Yesterday I published a piece on the need to better comprehend, and possibly to regulate, the implications which come from the use of new and highly sophisticated systems in the field of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). New applications with abilities to understand, and to respond, in natural language, or in the form of complex visual compositions are crossing a boundary line where it becomes very difficult for an unknowing observer to identify that the communication partner is an A.I. system. Their capabilities are scarily powerful, ranging from natural conversations through writing poems, articles or other complex pieces of writing, or even computer code, just based on natural language input.
I mentioned the possibility for such systems to be abused in malicious contexts. Like any modern piece of software, their inner workings are almost impossible to understand for people who do not take their time for an in-depth learning curve. At the same time, their capacities are fascinating. Meaning that they and their results are looking so good, and the dangers coming from their unregulated use appear so abstract, that they permeate into the real word with a speed which makes curbing unwanted effects a gigantic mission (almost) impossible.
Now, on the general dangers from this cyberworld, here a very comprehensive and meticulous documentation which the English version of the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL put online yesterday: “The “Vulkan Files”: A Look Inside Putin’s Secret Plans for Cyber-Warfare. I just want to recommend reading it. The full scale of Russia’s integral user of cyber weapons into regular warfare and State sponsored terrorism becomes very obvious. The report is based on comprehensive research including insider information which DER SPIEGEL conducted together with investigative partner organisations.
Looking at it, the strategic range of hostile activities, in and way beyond the current war of aggression raging against the Ukraine, becomes clear. Those hostile cyber activities are an integral part in larger operations, and they target the West, as well as any people posing a threat to Putin’s control regime. Which does not come at a surprise. Recent public discussions have made it very difficult to qualify what we collectiviely are finding ourselves in. People with authorized public voices have to tread their words very carefully, simply because any language of war can escalate a situation which is meant to be escalated by those in Russia who wage a war against the Ukraine, and who, that would be safe to say, are extremely hostile against the West, and do not hesitate to lure the West into a larger scale conflict of some kind. Oh, no, wrong: We are already in a larger scale conflict, and we try to defend ourselves, and to de-escalate that situation back into the realm of international diplomacy.
Subject to attacks in the cyber-realm are any people, organisations, or infrastructure deemed worthy to be attacked in gaining influence, information, control, manipulate through desinformation, influence public opinion, or just to exercise visible destructive power. It does not matter whether it is you, a civilian or a military or a political target, or an industrial or government target. Depending on the malicious intent, literally everyone is subject to these attacks, like, influencing your opinion and framework of perception of Russia’s war activities, and Putin and his collaborators committing crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
DER SPIEGEL is able to exhibit the contours of the full scale of it, and only by one of those actors who try to use this cyber-power. A lot has been written about others, such as in Iran, in North Korea, or in China. But the Russian side of things becomes more and more obvious, partly because, as DER SPIEGEL states, these activities are not even meant to be covert to a full extent any more. But make no mistake, the cutting edge use of state of the art tools will always be kept in the dark.
Stating what we all should know. But in this context, new A.I. tools such as language based models, are already being used, and are increasingly being used. They may become the new “power tool”.
Few things are more important than systematic cyber security strategies, including police and military defense and deterrence. In countries of the European Union, in countries aspiring to join the E.U., and generally within countries who contribute the upholding of principles including Human Rights, a rule of law, and democracy as a means of basing the power on the will expressed by the people, not by dictators, oligarchs, autocrats, or, I may add, any people who put their own power beyond the limits of a rule of law. Those inlude Organized Crime.
In some countries I work in, these vulnerabilties take the form of wide open barn doors. There is a need to collectively close these doors. Yes, the Internet is about freedom of communication and information exchange, for the prosper of All. But exactly this is under attack. Often invisible. Until massive cyber attacks bring governance to a screeching halt. Which is what we have witnessed in some countries not mentioned in DER SPIEGEL, between 2019 and 2022.
Prelude: My French friend with whom I wanted to meet this morning, discussing work over coffee, got sick. Sending him a “Get Well”, and using the time alone with my coffee for a piece I wanted to “put out there”.
There have been many articles and comments in the media about an expectation towards Germany to “lead”. Same on the side of politics. Whether related to States bordering the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation, or the discussions and reflections in the U.S. media, and elsewhere. Commentators were quick to point to a perceived, or alleged unwillingness or inability on the side of the German Chancellor to make a decisive move. In the most recent case, as we all remember, it is about supplying the Ukraine with German made main battle tanks. Before that, it was about medium sized battle tanks (like the “Marder”), or about armoured vehicles, or about defensive air systems. Of course, there also was the unfortunate communication at the beginning, helping the Ukraine by sending 5000 protective helmets. And yes, there is an embarrassing element in that. In the scheme of things I wanted to quickly write about, the last one is collateral damage, or an anectotal side story. However, even this unfortunate communication by the former Defense Minister of Germany had a positive impact: Waking up to a new reality is not an easy thing to do. Hawkish thinking will have a home-run. Those who cling to an effort thinking about peace as it was before things changed, they will become defensive. Ruptures will loom, and these can be exploited by malicious actors, inside a system (extremists and enemies of the constitutional foundation of a system), inside a framework of collaboration and cooperation, (of course I am talking about the EU and about NATO), and outside (like the Russian Federation, but not only).
Only history will tell us whether we handle things cautiously, or too cautiously. But the principle we follow is that we don’t go it alone.
I am not involved into policymaking and strategies how to handle the situation which includes a War of Aggression against the Ukraine. But I see this principle in every aspect of my own work, and in every aspect of German governance that I can reasonably make conclusions about, on basis of what I see in publicly available information. I believe this is more than anecdotal evidence for that this is a principle of German policy within the context of all things E.U, all things NATO, and all things U.N.
Where I can simply state that I know we do it this way is within the context of our support to an initiative of the six jurisdictions of the Western Balkans to come to grips with all aspects related to Small Arms and Light Weapons. I see this “DNA” reflected in everything, how we support ownership, how we support it in close collaboration with the Regional Cooperation Council RCC, together with France in a so-called Franco-German initiative which sits at the roots of this support since 2014 within the “Berlin Process”, and how we do it together with all relevant actors inside the European Union, namely the European Union External Action Service, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Neighborhood, and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Migration & Home Affairs. And on the other side of the equation, how we support our jointness by empowering implementing organisations, be them part of the United Nations family (UNDP and UNODC), be them part of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE, be them structures inside NATO.
The above complexity just in order to demonstrate how complex a process in which we don’t go it alone can be. There is, on all levels, a tremendous effort behind the principle of not going it alone. And much of it is almost invisible to the public, hungry for bad news. But without revealing internal stuff, it looks like we are getting assessments confirming the success sitting behind practically applying principles such as real assistance to others, and not to go it alone.
