Transcript of Interview with David Hamburg

Interviewed by Eric Hamburg
May 1, 2008
Washington, D.C.
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Eric:  Today we’re interviewing Dr. David Hamburg, the author of Preventing Genocide: Practical Steps toward early Detection and Effective Action. You originally trained as a psychiatrist, so how do you go from psychiatry to preventing genocide?

David: For me an off beat, winding path led from biomedical research, where I began, to psychiatry, to this problem of problems. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My grandfather came to this country about 1900, fleeing from severe pogroms in Latvia, and devoted his life to bringing relatives who were subject to violent anti-Semitic behavior from Eastern Europe to America. It was first hand knowledge how brutal people could be even in Europe, which we regarded as advanced. I had a personal experience later as a doctor in the Korean War. From beginning to end I took care of badly injured patients--for example, in the army burn center in San Antonio.  That strongly reinforced my inclination to do biomedical research on stress--hormonal responses, cardiovascular responses, and psychological responses. And of course that involves anxiety, depression, and anger. When I established a laboratory for that purpose at Stanford University I called it the Laboratory of Stress and Conflict, thereby pulling out conflict for special attention. I was struck by the importance of conflict in human experience.

In the Laboratory of Stress and Conflict I worked together with colleagues in different fields--including my wife, Dr. Betty Hamburg, a child psychiatrist and pediatrician. We looked at conflict at the family level, at the community level, [and in] inter-group relations. Then I got into the evolution of human aggressive behavior, in part stimulated by my original involvement in genetics. We decided since chimpanzees share so many genes with us--about 98% of our genes are identical--to study chimpanzees in a natural habitat. We did find a way to work with some very good people in Tanzania and then to build at Stanford a semi-natural laboratory where chimps could grow up together, live together, and interact visibly.  So the evolutionary origins of human aggressive behavior were an important part of that laboratory; and associated work was to understand the biology of aggression.

We were awakening to the fact that there’s a lot of apparatus in the human brain and hormones that supports or mediates aggressive behavior. Why? We have to conclude that we have some inclination toward that behavior. We also have--as the chimpanzee research shows--strong inclination towards attachment and very positive relationships with one another. That’s the way we protect each other in the natural habitat, and probably our evolution depended partly on attachment, especially of young organisms to their mothers and older organisms.

The Cold War was going on during that [work]. It was not my field, but the Cuban missile crisis was a critical turning point. The danger was so great that we all began to think, “Could we survive another crisis like the Cuban missile crisis? How can we avoid another nuclear confrontation?” 

On the academic side Graham Allison at Harvard and Alex George at Stanford [and I] worked on formulation of a crisis prevention approach. Nuclear confrontation is too dangerous. No matter how good your leaders are, the likelihood is that you cannot survive one nuclear confrontation after another. Crisis management would make it more likely we could get through, but we were convinced that it was incredibly hard to do it. It’s better to take a crisis prevention approach. Under the auspices of Pugwash,  the scientific community had a way of getting worldwide scientists together to discuss the great dangers of the Cold War; and I convened a meeting in 1978 in Geneva, in which Allison and George were key people to look at crisis management and crisis prevention with Soviet and Western European counterparts. There were about 15 of us all together, but we gradually shifted the attention from crisis management to crisis prevention and tried to persuade our Soviet counterparts. We didn’t have to love each other. We didn’t have to diminish the nuclear stockpile, as much as that would have been desirable. We just had to have the good sense, in our own personal and national interest, to keep back a few steps from the brink of a nuclear confrontation.

Eric: Which would be the ultimate form of a Holocaust, or genocide.

David: That’s right, if you think in terminology like genocide. I have come myself to speak about humanicide: there’s a real possibility that a nuclear war would eliminate the entire human species. In the scientific community at that time, the main argument was whether a nuclear war would only eliminate the total Northern Hemisphere. There’s no question that if we and the Soviets exchanged our nuclear arsenals the Northern Hemisphere would be gone--not only humans but most other species and maybe life. The question was the lower part of the Southern Hemisphere, like South Africa, could they survive a nuclear war. But the danger was so fantastic that more and more people--certainly in the scientific community and to some extent in the political community--began to talk about nuclear weapons not as useful weapons of war but as weapons of mutual massive total suicide.

