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Finding a Place for Atrocity Prevention amid New Security Challenges

By Lee Feinstein and Tod Lindberg

Lee Feinstein is founding dean of Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. In partnership with the Stanley Foundation, they are working on a report for the Museum on improving transatlantic links for atrocity prevention.

When we recently set out for meetings in London, Berlin and Brussels on improving transatlantic links on atrocity prevention, foremost in our minds was concern about the dramatic return over the past 18 months of first-tier international security challenges. The rise of ISIS against the backdrop of civil war and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, the new adventurism of the Russia of Vladimir Putin, and the daunting challenge of the Iranian nuclear program combine to take up a lot of space in the in-boxes of senior policymakers in North America and Europe.

Atrocity prevention, by contrast, is a long-term project and one that is generally not foremost on the minds of senior officials, except in times of dire crisis. In fact, the threat ISIS posed to the Yazidi community in Iraq last year did rise to the crisis point, and senior leaders in the United States, Europe and the region agreed that emergency military action to prevent a massacre was necessary. But even here, the lens through which many policymakers focused on the problem was not so much atrocity prevention as the need to develop a strategy to counter the advance of ISIS.

A key question for us, then, was bandwidth: Would policymakers have enough time and attention available for a second-tier, long-term security challenge, namely, better transatlantic coordination of efforts to prevent atrocities? We were a little worried. If the answer was “no,” then we would have to confront a new and very troubling possibility: that atrocity prevention, to the extent that the subject has gained salience both nationally and internationally over the past decade, presupposed a relatively benign international environment, one in which policymakers had, in effect, the luxury of time to address second-order concerns.

The encouraging answer coming out of meetings at Chatham House in London, the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, and International Crisis Group in Brussels—and numerous bilateral meetings with officials in foreign and defense ministries and intelligence services, as well as at NATO and the European External Action Service—is that creative policy engagement linked to the prevention of atrocities is indeed under way and appears to be joining the policy mainstream. We will be reviewing and discussing these efforts, as well as the question of how better to coordinate them internationally, as we draft our preliminary findings and recommendations for presentation and review in June, ahead of our final report in the fall.

No person of conscience wants a world in which ISIS is on the march through the Middle East and North Africa, cutting off heads and seeking to obliterate history. Likewise, no one welcomes a newly aggressive Russia, full of grievance and bent on establishing a sphere of influence through hybrid military intervention and intimidation. No one wants an unchecked Iran in pursuit of a nuclear capability. Yet this is our world. Atrocity prevention as an international priority will have to find its way amid these new and very serious challenges. After our most recent meetings, we are relieved to report that atrocity prevention can indeed find an effectual place on national and international policy agendas.