Allow me also to make a brief point on what some commentators refer to as some historic reasons for this German attitude. They talk about the German history of how we came out of our own darkest times, the most shameful parts of German history, the Holocaust. Which, after all, was the horror after the Nazis managed to wrestle control away from the previous system of governance. Nazi Germany was the product of an inside job destroying the Republic of Weimar, including a successful brazen attack on the Weimar Constitution. In my senior police education, I was once asked to write up the similarities and differences of the Weimar Constitution with the “German Grundgesetz”, the basic law we gave ourselves after Word War II, which we kept open through a preamble in which we promised to never give up on re-unification, and which we then carried over into the German constitution, our basic law, of today. Nutshell: The German basic law is founded on a DNA which can already be found in the Constitution of Weimar, including human and citizen’s rights. Part of the post-Holocaust effort in designing a new basic law was to enshrine provisions making it more difficult, or hopefully even impossible, to hollow it out from the inside.
In all this German “DNA” there is reflection of the responsibility that we promised to ourselves, to victims, and to the World at large, to never allow this happening again.
This is a vital part of our own constitutional immune system against the danger stemming from if power goes rogue. This is why we don’t go it alone.
And to see a practical detail about how serious we are in this, look at this German article in the German news “Tagesschau” from today: “Im Holocaust erlebten ukrainische Juden grenzenlose Grausamkeit” is the title of a piece from today. In German language, the German Tagesschau is reflecting on Babyn Jar, located in Kviev. Over the duration of the German Nazi occupation of the Ukraine, this place suffered from the killing of more than 100.000 Jews by the Nazi regime. It peaked with two days during which at least 33.771 human beings were killed by the German Nazis.
With responsibility, humility, and no hesitation the German news report about this during a time of war in the Ukraine, during a time which includes that Germany has, just two days ago, also agreed to enlarge our already large military assistance to the Ukraine by sending own main battle tanks, and allowing other Nations to send their own German-made Leopard-II-tanks, too.
My work over the past 23 years has brought me to places of mass murder, genocide, and any unthinkable crime against humanity. Not bragging here. But making the point that I witnessed so many efforts to come to terms with that own shameful legacy. Some did well. Visit the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, for example, like I did on two occasions. Some struggle. Listen to the different voices on the Srebenica genocide, for example. Some deny, and threaten consequences to anyone who begs to differ from the public line of unaccountability. Look at the situation with the Uyghurs in China, or the Armenian genocide early on during the last century.
Taking collective action in the interest of, and service of, peace does not leave any wiggle room for taking own full responsibility, and requires to not going it alone.
That’s what we do.
The picture was taken by myself in May 2019. I was visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp with beloved American, German, and Egyptian friends.
I am opening my blog editor for the first time in more than a month. A few days ago I returned to Belgrade after intense travel. It started with my participation in a series of work-related meetings and conferences in Budva, Montenegro, mid December. Whilst I spent my days with my colleagues in a Hotel Resort on issues supporting the efforts to control all aspects of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the Western Balkans and South East Europe, I returned to my campervan for the night, where my cat was patiently waiting for me.
I took to the road then for spending time in Germany over the Christmas Season and the New Year’s celebrations. A long road trip along the Croatian coast line, getting into colder weather in Slovenia, snow in Austria and heavy snow in Bavaria. The epic winter scenery in Bavaria didn’t last more than a few days, accompanied by the usual chitchat on air waves, social media and in local bakeries on cold snaps and climate change. Christmas Day I traveled to Berlin, the weather had warmed up, typical grey dark winter weather in late December and early January in Germany. I spent time on work, time with loved ones and with friends, and with myself.
This weekend I returned to Belgrade, also capturing some impressions about two days of road travel through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and finally Serbia. 01 January 2023, Croatia entered the Schengen Zone and the Eurozone. For somebody traveling so often, the fact that my first and only border control happened on entering Serbia was a source of excitement. Some of those impressions are available on Youtube (@allovertheplacewithtiggie), I publish little videos on aspects of a lifestyle which I have taken up since now more than three years, including part-time living in a campervan and, since last year, additionally a caravan.
If I wanted, aside of the private side of things, to summarize events and developments I have been following between mid of December and mid of January, I would fail. The complexity of global developments and their related news has been pretty overwhelming.
Yesterday evening I met with a long-time friend for dinner. As always we were catching up on what happened since we saw each other the last time. The mere attempt to focus on a summary account on my side for the past half of a year since we had seen each other left me with a feeling of inferiority: I felt like failing in giving an accurate account of everything that had happened. At the same time I tried to deflate my ego: My ego was trying to get me to talk about everything that had happened through lenses framed by my own interpretation of “reality”, my role in it, and my wish to demonstrate that things I said were very relevant. I’m happy to report that I was able to refrain from that.
At the same time my friend was chatting away against a background of own heavy involvement in his area of work. He is ten years younger than I am, with a professional career still pointing upwards to more, and more responsible, positions. By contrast, my intellectual growth happens within a context of transformation into being somewhat a mentor and an independent consultant, a retired individual with a distinguished career in the past, and with, hopefully, useful previous experience and the ability to turn that experience into strategic advice which helps in contemporary situations. Which constantly forces me to renew my strategic and contextual knowledge because otherwise I would become one of those “dinosaurs” who don’t even realize when people around them shrug their shoulders and turn away, because nothing they hear feels appealing or relevant to them.
That is also why I enjoy meeting so many people of all ages, gender, nationality, cultural belonging, and more. In order to make my advice relevant, it needs to fit into what people think and feel today, and not what people like I thought and felt at the time when I was younger and pursuing an active career, inflating my ego.
All those circumstances which were forming the pillars of my own framework relevant for my work, they have changed. Literally every aspect which I could compare to those circumstances when I worked, as a national senior police officer, and then for twenty years as a United Nations peacekeeper and as a European Union crisis manager in alternating senior functions, they appear to be less visible, less relevant, and increasingly also becoming a subject of a loss of corporate memory. By having a long-term involvement in international aspects of peace&security, I do remember things which other people have forgotten, or which they will never be taught. So I remember that there always were developments which I could see which led to the current state of affairs. But the speed of development of the past three years since I retired, it sped up so much, including erosion, decay and implosion of operational, strategic and political pillars of an architecture which we worked so hard on for many decades. Many of my blog entries deal with aspects of it. Of course, I always also reflect on the underlying DNA of frameworks: The underpinning values.
Some discussions between my friend and me yesterday also dealt with the question whether we correctly assume that those values which form the DNA for our passionate and compassionate attitude also hold true for younger generations. We were doubtful, to some extent. I would add that we, the previous generations, have failed to live some, or many, of these values in a convincing collective way. Why does Greta Thunberg’s sharp words of criticism come to my mind, just as one but very visible example for those who rightfully blame us, the previous generations. And: Will future generations including those who criticise us, be able to act more responsibe? My political roots sit with the generation directly following the German “68er”. We were the wind of change of those days, some of us outside of the system, some of us inside the system. Some went from the outside to the inside. A considerable number of them also played a role in my work, or together with me. All of those are in retirement, at least. Some of them are gone from this life.