When I came to the presidency of the Carnegie Corporation of New York I decided we should sponsor a series of studies of the missile crisis, because my hunch was that it was even more dangerous then we thought. So there was a series of conferences of both participants in the crisis and scholars who had studied it--first [in] the United States, then a few years later in Moscow, then a few years later in Cuba. And each one showed that in fact we came extremely close to utter catastrophe and it was important to know that. As we went along we tried to get some institutional arrangements so that these ideas could be translated into action; and in order to do that we had to get the cooperation of significant political leaders. Senator Nunn was crucial and, somewhat later, Senator Lugar and Congressman Lee Hamilton. And we got a number of people in European parliaments who shared a similar interest. We had at that time no access to parliamentary leaders in the Soviet Union, but we did some things, like helping to upgrade the hotline and strengthen the rules of the road at sea.

Two successive secretaries of the Navy, who later became Senators, were very helpful: John Chaffee of Rhode Island, and John Warner of Virginia. Admiral James Watkins, commander of the Navy during the Reagan administration, was very cooperative. People who knew the risks of naval confrontations at sea were very amenable to thinking about rules of the road at sea.

So we tried to think of institutional connections--regular regional mini summits, meetings of the US and societies in different regions of the world to understand what were the greatest dangers, where were the vital interests that you’d better be awfully careful about touching in this or that region. Senator Nunn took the lead politically in developing nuclear risk reduction centers, which put nuclear experts from both the Soviet Union and the US together in one group in Washington, in one group in Moscow. That was especially to avoid nuclear accidents—as time went by we realized accidental or inadvertent nuclear war was perhaps an even greater danger than a deliberate nuclear strike, which we thought none of the leaders were crazy enough to want to do.

Eric: When you got to the point of nuclear weapons, you were really talking about instant genocide--which was never possible before in history.

David: In addition to that, technology provided means of communication that could incite hatred and violence rapidly and intensely. We now see the dark side of the Internet, all kinds of hate sites, also all kinds of weapon sites. As I understand you can learn on the Internet how to make any weapon except a hydrogen bomb. Terrorists don’t need hydrogen bombs, regular nuclear weapons would be sufficient. Technological capabilities in weaponry and communications made the whole situation much more dangerous and it’s continuing to get more dangerous. I felt it was very important to find mechanisms where you could bring political leaders of the most responsible kind together with independent experts and leading scientific scholars who knew not only about the weapons but about hotspots around the world where confrontation would most likely occur, decision making process in this country, in the Soviet Union where you could think in terms of conflict resolution.

It was a kind of art that I cultivated of getting policy makers and policy advisers together with scientists and scholars who had cognate interest and values. How could they share their information and their ideas, and how could it lead to some practical outcomes? One way we did that was by setting up a congressional program through a grant to the Aspen Institute--a program led by former Senator Dick Clark, ably aided by Professor Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins. I personally took a very active part. [It held] regular meetings of leading members of congress and independent experts, not to advocate for any particular policy except saving human lives, but to have a knowledge base about how you could diminish the nuclear danger. Today its range has expanded beyond US-Russian relations.

Also, cabinet members like Bill Perry, Secretary of Defense, and Warren Christopher, Secretary of State, asked me to convene independent experts for them and their senior staff in the executive branch rather than in congress; and a number of presidents asked that I come in and bring independent experts to meet with them and their closest advisers to get input from sources other than the CIA or other intelligence agencies.  A number of presidents felt the need for outside advice. I used to say,  “You have at your disposal, Mr. President, the entire expertise of the United States and indeed to some extent of the world. Anything you want on any subject you can get, you don’t even have to pay for it. You ask people to come in they’ll come in happily on their own to be helpful if they can.”

Eric: You make the point in your book that experts can predict even decades in advance that a genocide is going to occur. Explain a little about that, because most people don’t understand that.

David: We’ve learned some things from scholarship on genocide. As long as history has been recorded there has been genocide, over and over and over again. We also know from Darfur that genocides have not gone away. We thought that after the unbelievable horror of the Holocaust human beings would never again allow such things to happen. They would recognize danger signals and so on. Obviously that hasn’t happened, even in Europe it hasn’t gone away. If we want to prevent it, it has to be a deliberate effort based on knowledge, skill, and best practices.

