2007 Commencement Address

Close Encounters between Knowledge and Power

Elizabeth Cousens '87
Vice President, International Peace Academy
New York, New York

Good afternoon, and thank you very much. President Thomas, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, distinguished guests, friends, and most of all, the Puget Sound Class of 2007, it is a tremendous privilege and an honor to have been asked to speak to you today.

When President Thomas first asked me to speak at your commencement, I was thrilled to say yes. I wasn’t quite so thrilled that he also reminded me that my own graduation was 20 years ago…Thankfully, as you’ll discover, one of the few benefits of advancing age is a charitable memory loss. I’ve now forgotten all about it and I’m just very happy to be here.

What I’d like to do today is say a few things about what I’m calling “close encounters between knowledge and power.”

Let me start with a confession. When I was sitting where you are, at that time planning to head to Oxford University for graduate school, I didn’t begin to know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew what I was interested in – politics, negotiation, the interplay between values and interests. I knew what grabbed me – anything international. And I knew a few things that made me angry – willful ignorance, hypocrisy, cruelty. I also knew that I had been fortunate enough to receive an exceptional education, and that it would somehow inform the choices I would make, but I wasn’t at all sure how.

Twenty years ago, we were also at what would soon become clear were the dwindling days of the Cold War, though we didn’t know it at the time. (Remember the Cold War?) People are now rather distressingly nostalgic about its stability, but it was an era with its own contradictions, its own uneasy reconciliation between principle and power, its own demonstrations of courage alongside bad faith, its own perils, its own possibilities.

So, knowledge and power. I’d like to tell you three short stories from my own experience:

Story 1: Local Knowledge, or Why a School in Cap Haitien Once Flew a Pakistani Flag
The first story I want to tell is about local knowledge, about place and context, and about cultivating respect for difference as well as finding common bonds where you least expect them.

There are far too many stories in international politics about actions taken in the absence of local knowledge, either willfully – because people don’t think it matters – thoughtfully, because of a legitimate view that particularity is less relevant than universality – or inadvertently – because people and institutions are not very well suited to gathering local knowledge, let alone acting on it.

First, a quick aside about Iraq. When early planning documents for Iraq reconstruction were made public, they initially included a somewhat mystifying reference to Germany. Well, it appears that someone dusted off the plans for reconstructing Germany in 1945 to use in Iraq in 2003… but they forgot to do a global “search-and-replace,” and not just in the section on de-Baathification.

“Global search and replace” – not a bad metaphor for rather too many things these days.

Now, part of the reason that anyone would even think that what worked in Germany in 1945 might have a prayer of working in Iraq four years ago, has undoubtedly to do with politics, and no small amount of wishful thinking. But it also has something to do with a limitation of political institutions that are not nearly as well suited as they should be to learning about different places and people.

In fact, more than a few people in the front lines of various peace processes around the world will tell you that alongside the diplomats and the peacekeepers, we would be well-served by having cadres of anthropologists, linguists, and historians on whom to draw for insight – along with, not least, an open mind about the places in which we engage.

The story I want to tell here is about local knowledge in an unlikely context, and it’s about a battalion of Pakistani peacekeepers in Northern Haiti in the mid-1990s under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel named Niaz Khattak.

Their job was to provide “a safe and secure environment” for elections and the restoration of law and constitutional order. But how would they do it? Some peacekeepers in other parts of Haiti did it by patrolling the country in 4-car convoys of ‘thick-skinned’ vehicles and not talking to any Haitians. But Col. Khattak had a different idea.

I first met Col. Khattak during Ramadan in 1996 in the coastal town of Cap Haitien. I had my own preconceptions and imagined that there was probably little common ground between Urdu-speaking soldiers from a Muslim country, and Creole-speaking fisherman and farmers who worshipped a syncretic mix of Catholicism and voudoun. I expected that this might be one of those cases where the UN had fielded troops not particularly well-suited to their environment, with all the problems that can ensue.

Instead, I encountered one of the more inspiring examples of practical ingenuity in a conflict that I’ve ever seen.