But, on the other hand: Who am I to claim that the erosion which I believe to see goes so deep? Since I am not embedded into the organisational framework of national or international institutions any longer, whether in policing, or United Nations peace operations, or European Union crisis management, which insider knowledge of recent years can I use for concluding that things got really bad, in my assessment?
So I sat here over the past days, thinking about what what comes up next in this blog. Or related to other plans on my writing, such as my plan to work on essays. There is so much to say, so much to write about. I felt like if I don’t find a focus for 2023, things remain blurry, without depth, just chatter. My friend and I left yesterday shortly after I had asked “What will be the defining things which we can see for 2023?”. My friend hesitated, and after some silence both of us agreed that we know little, except that likely things will become more difficult, more bellicose, more unstable.
Against this background I quietly sat over lunch today. I let my thoughts calm down and I started writing this title “Seeing Deeper”.
In December 2019, I was invited by the University of Osnabrueck, talking to students on the topic of communication both being used as a weapon, or as a means for political conciliation. Boris Pistorius, then being the Minister of Interior of the German State of Lower Saxony, was addressing the students before me on the same topic. Tomorrow he will be formally appointed as the new German Minister of Defense. I so much wish him luck for this challenging environment.
I came across this memory when contemplating about my friend’s and my discussions yesterday on what we can see, or not, or only partly, or speculate about, related to the information warfare aspects surrounding the larger context in which Russia is conducting a War of Aggression against the Ukraine.
The topic of the talk back in late 2019, communication as a means either to manipulate, to disrupt, to antagonize, or as a means to find common ground and common sense, it is as relevant as the discussion of values on which I embark so often. These days, at the beginning of 2023, whether I like it or not, any effort to keep things together happens in a radically changed environment in which we need to take sides without loosing the ability to find paths and avenues which, at the very least, do not play into the hand of the enemies of values defining the post World War II order.
Enemies? Yes, very much so. Not the Russian people. But for war mongerers under, and including, Vladimir Putin, the scope of their aggression and warfare goes way beyond the Ukraine. Institutions of the post WW II order, organisations such as NATO and the EU, and their constituent States, are being met with open hostility. To put it mildly. We may navigate in order to contain, to limit, physical warfare. We may attempt to avoid becoming party in a war. But efforts attempting to pull us in, or to destabilise, or to disrupt, to weaken, to discredit legitimacy of democracy, to cover any meaningful truth under thick layers of lies, manipulation, and psychological warfare, are countless.
In that, the world definitely has become a very rough place. The system is under attack way beyond the physical war in the Ukraine. Today’s world requires a decisive mindset: We can only work for peace by being clear about red lines. We will make mistakes, of course. We will misjudge, because no perfect judgement in a highly complex and volatile kinetic environment is possible. But we have no time for complacency. We have no time for blurriness. Sometimes we need peacekeepers. Sometimes, the sharp edge requires more than keeping peace. It sometimes means to fight for peace.
And that is why I end, as a peacekeeper in my very heart, with a clear statement: Get these Leopard II tanks into the Ukraine. Now.
And, again: The best of luck, Boris Pistorius. Hopefully you will be able to send the right message off the ramp directly after your taking up duties.
N.B.: On the featured image: The author, almost to the day 22 years ago, in a United Nation’s Police capacity, being introduced into the capabilities of a Leopard II tank, undisclosed location.
December 04, just four days ago, I wrote “The Reason For Storytelling: If You and I Don’t, Only Others Do – On Gaslighting Taken To a Global Level“. I referred to the outrageous remarks of the 45th President of the United States, with which he called for dissolving the Constitution of the United States. He continues to insist that widespread fraud and manipulation of the elections would have taken the Presidency away from him, claiming that the entire system of U.S. governance, the Democratic Party, and a cabale of secret networks is conspiring against “the people”. Until today he claims to be the rightful winner of the 2020 elections. On that basis he doubled down once more, and not for the last time, ever more eroding values and norms. The result just being a continuation of a discourse on the basis of outrage, and antagonisation. Like on so many occasions before, the world is waking up after such remarks with a new extreme, and because of that also a “new normal”. The next escalation, as always, is just around the corner.
The point of my concern continues to be that any strategy which is just explaining this as a M.O. of a sociopathic narcissistic individual is disregarding the wider picture: Of course a delusional persona with such disorders has no other means at hand. Such a person is simply not able to back down. If allowed, Nr. 45 will be like the Roman Emperor Nero. And I do remember having read that Nr. 45 studied Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. People wrote about that book on his bedside table. From there, I also remember Hitlers “Beer Hall Putsch” in November 1923. Jailed after this putsch attempt, Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf”. I can’t help but think of January 6, 2021, as a possible prelude to the worse.
I made my choice to consider a red line being crossed a long time ago: January 26, 2017 Nr 45, newly elected to Presidential office, sat in front of TV cameras and said “Torture works“. We know what happened since then, it was just the beginning.
The point is, as said above, that everytime a line is crossed, something unimaginable has become the new order. This reality then permeates into the lifes of many people, not only into the minds of sick extremists, racists, anti-semites, conspiracy theorists. Society at large undergoes a shift in perception. It is there where the responsibility of the many kicks in. Disregarding, denying, ridiculing, minimising, instead of forcefully rejecting, it is the real factor in how previous norms erode.
No doubt, strategic minds on the side of hateful extremists (who are globally networked) know that, and use these tactics to perfection. In the concrete example at hand, the recent cycle started with a dinner of Ye and Fuentes in Mar-El-Lago. Next thing we saw was Nr. 45 throwing smoke grenades of minimising, and pretendiung innocence. Next thing were even more awful public statements from Ye, and Fuentes, in Alex Jones’ show. After which Nr. 45 then moved to calling for the dissolution of the Constitution. Finally, what we saw after that, was another interview of Ye, calling on Jewish people to forgive Hitler. He did so in a conversation with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. If you google it, you also see what I said earlier: The number of hits in mainstream news where this was reported is huge. Another “new normal”. And this, let me be clear here, with a statement that, in Germany, would lead to prosecutors investigating a possible crime. To me, a sentence like this one is almost unspeakable. I am horrified, and I hope that Ye will pay a price for this. Unfortunately, I am not so optimistic. Instead, let me apologize to Jewish people, and assure we will undertake everything to not allow the real Holocaust being forgotten, minimised, denied, or justified.
The cool-minded analysis, meanwhile, needs to focus on the larger implications of norms being shifted. John Bolton is a former National Security Adviser to Nr. 45. I know him from his time as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Whilst I disagree with his rude Republican hawkishness which was painfully making life at the U.N. difficult during his Ambassadorship, I deeply credit his analytical skills. December 05, 2022, in an interview with NBC News, he called the former president’s declaration “an existential threat to the republic itself“. If you listen to the interview, everything counts, including what he only indicates: That, if Republican leadership does not denounce this behavior in full, consequences for democracy will be serious.
Why am I focusing on U.S. politics again?