It has been my privilege to stimulate and participate in research to understand, to build a body of knowledge. One part of it is that every genocide goes back a number of years--you do not measure the onset of gross warning signals in days or weeks or months. It’s always years and usually decades. In the Armenian case Dr. Herant Katchadourian of Stanford told us about how his grandfather died in the 1894 massacre, the so-called “Sultan’s Massacre” of thousands of Armenians. Now why is that important--besides the intrinsic tragedy of it? Because the textbooks said, until very recently, that the genocide was from 1915-1917, hence, [during] World War I, in which the norms that constrain killing had eroded. It’s true it reached a peak in 1915-1917, but the pattern was going back 30-some odd years. Small massacres, medium massacres, big massacres, and then gigantic massacres in 1915 to 1917. And that is one important thing to realize: it doesn’t take satellite observation, it doesn’t take deeply implanted human agents in intelligence services to detect these warnings. They’re mostly mass killings, and, related to that, hate speech.

There is no genocide in modern times that hasn’t used mass media over and over again, chiefly by a principal leader like Hitler--and his buddies as well--to stir up hatred. And you can’t just do it overnight. From a more or less peaceful civilized people like the Germans until you get Holocaust, it takes years of over and over and over again, using mass media to stir hatred. So hate speech in a variety of contexts, and particularly in the mass media, and outbursts of killing are the most vivid and dangerous warning signals. There are a lot of others, but the point is, it’s not something like a tsunami that happens just like that. Many political leaders say--and believe--you can’t tell until the last minute and then it’s too late to do anything except to fight a big war and nobody wants to do that or can do that. No, that’s wrong. But let’s say you have years of warning time. What can you do with that? It doesn’t do you any good unless, number one: you have a lot of knowledge, skill, and best practices about how to help countries and inter-group relations before they get to some desperate condition; and two: you have to have focal points of knowledge, skill and best practices in visible important institutions. They may be in the major democracies. They also have come in recent years to the United Nations--I have been deeply engaged in that--and now are about to happen in the European Union, which is 27 cooperating democracies.

International organizations--particularly the established democracies within them--or all democratic organizations like the EU, or possibly some future worldwide organization of democracies would have the values that are prepared for alertness to genocide or any kind of mass murder well in advance. That’s an important point by the way. You can’t be sure when you see periodic growing massacres or hate speech that they’re going to end up in genocide. They may end up in a civil war, they may end up in interstate wars. But it’s very likely to be some kind of mass atrocity, some kind of mass murder--and that’s all that you need to know. You want to be able to anticipate and do something.

Eric: You pointed out in your book that the Armenian massacres could have been stopped. Hitler could have been stopped, but he wasn’t. Similarly Rwanda. And then you refer to what you call the pillars of prevention. Explain that.

David: That’s absolutely crucial and that’s what was largely lacking, even though Woodrow Wilson recognized it through Henry Morgenthau and others in the Armenian case; and some European leaders recognized it, chiefly through Churchill, before the Holocaust occurred. But they didn’t know an awful lot about what to do and they didn’t have much institutional strength. We know a lot more now about what to do. It’s not easy, it’s not simple, but we know a lot more about what to do. And we know a lot more about who can do it.

The point of prevention or what to do, stated very briefly, is first, proactive help to countries in trouble--that means countries with inter-group tension that’s growing, some kind of scapegoat group that’s viewed increasingly with animosity by some more powerful in group, that kind of thing. Intergroup tensions are often exacerbated by economic downturns or freefalls or depressions; by social disorganizations that exacerbate the inter-group tensions and increase the danger of mass slaughter. So when the democracies of the world and organizations like the UN and the EU see that coming, at an early stage they should reach out a helping hand; and one form of that is preventive diplomacy. Waiting to settle a war--that’s conventional diplomacy. It’s very difficult and prolonged and often fails.  [Preventive diplomacy is] early on, as you see the signs of trouble brewing, to reach out a helping hand, to be creative about finding a mutual accommodation, a compromise way of settling the differences. So preventive diplomacy is a very important component of proactive help to countries in trouble. In the past decade for the first time there are systematic programs for training mediators and negotiators, so that at the rate we are going, in 10 to 20 years, every county in the world will have a cadre of people who are skillful in mediation, meaning neutral informed third parties bringing the adversaries together or direct negotiations where the adversaries are negotiating with each other.