Col. Khattak, interestingly, had prepared himself for Haiti by reading history and just about every novel about Haiti and the Caribbean that he could get his hands on. His bookshelf had, alongside UN documents, Edwidge Danticat, Amy Wilentz, among others. He said this had given him more insight into Haiti than any of his official briefing books. He also went out of his way to talk to people. He went to community meetings, he spoke to people on the radio, and he found every possible way simply to listen and to pay attention.

The result? Col. Khattak was able to build trusted relationships with community leaders, the likes of which few peacekeepers are ever able to achieve. He routinely helped resolve disputes and defuse conflicts. And his soldiers were spending most of their off-hours on community development –fixing schools, building roads, repairing reefs. As he described it, the only way genuinely to provide ‘safety and security’ was to figure out the source of people’s frustrations and try to solve problems before they erupted in violence.

Col. Khattak also described a commonality between his troops and the fishermen and farmers of Cap Haitien, despite the Urdu-Creole gap: they were basically all poor, used to working hard to produce food for their families, not strangers to injustice and, ultimately, reliant on social networks and solidarity to get by.

The moral of this story: do your cultural homework, learn from non-usual sources, and be open to finding common ground where you least expect it.

Story 2: Knowledge Abused, or How a License Plate Helped Liberate Bosnia
The second story is about Bosnia, how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and why sometimes less information is more.

First, a quick recap of the history. Remember that Bosnia used to be part of Yugoslavia, and that the war started in 1992 as a fight between the three main ethnic groups – Croats, Serbs, and Bosniacs – about who would control Bosnia. Croats had their own newly independent country – Croatia – Serbs had their own quasi-country – Serbia – but both also had designs on parts or all of Bosnia, which by the way also did the Muslim Bosniacs who made up 43% of the population.

Each side wanted to control territory that was usually inhabited by one or both of the other groups, and one of the main ways they waged war was to intimidate, terrorize, displace, or kill civilians to “cleanse” areas of any but their own ethnic group.

This was the war that made the term “ethnic cleansing” a household word.

After the war ended, the map was still messy. There were refugees spread throughout Europe, internally displaced people sometimes mere miles from their former homes, and the displacement continued even after the hostilities supposedly stopped.

Everyone talked about “freedom of movement,” but people weren’t free to move at all. One of the main reasons? Everyone, and every car, had an ethnic license plate: Serbs, Croats, and Bosniacs each had plates with different markings and, in the Serbs’ case a different alphabet. The minute you got into a car, your ethnicity was “known,” and every car became literally a moving target for gangs, militias, and the authorities.

Meanwhile, thousands of international personnel moved around freely, with their white four-by-fours and their international plates. Which gave a young New Zealander working for the UN an idea: why couldn’t Bosnians have non-denominational plates so that people could travel throughout the country without broadcasting their ethnic identity?

Needless to say, this was not exactly popular, with nationalist groups in particular, who had an interest in controlling where people moved and keeping communities divided. It also wasn’t popular in the beginning with NATO, who worried that uncontrolled population movement would be, well, uncontrolled.

But after nearly two years, incredible persistence, and no small amount of devious diplomacy, Bosnians got new license plates – no ethnic symbols, letters common to both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, and random distribution throughout the population.

Within days, population movement across all the mini-borders throughout Bosnia – the split villages, the divided towns, the zones of separation – skyrocketed. People were able to visit the homes from which they’d been driven often for the first time. And while the new plates didn’t solve every problem in the country, they certainly did solve some.

The moral of this story: knowledge can be used to divide, intimidate, and control, but its abuse can be countered with imagination, persistence and some good subversive instincts.

Story 3: When Knowledge Isn’t Enough, or When What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Of course, many of the most important questions in public life are not knowable in any conclusive sense. A perfect example is the debate about what do in Iraq – should we stay or should we go? If we go, what will happen? If we stay, what should we do?

Even in the best of circumstances, knowledge is destined to be incomplete. In politically charged contexts, what knowledge we have is often ignored.

Now this may surprise you, but here I want to quote Donald Rumsfeld (Remember Donald Rumsfeld?). Slate magazine called Mr. Rumsfeld a poet, but I prefer to think of him more as a philosopher.