Because, as I wrote in my earlier article, this gaslighting is working like a global set of echo-chambers. It reverberates, it transmits energy, it receives energy, and if the extremist movement manages to create something like “synergy in chaos”, it constitutes a global threat to democracy. May be the most severe we ever witnessed since World War II.
That is why I said: “So, one of my hypothetical thoughts is about whether there will be people on the far-right in Germany who think about how to establish a narrative that the German constitutional order is subject to removal from within, by justifying their resistance in saying that the government and the establishment is the enemy of what the Forefathers, the Founders of our Constitution, meant. This is not far-fetched, and it is the same logic.”
I drew a comparison to how post-WW II-Germany incorporated provisions into our German constitution in order to protect the Constitution from enemies within. In doing that, I referred to how the Nazis managed to overthrow the Constitution of Weimar, and I also linked a song “Kristallnaach”, performed by the German Rock Band “BAP” in the 1980s. “Kristallnaach” is a word in the dialect spoken in the German Region of Cologne. It refers to “Kristallnacht”. The BAP song itself compares xenophobia and fascism and violence which we observed in the 1980s with what happened throughout the real events of the “Reichskristallnacht Progrom” in November 1938. The song was visionary, and provocative in the 1980s, and entirely appropriate. Timeless. And moving me in 2016, when I thought about what was happening in the United States during that time.
If I look back onto those events from January 06, 2021, this was not so far-fetched. Looking onto those incendiary calls from Nr 45 a few days ago, for sure even less.
That was all on December 04, 2022, when I wrote that.
Of course, my thoughts about similar violent phantasies on the side of German far-right extremists are far from hypothetical, but at that moment I wanted to keep it in a thought-realm on far-right extremism, which is on the rise in Germany since a number of years. Like it is in other places in Europe, whether inside the European Union, whether in South-East Europe, or Eastern Europe. Or, in the United States. A number of my blog articles have referred to this awful global “ping-pong-game.” This rise of reactionary fascist xenophobic thinking, with a global attitude including to take rights away from women, and now going far beyond white supremacy by mainstreaming awful anti-semitism, it comes with many different facets. Recently, Indonesia decided on a law making extra-marital sex a crime. Just an example.
Well, a few days later, German and international news are filled with reporting about a huge raid by German authorities, under the lead of the “Generalbundesanwaltschaft”, in English the “German Federal Prosecution Office”.
The headline of The New York Times as of December 07 tells it all in one sentence: “Germany Arrests Dozens Suspected of Planning to Overthrow Government“.
A German noble-man, together with a far-right female member of the German Parliament (also being a judge in Germany), soldiers and former soldiers, as far as I know also an individual with a history of being a police officer, overall as far as the public knows until today at least 25 persons are subject to an unprecedented investigation of German authorities. I’m not repeating the details here, since the article is already too long. But it looks not only like one of the largest raids in German history, involving more than 3000 police officers. It may look like the tip of an ice-berg. The Head of the Federal Intelligence Agency “Bundesverfassungsschutz” is quoted with estimating some 25.000 people radically poisoned by the “Reichsbuerger-Ideology”, with systematic efforts of at least at part of those to arm themselves, with plans of some of them for terrorist attacks, and plans for a larger putsch. At least some investigative links also point towards contacts with dubious Russian operatives.
An incredible story, and ongoing and likely widening. Being a police officer (retired) myself, I am, of course, proud of this vigilance. And certainly, more will be revealed.
To quote him: “Die Wehrhaftigkeit der Demokratie beweist sich auch darin, dass sich diejenigen, die anderer Meinung sind, die ein liberales, ein demokratisches, ein offenes Deutschland wollen, lauter äußern, als das gelegentlich der Fall ist.”
In my translation: “The ability of democracy to protect itself is also a function of the extent with which those, who stand in for a liberal, democratic, and open Germany are speaking up with a louder voice than we see it, at times.”
That’s what I mean with the necessity to cultivate storytelling. And these are my humble small contributions.
Setting the stage: From a conversation with my son
Yesterday afternoon I chatted with my son on FaceTime. He lives in Toronto and is fourteen years old. For him it was morning, and I was amazed seeing him preparing his own breakfast potatoes with an omelette. It looked so good on my phone screen that I could smell and taste it, I wished I would have been there. He promised to make me such a breakfast when I’m in Toronto in a few weeks time.
At one point, the casual conversation about what’s up veered into the parental part: “How’s School Coming On?” – “Good good”. – “Any details to share?” – “No, not really, it’s just good.” – “Do you like your new school?” [The kids have entered high school education this summer] – “It’s okay, but have you ever heard somebody saying that school is a place you really enjoy?” – “I understand, fair enough. Wasn’t much different for me, when I was your age. But, just curious: Do you like what they teach you in physics? And what is it they teach you?” – “It’s okay, but I would love you to make more of your tiny explanatory pieces on physics, I always enjoy them.”
Guess what? I was flattered, felt these little pieces of work of mine make sense. I felt motivated to make more of them. Perhaps I will share some of this stuff on my Youtube channel “All Over The Place“. That’s the fun place in my writing and creating. Over here, at durabile.me, it’s more about the serious stuff I like to write about.
What everyone knows, including from own experience, and too often forgets: The importance of education for a society
Yes, school, as I told my son, is also something I remember in a similar way. Necessary, but not a place of daily rejoice, like, getting up and thinking “Yay, I can’t wait until being in class!“. Meeting my class mates always was a mixture of joy and anxiety, I was sort of like Charlie Brown, isolated in many ways, struggling to find friends and appreciation. Meeting my teachers, more often than not, was a mixed bag as well. The subject issues at school, mathematics, physics, chemistry, language, history, geography, some of the stuff I loved, some of the stuff I really struggled with. I could not shrug it off, like Calvin in the comic series “Calvin&Hobbes” does. I often strolled home with my head low between my shoulders, like Charlie Brown in the comic series “Peanuts”.
But it was necessary to learn, and I knew that. Necessary at the very least. Pleasant, preferably. Which is, certainly, part of the art of pedagogy: How to teach knowledge? Being effective in establishing knowledge also needs to mitigate unpleasant experiences. Not everyone of us has a Spartan mentality, like “what does not kill me makes me tougher”. The saying “School prepares for life”, often used and even more often abused, at it’s core it is, of course, true. What I learn at school, it becomes a defining part of everything thereafter. What I don’t learn defines my life in every aspect as well. And this is especially holding true for general skills which I acquire through education. I don’t have to be able to explain Richard Feynman’s quantum mathematics. But a general level of knowledge, combined with education in a general sense, it is setting the stage for anything to follow.
Enter Covid: Millions of children, and millions of their parents and caregivers were all of a sudden reminded of the educational role of schools, through their sudden absence as physical places to go. Places to gather. To socialise. To learn social skills. To be taught knowledge, and to become educated.
