Return To Episode Page Return to Peace Talks Radio Home Page

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Tara Sonenshine, Executive
Vice-President of the United States Institute of Peace

Tara Soneshine: The United States Institute of Peace is a national institution that helps the country and the world look at the ongoing problem of conflict, conflict that affects nations and peoples all around the world.  We are the leading experts, if you will, on international conflict, war and peace building issues.

Suzanne Kryder: If the institute is like an academy, what are the reasons it’s not as well known as the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy or the other defense academies?

Soneshine: Well firstly 25, 26 years is not a very long time  for institutions  when you think about the Smithsonian or other institutions that have been around, some 100 years, but I would say also the Institute of Peace has worked quietly  and diligently behind the scenes for many years trying to work with conflicts and parties to conflict and to respect the privacy of individuals trying to work on their differences and never really imagined that having a big public banner was as important to us as getting the conflicts prevented and managed and resolved.  So we have been quite purposefully almost quiet about our work but we’ve begun to see that the public is really interested and that part of our mission is public education and so in effect we really do have a responsibility to be much more open and visible and public and part of why we’re telling our story to you today is that we understand that people are very interested in this subject and it’s become frankly much more a part of our lives.

Kryder:  How has it become more a part of our lives?

Soneshine: You know for many years one could say that conflict overseas was kept far far away from American shores.  The breakup of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War really began to enable Americans to see that there were all of these conflicts that had been kept in check by two great super powers, began to unfold.  Places like the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia that broke up into pieces if one thinks back to Bosnia and Kosovo.  So really I think by the end of the 90’s it became clear that we were not going to have much choice about seeing these ethnic, religious and political conflicts.  Of course 9/11 and what happened on that day brought conflict to our shores in a very visible and visceral way.  Transportation, communications, information technology, a world without walls if you will, means that what happens very far away has spill over into really everybody’s lives as conflict has a tendency to travel.  But we would be the first to say, and I’m sure Washington and way before George Washington, that conflict is part of the human condition.  It’s how you wrestle with it that is most interesting.

Kryder: What would you say to our listeners who are thinking: well, there’s a lot of violent conflict in the United States.  What are the reasons that the USIP doesn’t focus on domestic issues?

Soneshine: Well again one has to go back to our Congressional roots and what was envisioned then was not so much a domestic academy to look at the many conflicts that we do have at home but to really extend our vision overseas  which is not to say that there aren’t many organizations who work on mediation and divorce and domestic disputes and bullying and playground disputes, but we really felt it was important to look around the world at these places where we might be able to make a difference with our skills and knowledge of conflict.

Kryder: Name the places where you all are doing the most work right now.

Soneshine: What would amaze your listeners is that the United States Institute of Peace has an office in Bagdad, in Iraq, in Kabul, in Afghanistan and those are obviously two hot zones right now of conflict.  But we also have our people traveling to many places where we don’t have a permanent office but where we’re quite active; Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, the Arab Israeli conflict, Sudan, the Korean peninsula.  So those are areas of major focus but we’re also operative in Columbia, in our own hemisphere.  We’re very engaged of course in Europe all over.  We’re engaged in Nepal,  Burma, we look at Yemen.  It’s it’s almost as if there’s no part of the world where there isn’t something to keep us busy.

Kryder: How is what you do different than what the State Department does?

Soneshine: Well firstly let me back up and say administrations come and go but the U.S. Institute of Peace remains.  Because we are bipartisan and non-partisan, we’re able to work with really any administration that comes into office.   we work closely with the State Department but we don’t try to be the State Department and by that I mean the State Department has diplomats who are handling official U.S. government diplomacy.  We are sort of an additive force if you will.  We can help think about issues outside the daily pressures of the State Department or the Pentagon.  We can convene people from all sides of an issue and we’re also sort of a neutral playing field, if you will, for the military, civilians, religious figures, economic, political, legal, police.  So we, in a sense have the luxury of being innovative across the spectrum.

Kryder: Our listeners can visualize the USIP employees right now in Bagdad and Kabul.  What are they doing right now?

Soneshine: Well in Afghanistan our folks right now are training women in the hopes that women in Afghanistan can participate in what is called the Jirga which is really the convening of Afghan officials and very often women and girls are left out of institutions and governance in Afghanistan because they don’t have the skills to really be at the table.  So right now we’re helping on that.  Also in Afghanistan we’re working to train conflict mediators so that the Afghans themselves know how to mediate their land disputes for example. 

In Iraq right now we’re working on still trying to bring some interfaith dialogue with many of the religious and ethnic minorities.   right now we’re working on genocide prevention, trying to look at ways that the U.S. government and other governments can spot a genocide early, what are the warning signs so that we don’t wait until it is so late to really address those. 

In Pakistan we are working on trying to understand how to help women parliamentarians in Pakistan for example. 