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Rumsfeld’s disquisition about knowing was actually quite wise. If, that is, you are clear on which is which and act accordingly.

Because, of course, despite all the limitations of knowledge, there are often areas where a great deal actually is known, even agreed, but policy marches ahead in steadfast defiance of it.

Let’s return to Iraq. In late 2001, nearly two years before the war, the US State Department launched something called the Future of Iraq Project. Dozens of analysts, practitioners, and regional experts were part of this ambitious effort to prepare for post-war contingencies and develop options to ensure a stable post-war Iraq. What was the result – two years, 17 working groups, 13-volumes, and 2000 pages later? The cutting room floor. None of the ideas, advice, or recommendations were heeded. Apparently, some thought that all that was really needed were good catchers for all those flowers that would be thrown to us in gratitude.

Sometimes even when you try to speak truth to power, power just won’t listen.

Well, you’ll be relieved to learn that there are now steps being taken to fix this kind of oversight. The CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies have just started a new training program for recruits. It’s called – wait for it now – Analysis 101. But don’t worry. It’s four whole weeks, so that should cover it.

Only two more words are really needed to illustrate this problem of policy that defies evidence: climate change. How much more certainty is needed before those with the capacity to act actually will?

So the moral of this story: vote. Expect a lot from the people you put in office, especially that they give you good reasons for the decisions they make on your behalf.

I am, of course, at risk of giving a speech in defiance of advice, in this case from every well-meaning friend who learned that I would be speaking today. By and large, they all told me that the main thing I needed to do was keep it light and, if I was really smart, quote Jon Stewart.

Well, I do want to quote Jon Stewart, but not about the Mess O’Potamia. A few years ago, he gave the commencement address at William and Mary, his own alma mater, and said this:

“Let’s talk about the real world for a moment. I don’t really know how to put this, so I’ll be blunt. We broke it.

Please don’t be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.

I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, but it just kinda got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us.”

Now, my Russian friends tell me that they have a saying about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. The pessimist is the person who wrings his hands, looks to the skies and says “it can’t get any worse,” and the optimist is the person who looks to the skies, brightens up, and says “oh yes it can!”

Today, we are probably facing greater collective challenges than ever before – climate change, infectious disease, terrorism and other forms of violence, widening gaps between rich and poor.

Never have challenges of collective action been greater, not least because people experience vulnerability so differently. If you are a 58-year old man in Russia, you have hit your life expectancy. In the United States, you can look to 73. If you are a girl in Niger you have a 9.7 percent chance of being literate, compared to 99.9 percent in Sweden.

Cooperation seems more elusive than ever, with the rise of ideologies and fundamental contestation not just about values but also about information and knowledge and the basis for judgment about public action.

As an American, I am troubled most by a further trend to separate evidence from decisions, to take decisions without explanation, and to see consequences unfold without accountability.

But. We are also living at a time when the world is perhaps more open to historical possibility than ever before. Those forces of globalization that create concern are also pathways for transmission of ideas, shared knowledge, and mobilization of people and governments across borders to solve problems. Even while there are new polarities, there is more tolerance of difference and appreciation of plurality than ever before.

I learned a few things about Puget Sound and your class on the way here. That you are a top producer of peace corps volunteers for schools of your size, that 75 percent of you participate in community service, that nearly half of you have studied abroad in 33 countries and that many of you will be traveling to far-flung parts of the globe as you leave Puget Sound and enter the so-called real world.

Some of you will have heard of Ishmael Beah. Ishmael Beah is a 26-year old Sierra Leonian who at 13 was conscripted as a child soldier but who years later managed to find his way, first, to a UN rehabilitation center, then to the United States where he now lives in New York City as a writer, activist and self-professed “American kid who’s confused about what they want to do.”

I would leave you with one final thought. Every moment in history is open, this one no less. You have a real and important opportunity to seize, and contribution to make, even if you don’t know yet what it is or how you will make it.

If a child soldier in Sierra Leone can end up graduating from Oberlin College, writing a book about his story with the power to affect millions, and sold in Starbucks, no less, you know that the world is full of unimagined possibility and the future is yours to determine.

It is a genuine privilege to congratulate you on your graduation. Thank you.