The continuing impact of Covid goes way beyond cases of long-Covid
“U.S. students in most states and across almost all demographic groups have experienced troubling setbacks in both math and reading, according to an authoritative national exam released on Monday, offering the most definitive indictment yet of the pandemic’s impact on millions of schoolchildren. In math, the results were especially devastating, representing the steepest declines ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, which tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders and dates to the early 1990s.“
So, here we are with scientific results demonstrating the devastating combined impact of the pandemic and of how we needed to protect ourselves, collectively: In order to reduce casualties, and to reduce suffering by attempting to keep the medical system operational, we took tolls. Mental tolls, physical tolls, emotional tolls, cognitive behavioural tolls, and educational tolls.
Heavy tolls, like that on average, the number of fourth graders and eighth graders being proficient in math and reading took an exceptionally deep plunge towards an abyss. And what is indicative in the U.S. system, from my personal experience it’s true also in Canada, and from what I hear and witnessed in Europe, I have no indication it would be different here. I am sure that there is not a single country which found a mitigation strategy through a form of protracted exclusive home-schooling similarly effective in knowledge transfer as classroom-teaching is.
It is also correct to conclude that what holds true for math and reading is also holding true for general levels of education, social skills, and a general toolset which allows to traverse our contemporary world knowingly: By having a proficient knowledge about our own environment, we go beyond a collective capacity to be economically competitive: Knowledge allows us to make informed decisions, opposed to either making uniformed decisions, or being the proverbial sheep in the herd of individuals being manipulated by those who do, for own and for controlling reasons.
I also happen to think that there is the educational equivalent to what we observe in relation to the distribution of wealth in our societies: Like ever fewer people are getting more wealthy, and ever more people fall into low-income and also poverty, with a shrinking middle-class, the same certainly is true for the distribution of knowledge. If good jobs require a CV with reference to an Ivy-League-College-Education, if creating what drives our economic progress is in the hands of ever fewer people who understand the underlying science, or engineering, it will inevitably also contribute to the growing size of parts of a society which do not hold many economic resources.
But the damage goes further:
Proficient knowledge establishes a general capacity to distinguish the signal from the noise
The less I know in a general understanding about how the world is functionining, the more I am vulnerable for “Scharlatanerie”, and for all the messy speculative stuff from people who believe to know, do actually not know, and create noise, inaccurate information, wrong information, and deliberate misinformation. The last one for a variety of reasons, including attempting to control, but also because sensational stuff simply sells. It always did, in magazines. It increasingly does, on the digital media platforms of this Brave New World.
I’ll use an example, on my topics of scientific interest: I need a basic knowledge about how the James Webb Space Telescope JWST works, in order to filter out those sensational channels where people attract viewers by suggesting JWST has found proof for alien existence. I need a sound knowledge to stay with those channels informing me about most recent discussions in Quantum Mechanics, just to grasp the profound impact of why the 2022 Nobel Price has been awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger. My mind “explodes” (or implodes) when I try to understand the rationale which can be found on the Nobel Prize Website. But my general knowledge allows me to appreciate why the entire physics community is abuzz of profound discoveries to come which may, again, make previous knowledge obsolete. Previous knowledge which already has successfully made my mind imploding, just saying.
This is anything but an esoteric discussion. It is, in my view, one of the most crucial and often unappreciated topics in relation to how we protect values in our societies: Through education. At the same time, the relevance goes much beyond the impact of the Covid-19-pandemic.
In literally every conflict- or post-conflict-environment I have been working in, the devastating impact of conflict, violence, hatred, and demolition of infrastructure on the educational system has been larger than life. Where educational capacities remained crippled, or absent, the respective society remained unable to recover as much as everyone hoped. Which, in turn, led to many effects which created the next round of frustration, such as through migrating away, accepting corruption and crime, and a general path towards becoming more prone to the rule of the powerful, instead of the rule of law.
Concluding this one with a view on the war of aggression by Russia raging in the Ukraine: We see systematic attacks on critical infrastructure in the Ukraine, and that includes the shelling of schools and kindergardens. It has a terrible invisible effect: Deploying strategic blows against a society and country by sowing fear includes to make it difficult to uphold a daily life allowing to transmit knowledge to children, very similar to the effects of the pandemic.
There has been a press conference the other day with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, arguing for a “Marschall Plan” for the restoration of civilian capacities in the Ukraine. It is really important news. The longer a society is incapacitated, whether through a pandemic, or conflict, the less the value of general education can be upheld in any country. In turn, fragility becomes systemic.
The idea to this post goes back to late summer 2021. Since then, the text sat in my “drafts folder”. Now, one year later, with unprecedented developments happening in East Europe, it is time to pick it up again, to rewrite it according to what has happened since the Russian war of aggression began to rage through the Ukraine, and to finalise it.
September 09, 2021, I came across an article in Balkan Insight, titled “In the Balkans, LetUs Remember to Forget“. The somewhat contradicting title caught my attention. I was enjoying a late summer espresso in a Belgrade street cafe, looking back at living and traveling for more than a decade in the Western Balkans. I love being here, the Western Balkans are somewhat home to me, and I have made it a habit to always connect to the local neighborhoods and to listen to local friends. Like that day in September 2021, in Belgrade’s Innercity, when I had a conversation with a youth activist. Of course, the conversation touched on the question as to which extent people identifying with different nationalities do co-exist. Do they feel like belonging to something they share in common, other than an ever more distant past of an entity called Yugoslavia? How do they establish a joint identity, based on commonly shared memories? The assessment of my friend was somewhat sober: Young generations carry the same feeling of belonging to entities based on “ethnic” narratives. We spoke about how to learn to effectively talk to each other by listening. But the memories of those who talk to each other, including in young generations, they are very different from one place to another.
I spend a lot of time as a digital nomad. The great thing is that I happen to listen to new people everyday, meeting people from all walks of life. Academic discussions are rare, and when I explain what I do, I always struggle with making it as simple as possible.
When I travel to Kopacki Rit, a stunning nature reserve in East Croatia, I sometimes pass through the city of Vucovar, which has a wartime past of unspeakable atrocities. During 87 days of siege in 1991, the city was shelled into rubble by the Yugoslav People’s Army JNA. To quote Wikipedia: “The damage to Vukovar during the siege has been called the worst in Europe since World War II, drawing comparisons with Stalingrad.”
Today, you will see mostly new and non-descript buildings not telling anything about that time long gone. Believe me, under the surface the memories and tensions are still there. Also, I am not so sure any longer that the damage to Vukovar stands out the way it did when the Wikipedia article was written: The damage to cities, towns and villages in the Ukraine is increasing day by day.
If you happen to come to Mostar in Bosnia&Hercegovina as a tourist, you will marvel at the beauty of a historic town with the famously destroyed bridge nicely rebuilt. Not much will give away tension, and segregation. But people on one side of the bridge are identifying as Croats, on the other side as Bosniaks. Live there, and you will soon become aware of the segregation running underneath.
More visible is this segregation, of course, in Mitrovica in Kosovo, the northern part inhabited by Kosovo-Serbs, the southern parts by Kosovo-Albanians. I can not count how often I have been on the West Bridge between 2000 and 2004, with tensions and, at times, violence, flying high.