In Kenya recently there was a dishonest election and a tremendous reaction to the stealing of the election that mobilized ethnic differences. The combination of nationalistic and ethnic tensions and an outburst of killing looked like an onset of at least a civil war, and quite possibly a genocide.

Kofi Annan went in very promptly. The fact that he had great stature in the world was helpful. The fact that he knew a tremendous amount about mediation was helpful. The fact that he knew a lot about Kenya was helpful, also. He immediately began to mobilize experts from the UN and African Union and non-governmental organizations like the International Center of Transitional Justice to bring in people who knew about various aspects of conflict resolution, not only to help with this particular conflict, but also people who knew about building institutions that for the long run can keep conflict under control--mechanisms of early ongoing conflict resolution within a country Those people brought the world’s experience and said, “This is the kind of thing that has been done elsewhere and you can do it too. You can choose how you want to do it, and you can do it in your own way, you can have processes and mechanisms and institutions to deal with ongoing conflicts below the thresholds of massive violence.”

It created a basis for hope and pride that they as a country could solve their problems in their own way--and so far that is holding. They have not blown up again and a lot is going on to help them build their own institutions and see possible ways of finding common ground. So that’s a good example of preventive diplomacy as an important component of proactive help to countries in trouble. That’s the first pillar of prevention; it leads naturally into building democratic attitudes, practices, and institutions. It flows toward democracy. It’s not automatic, but democracies on the whole have mechanisms for keeping ubiquitous human conflict below the threshold of mass violence--independent judiciary, non-governmental organizations that are very good at conflict resolution, and on and on--even just the habits of learning in school or being in a pluralistic society where you mix with different people of different backgrounds in a tolerant way. There are many things about a democracy that don’t always work, and it takes a long time for a democracy to consolidate; but constructing democratic institutions is a very important sort of outflow from preventive diplomacy, and it’s the second pillar of prevention, building and promoting democracy. The international community for the first time in history is doing that deliberately, it’s putting money into it, putting skill into it, learning how to do it. We have a long way to go, but we are way beyond where we were at the time of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. In the case of the Weimar Republic, instead of helping, the rest of the world made the task harder--for example making them pay their reparations faster when they were already broke and had hyper inflation.

So democracy comes next, and, closely related to it, development--not just general economic growth, but equitable socioeconomic development, fairly shared prosperity and some social safety nets. A vision of shared prosperity early on gives hope to a troubled country. In many countries there’s a “curse of wealth.” That means, you have oil, and 5-10% of the people get all the wealth of the oil and the rest are dirt poor. That’s not satisfactory development--it makes for animosity and problems later. So equitable socio-economic development is something that distinguished people like (___) and Jeffrey Sachs, who are part of this series of interviews, have taught us a lot about. They understand the mechanisms that make for fairness in prosperity, widely shared prosperity. So that’s the third thing, you’ve got proactive help, you’ve got democracy, and you’ve got equitable socioeconomic development. And the “socio” part of economics means emphasis on education and health. Broadly distributed education and health care--equally for girls and boys, women and men--make a huge difference economically. If you shut out women from education you’re cutting out half your population from contributing to economic growth and well-being of your society. So it’s stupid besides being unfair.

That brings me to the next [pillar], which I call education for survival. It builds in education not only for math, science, and technology--which you need for modern technology--but you broaden it to include behavioral and social sciences. You deal with conflict resolution, violence prevention, mutual accommodation, how to make compromises. That’s not only in [state] schools or private schools. It should be in religious schools and community organizations--widespread availability of knowledge about how conflicts are resolved early; ways of avoiding the growth of animosity to the point where you get revenge motives and killing.

Two others I’ll just mention briefly. One is a movement to advance human rights through international courts. It’s the first time in history we’ve had international courts that say, “Those who incite hatred and violence will not have impunity.” And to some extent that has happened. How much it will prevent mass killing at an early stage nobody knows. It’s a new phenomenon and one of the reflections of a serious effort throughout the world to do something about protection of human rights and prevention [of their abuse].

