around LGBT issues in the church. Yet if he truly wants to move forward, he will have to build on his initial outreach and ask, publicly, that Catholic bishops and other leaders keep up. If the pope truly wants the Catholic Church to chart a course for social justice around the world, his leadership on this issue must demonstrate that his powerful institution is a genuine voice for the oppressed.