When, in 2008, I asked a friend in Bosnia&Hercegovina, whether we were still driving in East-Sarajevo or would already be close to central Sarajevo, he responded “No, we are still on our side”. My friend identifies as a Croat, and he was referring to a specific area through which the front-line of Bosnian defence moved forward and backward throughout Sarajevo’s siege by the JNA. He said this more than twenty years later, realized what he had just said, looked surprised, and apologised for his Freudian error. At the same time, our Nanny, who identifies as a Bosniak, would be scared when we were taking our children and her for a walk up at Trebevic, an area from where Serb snipers were killing Sarajevan citizens during the siege.
When, early after the beginning of Russia’s war against the Ukraine, in February and March 2022, I would talk to friends in Serbia, notably here in Belgrade, I would always hear them also talking about their memories of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Like with everyone else, including related to those examples I have used above, on Croatia, Bosnia&Hercegovina, and Kosovo, collective memories of the wartime past are still very present here in Serbia. The historical connotation in which those memories happen, they are different from place to place, and so is the narrative related to what happened, or whether it happened at all, why it happened, whether some of these events constitute acts of genocide, or whether things which happened were justified, and just.
But here is the thing which I note these days: There is a collective memory of the trauma which happens when civilian populations suffer, whether through a siege, of through a bombing campaign, or anything else. The memory of trauma and fear, the memory of injury and death, it persists, notwithstanding historical reasons, established narratives, or narratives attempting to falsify history. Whilst the article in Balkan Insight in 2021 is arguing the necessity also to forget, in order to support reconciliation, this is not yet the situation here: These memories are very present.
Over the last days, when I am having coffees with Serbian friends and when I bring up the situation in the Ukraine, their voices go very low. I will hear great sympathy for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and I see expressions of pain on my friend’s faces. I will hear very clear voices telling me that indiscriminate shelling of the civilian population, that rape, murder, torture of Ukrainian’s by the Russian Army are upsetting my Serbian friends very much, that there is no justification for it, at all. There is a clear distancing from those acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, other severe crimes. And it appears those feelings go deep. I always will hear references to the fear which my friends remember from their own trauma. Whether the bombing campaign here in Belgrade, whether the siege of Sarajevo. And I guess it is similar elsewhere.
This is where I close the loop between finishing this blog article which I have sitting in my draft folder since one year, and what is in my draft folder since a few days:
First, a select collection of links which I have been compiling:
I could go on an on, but I guess it is enough. From Bucha to Izium, one atrocity is piling on another war crime. To this, the indiscriminate bombing, rocketing, shelling over the past days, justified by the Russian President as revenge for the attack on the Crimean Bridge, it adds. I don’t want to throw even more links into the hodgepodge above, but it is especially this revenge action of the past days which clearly increases the feeling of people here of being upset.
When this war is over, Russia will be remembered for this. The long-term image of how we look at the Russian people will be severely damaged for a generation, or more. What this murderous Russian regime and the atrocities committed by the Russian army is doing pales anything we have seen on the European continent since the Yugoslav wars. The impact on the World order is so huge because one of the constituting powers defining the post WW2 order, dealing with the unimaginable atrocities committed by Germany, and others (notably including Russia), now tramples down the very foundations of what we collectively hoped to set up in the name of humanity.
Though genocide is genocide, and holding every nation accountable for systematic violations of the laws regulating armed conflict is a necessity of applying justice to violations of international laws, it has always been psychologically different to see these crimes being committed by nations far away, or so-called minor powers.
Yet, here we have a former superpower committing atrocities, whether in Chechnya, or in Syria, or through delegation to mercenaries in places like Africa or the Middle East. But the fact that this now is also happening in the very heart of Europe, with systemic occurrence and being part of a brutal plan of intimidation and oppression, it will haunt the individual Russian and the Russian society for decades to come. I was a child in post-war Germany and I have many individual memories about people from other nations neighbouring Germany hissing at me. As a little child, I wouldn’t understand. As a little child from Russia, they will not understand. Any process of reconciliation will last decades. And the responsibility for this, including criminal liability, lies with Russian leadership, including the person holding the office of President of the Russian Federation.
Yes, it is, in some ways, important to be able to forget, in order to forgive. But some things shall never be forgotten, otherwise the term “Never Again” becomes not only violated in so many cases, but becomes simply irrelevant. Whether it is the Holocaust, or the genocides of Srebrenica, Rwanda, or so many other places, or the crimes against humanity committed by Russia in the Ukraine, they shall never be forgotten.
April 20, 2021 I wrote a blog post “Futuretelling” on occasion of media informing about the report “Global Trends 2040”, a product of the collective of American intelligence agencies, issued then on occasion of a new Presidential administration (the Biden administration) taking the helm. I’d like to revisit the issue, almost one and a half years later.
“Global Trends 2040” revolves around five core assessments:
Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report stated that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assessed the pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“
Fragmentation flows from the predicted transnational or global challenges. Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex breaking apart, or threatening, globalisation.
Disequilibrium was the third theme of the report. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Doubts in the benefits of democratic governance, the profound inability of systems of international order to provide peace, security, and other important challenges to the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations create a perfect storm.
Contestation was the fourth theme. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on more developed societies. In a way, this amplifies fragmentation and antagonisation.
Adaption being the final theme, it means that profound changes will ultimately end in a new equilibrium. The question is how such a new system state may look like. Or, how much of our current one is left, and what will be the new reality.
To me, the core statement of “Global Trends 2040” is that we are passing through a phase of profound global system change, or paradigm change.
That was spring 2021. “Global Trends 2040” was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was somewhat easy for the authors to qualify an existing pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II“. Then, summer 2021 brought the catastrophic events around the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taleban, and a crushing defeat of the West’s ambitions for Afghanistan over two decades. Spring 2022 saw the beginning of a war of aggression by the Russian Federation against the Ukraine. Motivation and publicly voiced rationale by the Russian President went, from the outset on, far beyond his claims related to the Ukraine, and related to overthrow the Ukrainian government. From the West’s perspective it is an attack against the West, it’s systems and it’s values. The Russian President describes this as a threat against Russia, claiming to act in self-defense. Of course, I have a clear position here joining those who state this is a brazen and aggressive move attempting to overthrow an existing order, and violating fundamental principles enshrined in international treaties. But on various occasions since then I have also acknowledged that it depends on where people live, and which cultural and historical ties they have grown up with, whether they join this assessment, or blame the West. This is a war on multiple levels, including information warfare, a war of systems against each other, a war of economies, a war of dogma how to prevail, and to govern. The physical battlefields are local or regional, information warfare happens in cyberspace, and the conflict is ultimately global.
So I wonder how the events of 2021 and 2022 would have been reflected in the wording of the report issued in spring 2021, if these events would already have been on the books of history by the time of writing. If already the pandemic posed the greatest disruption since WWII, it has only gotten worse since then.