Finally, there are restraints on weaponry, where there are a lot of good ideas, but very little has been done. The ultimate is nuclear weapons, but there’s a huge problem with ‘small arms and light weapons,’ which is a euphemism. AK-47 automatic weapons, mortars, and so on can kill thousands--millions--of people in a short time; and the world is covered wall to wall with such weapons. Ideas are just beginning in some democratic countries and in the UN about how to get some handle on that problem. At present, they are sold in vast quantities by any country that can make them. There is a revived movement towards elimination of nuclear weapons in the next 20-30 years. All I want to say about that is, two components are lacking. One is a vision of what the world would gain, not just the US and Russia, from elimination of nuclear weapons. The vision is important; it creates hope. Also the steps to get there, the obstacles you have to face. How could nuclear weapons hiding in a cave be detected? And besides the technical obstacles there are political obstacles--the prestige some countries associate with nuclear weapons, the fear that without nuclear weapons they’ll be vulnerable to their neighbors and so on.

The technical and political obstacles are being analyzed in great depth now as never before and that’s beginning to build a constituency of the informed public around the world, who see that it’s both necessary and feasible to eliminate nuclear weapons. Restraints on weapons constitute the sixth of the 6 pillars of prevention. I consider those 6 pillars the most important subject here because it says what you can do if you’ve got warning time. If you don’t know what to do, warning signs are useless; the pillars give you something to do.

Eric: The other thing is, who can do it? Who can prevent genocide? You talk about what international institutions like the United Nations, European Union, new centers that are being set-up on prevention of genocide, and even individuals or NGO’s can do. Let’s talk about that.

David: That’s extremely important. You need a worldwide movement to support the prevention of genocide or other mass murder. You need political will, but political will depends on a constituency. Even very good leaders in democratic countries need to know that there are a lot of people out there who would support them. We don’t have that now, but we could have it. All this is very new in the United Nations; there are many obstacles to overcome. We have for two years had a unit--on a very small scale but very intelligent--on preventing genocide. This year it has been expanded; we have a larger and more substantial unit in the United Nations.

The European Union, 27 cooperating democracies, has a great moral commitment, led by the Germans, who have reacted powerfully against what their ancestors did in the Holocaust. You have a Europe-wide movement to support building the pillars. They’ve done more to build the pillars of democracy and development than anybody else already and now they are getting better at early help to countries in trouble, not only in Europe but beyond Europe. That movement is relatively recent--even ten years ago the European Union itself was much weaker then it is today. Its activities in prevention of deadly conflict have begun only in 2001 and the upgrade of that to include genocide is only occurring in 2008, to go the whole gamut of mass killings. So these are important organizations; but they are new, and they are learning, and they are in some ways groping. But they have very good, very dedicated people. The agencies of the UN, spread around the world, are much more valuable then the New York headquarters for this purpose, except for the leadership of the secretary-general. The Security Council and the General Assembly are not much help so far, but there are organizations like the World Health Organization, or UNICEF for children. UNDP now builds conflict resolution into [its] development programs. And a number of other agencies also have dedicated professionals who know a lot and care a lot about the countries and regions where they are working. They can make more money, more prestige, doing something else, but they are out there in very poor and dangerous places because they want to make a better world. They have not been tapped into for the purpose of preventing mass violence and now that’s what they are trying to do.

Non-governmental organizations are where individuals can really get together with other like-minded people, particularly in democracies. Non-democracies tend to suppress or eliminate non-governmental organizations. They want total governmental control. But in the democracies--and there are more democracies throughout the world than ever in history--people can join an NGO that is preventing genocide.

How do you do that? You get some movements on college campuses. A good example occurred in a near genocidal situation during the peak of the apartheid regime in South Africa. You could have easily had a genocide, but you didn’t, partly because of very committed non-violent, democratic leaders like Desmond Tutu, Mandela, and later De Klerk, and partly because of the international community, people like Cyrus Vance going there and doing a lot of good things and getting cooperation from all the different sectors.