With Iran, right now we’re looking at what we can expect in the scenarios in Iran and how the U.S. would position itself for whatever outcome occurs in that ongoing unsettled country.

Kryder: For our listeners all around the country, what should they be most excited about that you all are doing?  What’s the impact on their life?

Soneshine:  I think the work we’re doing to build a national academy to train the professionals so that we’re understanding how – what are the tools in the toolkit that our future practitioners will need to operate in these conflict zones.

Kryder: What are your grantees and your researchers learning about peace?  What can we tell Americans to be hopeful about or should we lower our expectations?

Soneshine: I think what we’ve learned after a quarter of a century is that there are tools and approaches and techniques that can be used to prevent violence, to manage it if it does erupt and to deal with the aftermath.  What we’ve learned is that cycles – violence is a cycle and you can catch it in the beginning before it boils up and boils over but if you don’t deal with the outcome of war and conflict it will come around the bend again.  And so what we’ve learned is that there are various points at which you can intervene in this lifecycle of conflict and build the institutions, the capability, the knowledge and the skills to prevent something from waging and raging out of control and to deal with the enormous history and memory and pain and scars of conflict that can easily lead to it reigniting unless you know some of these techniques.  It is possible.  It is hopeful and every individual can actually play a role.  Take for example landmines.   There have been campaigns in which even young children have participated in understanding uh the fight against landmines.  Even high school students can write an essay, become aware, become involved, become knowledgeable.  Every American can read a newspaper and begin to understand what is happening in the world around them.  So we think that information, knowledge and awareness is a very important first skill if you want to participate in the global community.

Kryder: Tara, what’s the one thing you want our listeners to take away from this program about what the United States Institute of Peace does?

Soneshine: I’d like people to know that everyone can play a role in peace building and that making peace is possible and that peace and peace building will now have a permanent place on our National Mall.  That is something that we can be proud of, something that we can feel reflects our better selves and something that meets our national aspiration and the fact that we as tax payers now can say we’re helping to pay for peace building, I think is something that everyone uh will feel good about.

Kryder: And what’s the sense that you want people to get when they see the building, when they walk in the building?

Soneshine: I want people to see the light, the openness, the tolerance, the accessibility, the notion of transparency and the fact that people are hard at work chipping away at big, huge, glacial problems that will take patience and perseverance and professionalism but that people are dedicated and committed to doing this every single day.

Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with USIP Outreach Director
David Smith and Public Affairs Director Lauren Sucher

David Smith: I think many people think peace is the absence of violence and the absence of war and I think for many people that probably should be peace.  People who live in very violent circumstances and very violent environments, you know, they walk out their door and they’re dodging bullets. And so the absence of violence is very important but in other ways peace is much deeper.  I think people could live in an environment where, on the surface, it looks like there’s no violence but there’s suppression of rights.  You look at societies quite often and you say “wow, everybody looks pretty peaceful there.” Right?  But there’s a totalitarian government in power.  There are no human rights in that society.  The underclass is kept under thumb.   That’s not a peaceful society. 

Suzanne Kryder: USIP likes to use civil society as a marker.  How do you gauge if a country has a civil society or not?

Smith: I guess one way of understanding is analogizing to our own society.   The word “civil society” is very much an international term but look at the United States.  We belong to civic and public associations, the PTA, etc.  You can write a letter to the newspaper,  you can march on the Mall when you wish.  These are all ways in which people engage. In which people are able to articulate their views.  Their views are often contrary to each other.  You can call talk radio for instance and that’s civil society.  That’s the people who are making up our society they’re operating, we’ll say, in a civil mannered way but are still articulating their points of view.  In other societies you can’t do that.  You write a letter to the newspaper, the next day or the next night or that night, two o’clock in the morning, the Secret Police take you away, you’re never heard from again.  Or there are no ways of protesting in the streets because you’ll be thrown in jail.  Societies that lack that ability, lack those organizations, those societies, don’t have civil society.  Well civil society is the way that you articulate your differences peacefully.  The failure to do that often means blood in the streets.  That’s why civil society is important everywhere.

Lauren Sucher: I think that peace is more than just the absence of war or the absence of violence.  If you stop and think about it, let’s say a country or society has been at war.  Once the peace treaty is signed, so many of us think okay, war is over, now we’re back to “peace” quote/unquote.  But really in a way that’s when the real hard work begins because that’s when neighbors have to start talking to one another again.  That’s when stores have to start reopening, right?  Everything quote/unquote has to “come back to normal” and that takes time and it’s so – a society that’s just coming out of a war or conflict is very fragile right because what if I can’t get to the market now to start getting food for my family or what if the market, you know the vendor that I usually go to or that merchant is out of stuff today or doesn’t want to sell to me today because he’s still mad – you know there’s still underlying tensions from this conflict.  So a peace treaty can be signed by leaders but it’s people in neighborhoods that really have to live out if you will this peace and this treaty.  So the society has to begin rebuilding itself and that takes a lot of forms like: are the police back?  Is there law and order in the streets?  What happens if there’s a fire?  Is there a fire department who can come and help?  Are hospitals up and running?  It’s like there’s a million different pieces that that need to begin rebuilding themselves again and that’s when you have peace is when you don’t have to think about whether I can trust the policemen or not.