With lightning speed, the World is continuing to change. Nobody would have anticipated, even in early spring 2021, that the situation went so haywire in summer 2021 in Afghanistan. And after that, if someone would have asked “What’s next?”, I doubt many people would have anticipated the developments in the Ukraine bringing us closer to World War III. May be, many years in the future, historians will assess that we already were in WW III. Because, even the forms and shapes of warfare have changed. Some of it started in 2001, when we began to see consequences of asymmetric warfare. And at that time, people would have found it unimaginabe that we would see conventional armies battling each other, on European soil, 21 years later.
What else do we know about battlefields of such larger warfare? I could go on about Asia and the ever increasing tension between China and Taiwan, just recently blowing up again on occasion of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, bringing likelihood of yet another massive conflict into the equation. I could refer to how we all, internationally, after 9/11/2001 made critical assessments related to terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants. Now we are finding ourselves in a situation where Russian military forces conduct their attacks using the biggest nuclear powerplant in mainland Europe as a shield. Of course, following the same logic as outlined above, two sides accuse each other of being responsible for it. From a perspective of the threat being real, and grave, even this mutual accusation, being part of information warfare, adds to how scary the situation has become.
I could refer to the many developments in Africa, and since I am not a paid professional analyst with own staffing resources, my list of critical developments in the World would be highly selective, and certainly biased. Of course, it would include a whole chapter on instability in the Western Balkans, where I spend much of my time.
So, what can be said about “What’s next?” now, mid summer 2022?
The almost natural reflex is about looking around and to assess specific situations, specific countries or regions, and to attempt making predictions about how things may remain stable, or not. But more often than not, previous developments have taught us that destabilisation, system change, conflict and war occur almost to the surprise of professional analysts, and intelligence systems. The short term developments may be subject to correct analysis, like intelligence organisations unequivocally warned about Russia being serious about invading the Ukraine, once there was enough evidential data. But that was a short-term prediction, being put out into the public domain only from end of 2021 onwards, also in order to convince those who still, until February 23, 2022, doubted that Russia would follow-through on building up her military power alongside the borders of the Ukraine. Did we have enough data to predict this already, say in April 2021, at the time when “Global Trends 2040” was issued? From what I know through publicly avalable information, I would doubt it. So, this is not about “I told you so”.
The same will be the case related to anything up in the future, any new conflict development, where we then, again, will ask ourselves with hindsight whether we would have been able to predict it. In a highly complex and unstable environment, the fault-lines of where conflict arises next, and which physical or virtual dimension it takes, are difficult to predict medium-term, and impossible to predict long-term.
However, this makes the highly abstract level of “Global Trends 2040”, which I summarised above so profoundly valuable. Because, whilst we cannot be sure about “What’s next?”, we can be reasonably certain about that we have not reached rock-bottom. “Global Trends 2040” predicts a fundamental paradigm change and a war of systems, not a state of “rock bottom” from where things might recover to an old or only slightly changed equilibrium.
One of my favorite Youtube channels is called “Veritasium”. The channel is run by Derek Muller. Veritasium is covering a broad range of subjects, based on scientific evidence. According to its own website, “Veritasium is a channel of science and engineering videos featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science.” You will find a vlog as of August 2, 2022 there, called “The 4 things it takes to be an expert“. This piece is amazing:
In attempting to answer the question which experts have real expertise, the vlog includes a long list of references related to scientific evidence for its statements. The four things that make somebody a real expert, in ANY field of expertise, are based on long and ardous training, the vlog talks of a rule of thumb of 10.000 hours. In order to become an expert, one has to go through many repeated attempts with feedback. At one point of the video, Veritasium refers to a sample of 284 people who make their living on offering analysis or commenting on complex issues related to politcal and economic trends. These people were followed and questioned over two decades. The results, in a nutshell, are sobering. Any so-called expert with only education, but without extended feedback loops, was doing terribly. These “experts” were not significantly better in their predictions than non-specialists.
Watch the vlog. But what is the issue here? At least, that we have to be very careful in attempting to make predictions. And secondly, that we need to have a healthy and limited expectation in relation to what pundits will tell us. In my own self-assessment, I would certainly qualify for the 10.000 hour rule in relation to my own field of expertise (peace & security). But it would not make me believe that I would be able to find anything more than short-term answers to the question “What’s next?”.
With having said that on our limitations to predict the future reliably, I will finally come back again to “Global Trends 2040”. What I, in sum, subscribe to, is the general statement about a time of system change which “Global Trends 2040” has, in my view correctly, deducted from available assessed information, which we call intelligence.
After President Nr 45 of the United States of America took power, I would find it comparatively easy to anticipate the scenarios that were possible to happen, and my worst case scenarios were pretty much along the lines of what we witnessed, until including January 06, 2021, and what we see coming up as a continuing threat for democracy in the United States, until today.
But compared with the complexity of fragility which we experience, this prediction was a piece of cake, since it was largely based on a psychological analysis of a person with multiple personality disorders, adding perhaps some deeper understanding about American society because I was embedded there for five years and listened and learned a lot.
Asking the question “What’s next” related to what we experience since then, I only know it will get worse, but I don’t know how, meaning “What’s next”. This is not a Doomsday attitude. Rather, it is a personal statement about the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in, these days.
Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception
Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:
I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.
We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.
Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.
Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.
When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.
When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”
When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.
When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.
The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.
But, back to perception:
Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.
From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.
I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.
I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.
I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.
“Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:
Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.
At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.
In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.
Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.
Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.
Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.
But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.
So what’s my final point?
The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.
But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.
If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.
16 March 2022, the international news is reporting about a visit of the heads of the governments of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia to the Ukrainian government. Three weeks into a war of aggression against the Ukraine, prepared in a way meeting the immense security challenges, the highest officials of these governments traveled to Kyiv by train, meeting President Selenskyj of Ukraine. Amongst other, the delegation included Vice President Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland. Vice President Kaczynski went public following the meeting by demanding an armed “NATO Peace Operation”, acting with approval by the Ukrainian President, on Ukrainian territory. That request is generating a flurry of public comments, covering the full spectrum of why this would be very complicated, or unlikely, or way too early.
Time to have a select look on the state of peace operations, why current operations struggle, leading to some thoughts on basic preconditions for peace operations, ensuring the unfolding of civilian aid and assistance.
To start with a term the United Nations got used to: “Robust Peacekeeping” was coined some years ago within the United Nations. It was used even by highest officials to describe the environment in which Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) of the UN increasingly found themselves: Being tasked with peacekeeping where there is little or no peace to keep. There is a notion of exasperation and despair in this term which I so vividly remember from many speeches. In the doctrinal framework of the UN, “peacekeeping” sets in after a peace settlement has been achieved, or, after at least some ceasefire agreement has begun to take shape. PKO such as MINUSMA in Mali, or MINUSCA in the Central African Republic provide the painful experiences which forced peacekeepers to adapt to situations where their real raison d’etre was a lofty dream. Never before the UN lost so many lifes, and the UN tried to adapt by making PKO more robust. So, that’s how the term “Robust Peacekeeping” was born. Member States of the UN and the UN Secretariat even accepted a path of providing the PKO MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a specially equipped and trained military intervention brigade authorised to “neutralize” elements. A term used for describing offensive lethal operations, not limited to the objective of defending the PKO and its mandate. Much has been written about this extraordinary step going beyond the concept of armed military or police mission elements for self-defence and defense of the mandate in a UN PKO.
