Busted: David Cortright

An Army veteran and scholar on the costs of waging peace

BH: In Peace you discuss how nonviolent approaches can be realistic when dealing with the challenges of war and peace. Can you give an example from today’s news headlines?

DC: For 99% of all disputes in the world, effective nonviolent means are available and can be used to achieve justice and protect the innocent. Iran is a case where we do not have war now, but there’s a danger of armed conflict. Armed conflict in Iran is completely unnecessary. There are ample diplomatic options available to resolve the differences between the US and Iran, but they require from the United States a willingness to talk and to normalize our relations with Iranians. But we still consider them an enemy. You can’t talk if you consider the other side the enemy. When President Bush put Iran in the Axis of Evil, it was like closing the door on diplomatic options. It made nonviolent options more difficult and less likely. Experience shows that diplomacy needs to include incentives. We recently had some success in North Korea when we finally were willing to offer economic assistance and vowed to remove Pyongyang from the terrorist list (a list of states that sponsor terrorism). For North Korea, that was a real incentive.

BH: What happens to a country that is on the U.S. terrorist list?

When you’re on the official U.S. terrorist list, you can’t get any technical assistance or financial credits. Any kind of commerce and economic exchange with the U.S. is blocked. When you’re cut off from world’s most powerful country, it hurts you in many ways.

BH: You teach an introduction to peace studies class for undergraduates. What issues interest your students the most?

Concerns about peace rise when there’s war and ebb when there’s not. With Iraq, there’s an increase. In 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, there was a lot of interest. Increasingly, students are interested in terrorism: how to deal with Al-Qaeda and the Osama-bin Laden threat. There’s also a tremendous amount of interest in Africa-related issues. Many students recognize the suffering and genocide in Darfur and in other parts of Africa.

What’s also influencing their interest in part is the anguish our country has gone through about Iraq. The response to September 11th has been very puzzling and traumatic for the whole country and naturally, brings lot of questions. Students expect us on faculty to have the answers, but often we only have more questions. At least we can help them frame the questions.

BH: You’ve mentioned in other media interviews that you weren’t interested in politics until you were drafted at 21 years old. Now that military service is voluntary rather than compulsory, how does this affect young people’s interests in political affairs, particularly peacebuilding?

It certainly means that the urgency of finding a solution to war and a commitment to peace is less. It makes the problems of war and peace, frankly, a bit abstract and distant.

“Students expect us to have the answers, but often we only have more questions. At least we can help them frame the questions.”

What aren’t your students interested in that your generation was passionate about?

DC: There’s not much activism, which gets back to the fact that they’re not forced to serve in the military. That powerful disruption that came into our generation’s lives — they’ve been spared. In the 1960s the war issue drove a lot of activism.

There’s a whole generation, twenty-some million of us, who had to make the choice between war and peace. Part of it is that activism itself has changed. There’s a lot of online activism that goes on now. One can question how effective it is, but it’s a way in which political action is often expressed. That’s not just true among students – you can see it in the election campaigns going on now.

BH: You are both a scholar and an activist, and you’ve advised the United Nations on everything from economic sanctions to counterterrorism. How does being so involved in policy shape your scholarship and vice versa?

DC: Being a scholar-activist means you’re absolutely serious about scholarly method and objective research. You let facts determine the reality. But the activist side says that the compelling moral issues must be faced and addressed, and they should inform the scholarship. If you look at my scholarship, it’s all on pressing contemporary issues. Peace is an exception, because it’s history, but if you look at the historical examples in the book, I’m always using them to make a point about contemporary reality: how to prevent terrorism; how to deal with states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea; how to deal with nuclear dangers. Too many activists are less well-informed than they should be. They’re not acknowledging the complexity and depth of some issues like Iraq. Yes, the U.S. should never have gone in there, but how we get out is a complex and extremely difficult question that needs some flexibility and careful study. Activism that is naïve and ill-informed loses legitimacy and is ineffective because it will not be able to gain much support.

My hope is that my students will be scholar-activists, combining the best of both worlds.