Smith: I spent ten years as a divorce lawyer and  so people would get a divorce and they’d sign an agreement and you think well, it’s all done, right?  No, that’s when the work starts.  How are you going to divide custody?  Who is going to get property?  How is visitation going to be if you have children?  You know, what other organizations are you going to involve yourselves in to support the children or support the division of the property?  The real work often takes place after the agreement is signed.  Well that’s the way societies operate too.  There’s a lot of parallels between people who go through a divorce and sign an agreement and the work that has to be done afterwards in looking at a society.

Kryder: David, how does USIP decide which countries to go into?

Smith: Well really from our standpoint we want to be invited.  We want to be asked to engage in a country and when we operate in a country, we are working with partners on the ground who we find credible and reliable who are interested in the same types of approaches that we’re interested in.  So we’re not we’re not getting a call from the White House or anywhere to say well you need to go here you need to go there.  Obviously there are environments that we’re involved in as a country that are going to be important that we might want to engage in and we do engage in, but often we’re going to place where we are being asked to involve ourselves in.

Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder gets a tour of the new USIP
Headquarters from J. Robinson West, President, USIP Board of Directors

J. Robinson West: Welcome to the headquarters of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Suzanne Kryder: Thanks.  Oh thanks so much.  I really appreciate you taking the time to give me this tour.

West: Well it’s very exciting for those of us who have been involved in the conceptualization and raising the money and getting it built and  to see this come to fruition. It’s very exciting and we think it’s important.  You know what we’re up to here is we hope to have a real impact on the world and how America conducts itself in the world.

Kryder: We’re entering at the street level and we’re walking up a bit of a spiraled stair case.  Where are we going next?

West: Well what we’re going to do is we’re going to enter into what will be known as the Congressional Pavilion which looks out into the Great Hall.  It’s a very dramatic space as you can see.  It’s a soaring space from  floor to ceiling is seven stories tall.  The ceiling is in the sculptural shape of a dove.  We believe this building is going to be three things.  It’s going to be a working building where the work of the institute takes place.  It’s going to be an educational building but it’s also going to be a symbol. And one of the things that’s important is that if you come over Memorial Bridge at night, which is the gateway to Washington, and I would argue it’s the most beautiful man made entrance to any city in the world. When you come over at night and you see the Lincoln, the Jefferson and the Washington monuments, this (USIP Headquarters) will be the fourth thing you see.  We think that’s very powerful. 

The other thing that’s important is we’re located just diagonally across the street from the Vietnam Memorial and other war memorials.  And the notion that the sacrifices that people made over the years in all these wars often was for peace and so that their families in this country could live in peace.  This is a very powerful statement.   And symbolism matters on the Mall.  The Mall is all about that – it is a national symbol of our values and our history and we think this is a new and powerful symbol.

Kryder: It’s a gorgeous space.  It has a very sleek, somber feel to it because it’s basically all white and tan.  We’re just at dusk so we’re seeing the sunset through this gorgeous expanse of windows.

West: This glass wall. One of the things that’s very powerful is you look over here and you see the Lincoln Memorial lit up at night. And where this building is very unusual in Washington is that it brings the outside in. Most of the buildings such as the East Wing of the National Gallery, which a lot of people think is the most important contemporary building in Washington, once you’re inside it you have no sense of what’s outside.

Kryder: This is fabulous!  This is just amazing.  Sorry to interrupt.

West: No, no, no but it’s as you can see it brings the outside in.

Kryder: Yes it’s like there’s no edge really.

West: Well there’s a seven story wall of glass. When you go upstairs and you look out you can see Arlington,  you can see Kennedy’s grave, you see Memorial Bridge.   It’s one of the most traumatic locations in the city.

Kryder: Now we’re walking over to the edge so that we can see downstairs.  What will be downstairs on that ground opening?

West:  Well actually it will stay much as it is now.  It will be very simple.  It’s very open.   This building, although it’s a very dramatic soaring building, it actually was built on time, on budget.

Kryder: How much did the building cost?

West: The building, to this stage, is about $160 million dollars.  It’s been a public private partnership.

Kryder: Tell us about the architect.

West: The architect is an architect named Moshe Safdie, who had been head of the architecture department at Harvard.   The most famous building he did was  Yad Vashem which is the  memorial in Israel.