They had a very powerful government with tremendous control over the majority. They even had nuclear weapons. They had millions of people packed into resettlement camps--which is a kind of concentration camp--under marginal circumstances for survival. They could have wiped out hundreds of thousands and even millions of people in a short time had they made the genocide decision. But they didn’t do that. Part of the reason they didn’t [was] they felt the apartheid regime was partly derived from Europe. To some extent they wanted to be European; they didn’t want to be pariahs in the world, and they began to respond to external pressure. Individuals did some things--I’ll just mention one. On college campuses, with the encouragement often of faculty and presidents, there were groups against Apartheid.  They began to have access to the boards of trustees and made their case. On those boards of trustees were bankers and some of the bankers became influenced by that and other factors. A tremendous blow to the regime came when the big banks in New York stopped rolling over their loans; you know the financial sanctions were much more effective than other sanctions. They could not have a prosperous economy if they could not borrow money, and they couldn’t borrow money if the banks cut them off; and the banks cut them off partly because individuals and college students and college board of trustees, their own board of trustees, individuals of democratic societies began to see how dangerous and how immoral it was and that they could do something about it. They weren’t sure it would work, but there was a chance. So it underlines your point that individuals can get organized and create movements in a democratic, non-violent way to put pressure--increasing, growing and ultimately heavy pressure against mass violence.

Eric: We are seeing the same things starting to happen now with Darfur, with the movements on college campuses and consciousness being raised about the genocide--which is still going on.

David: That’s right--and it does involve a lot of information, which you expect from colleges and universities--for example, far more information about the role of China. This was thought of as a purely African conflict until fairly recently and one of the sources of information has been scholars and students and universities. Pressure has only recently been put on the Chinese, and there are indications that they are beginning to respond to that pressure.

Eric: What you are really saying here, this is the first book that has not just said never again, but has pointed out ways to prevent genocide from ever happening again.

David: I think it will take decades and generations, but it can become a reality for our grandchildren. We are getting to the point where we know enough and have enough institutional and other strength to apply the knowledge that could really overcome this dreadful scourge.

One other aspect of this that has come recently is quite interesting--the emergence of regional organizations that have taken interest in this problem. ASEAN in Southeast Asia thought of itself as purely economic. They wanted not to be involved politically, were quite tolerant of dictatorships, and didn’t see the danger to economic development of great violent explosions. That was somebody else’s concern. The development organizations were that way too. The World Bank has moved somewhat from that position, the EU development programs moved a lot from that position in the last 10-12 years, to say that it’s important to strive for widely distributed wealth, but also stable widely distributed wealth. And you can’t have that if you have massive killing. So ASEAN started to have discussions about conflict resolution in their regular meetings, just in the past few years. They have looked to the UN particularly and to the EU to some extent for guidance. The African Union is doing the same now. They have good concepts now, but pitifully few resources to implement [them]. But they are on track, so you can imagine in 20-30 years a network of cooperating regional organizations in Africa and Latin America. You have some rather strong movement in the democratic sphere in Asia, so it won’t just be the European organizations that show the way. It would be that model modified in different ways to fit other regional organizations. So you’d have a worldwide network of regional organizations, plus the universal organization, the UN, and another near universal organization, the World Trade Organization, which so far has contributed virtually nothing in this field, but could. You could get to the point where if you want to participate in the world economy you would have to meet certain guidelines of decent human behavior.

So we can look forward to a better time, but it won’t be today or tomorrow. Some of the more crucial parts will probably be 20, 30, or 40 years off. We have to keep working at it and try to get there.

Eric: Let me mention one other thing, the media. I just heard the other day that something like 5 million people have been massacred in Congo, yet we never hear about that in the media. What role can media play in informing people?

David: It’s a very serious problem. The media in the United States have cut back in their international coverage and that means we know less and less about Congo. You could have 46 million people killed in half a dozen years and hardly anybody knows it, but the media can play a role as CNN has in the case of (_). President Clinton saw it on CNN and realized how horrible it was and decided the US had to do more than it was doing. So that’s a good thing. They can do more. We worked with CNN for a while for 2-3 very interesting years to pick out hotspots where there was danger and to show possible solutions to the danger in advance. That’s an important contribution that media could make. The BBC does some of that, but not nearly enough. The media could show solutions in advance as well as the violence that world leaders and world publics have to pay attention to. We need pressure on the media to do that.

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