There always were some blurry lines between how the UN uses the term “peacekeeping”, NATO is using the term “peace support operation” (PSO), or, in a similar way, how the African Union (AU) describes their own engagement in Somalia through AMISOM. Yet, in broad strokes, there is a distinction between “peacekeeping”, “peace support”, and “peace enforcement”. The UN limits itself to “peacekeeping”, current missions of the European Union in the field of civilian and military crisis management follow that line, NATO has experience in “peace support” and certainly in “peace enforcement”, the AU in “peacekeeping” and “peace support”. All these missions broadly are “peace operations”.
Of course and by contrast, any use of the term “peacekeeping” by the Russian Federation in relation to the horrible invasion of, and war in, the Ukraine by Russia is not only misleading propaganda, but a blatant abuse of the term “peacekeeping”. Taken together with the use of the term “special military operation” it is trying to evade the accusation of a violation of the Charta of the UN: That Russia is waging war against another sovereign State, a Member State of the United Nations. In order to get a common position allowing 141 Member States to condemn, only 35 Member States to abstent, and just Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia and Syria to vote against, the Resolution had to speak of “military operations”. We often hear the phrase “being on the right side” today. On that right side, this military operation is a war. It is ongoing, and it is escalating, and there is no current publicly visible sign hinting towards a path of peace negotiations. Even talks about humanitarian corridors for evacuation of civilian populations utterly fail.
The fact that Russia appears, in addition to violating Art. 2 of the UN Charter, to commit war crimes against the civilian population in the Ukraine, stands separate. 16 March 2022, U.S. President Biden took the unprecendented step calling President Putin of Russia a “war criminal”. Taken the violation of the UN Charter and the alleged committment of acts constituting war crimes together, this is making the use of the term “peacekeeping” by the Russian Federation an insult to anyone who has worn a light blue UN beret, a dark blue EU beret, or the green beret of the African Union.
Vice President Kaczynski’s suggestion to establish a NATO peace operation needs to be specified in terms of what this would mean, and it never is too early to think about what comes ahead. In whichever way the catastrophe strangling the Ukrainians will unfold further, we shall never give up efforts and hope that this can be stopped. From what I understand from the public comments of Vice President Kaczynski, a “peace operation” would require a peace agreement, or a ceasefire declaration, meaning it is not “peace enforcement”. More likely, it would be understood as something resembling “robust peacekeeping”. Then, Russia, and [the Ukraine] would have to agree how to move forward on the incredibly winded road restoring peace & security. Note the square brackets: The Russian President decided to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declarations of independence just hours before starting his military operations, or, in my view, war. Which led to widespread international condemnation, in return. How a Peace Agreement, or the rationale for a ceasefire declaration would play out will be incredibly difficult, and any international mediation will be a nightmare. But nothing is more important in order to define a difference between a peace operation having a chance of supporting return to peace, and a peace operation where there is no peace to keep. It is the single defining difference for the immense suffering of human beings in the Ukraine.
Many also push against the idea of a NATO peace operation, for the obvious reasons which brought Vladimir Putin to the point of attacking the Ukraine, and demanding its demilitarisation. On top of it, he wants to decapitate the Ukrainian government, claiming a “denazification”. But that is another horrible story, another lie. Here the question would be, in case of any chance for a peace agreement or ceasefire declaration whatsoever, who the implementing organisation or entity would be that could be tasked with a peace operation. From what I have read, Vice President Kaczynski is rather pragmatic: It can be NATO, it can be others. So it can be the UN, the EU, OSCE, NATO, or any combination of those. All of those have done peace operations, in the form of peacekeeping operations of the UN, crisis management operations of the EU, peace support operations of NATO, peace enforcement operations of NATO, or OSCE missions.
As mentioned, it never is too early to begin thinking about what comes after. Too often the results from planning are less than optimal otherwise. Mistakes haunting the international community for years have been made right in the beginning, during the conceptualisation and design phase, and reasons do not only include unalterable facts of the political environment for these planners, but also severe shortcuts because of time constraints. The earlier the thought process and the better the results, the less suffering for people after this war is stopped.
It is suggested that this operation is including at least armed elements, provided with a possible mandate of armed self-defense. Nothing more specific, so far. Also not about which civilian tasks would require armed protection. The request for armed means especially makes a case for a mandate by the UN Security Council (UNSC), since obviously a sole request from the Ukraine would not suffice in the given dispute, and also specifically in light of a historical dispute on interventions, where there was no such mandate by the UNSC. Assuming no veto by any of the five permanent members, the implementation by any suitable international organisation would be possible.
Without a UNSC Resolution, any operation would not survive the first day of our coining it a “peace operation”. It would be treated as a military aggression, escalating the existing conflict, perhaps in dramatic ways. However, it is important to be clear that nothing like that could hope to fly under the brand name of “peace operation”.
Final thoughts on mandate elements of a “peace operation”: Little to nothing has been thought about in the public which elements such an operation would have (military, police, civilian). Nothing is clear in relation to that armed capability, how robust, for which purpose, and whether it will entail military elements only, or also police elements, and whether they would be robustly equipped too, and for which purpose.
On earlier occasions, this blog contains many articles which point towards the vast experience available in the field of international policing and its cooperation with military elements, both in the UN and the EU (including the External Action Service itself, but also specific initiatives started by groupings of EU Member States, such as the European Gendarmerie Force EGF and the Center of Excellence for Stability Police CoESPU). There also is institutional knowledge about these topics within the NATO Center of Excellence for Stability Police.
One week into the war ravaging in the Ukraine, we see unimaginable suffering of civilians in Europe again. We see pictures of people seeking shelter in subway-stations, we see bravery and courage of citizens putting themselves at grave risk by stepping into the way of military vehicles and soldiers, we see an overwhelming readiness for self-defense in light of imminent harm and potential death, we see mothers and children arriving at borders of the European Union, we see them being separated from their husbands, fathers, male friends and loved ones, as they have to stay behind in the Ukraine, for territorial defense. We see and hear gunfire, bomb explosions, rocket attacks, and we see both the deliberate and the collateral impact on civilian infrastructure, buildings, houses. Civilians including women and children are being killed, or injured in ever rising numbers. Children loose their mothers and fathers.
I want to make it clear from the outset on that I belong to those who strongly condemn a war against the Ukraine, violating the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and bringing all of us, collectively and globally, close to the brink of a catastrophic escalation, whether as a terrifying new Cold War, or even worse, as a war spiraling out of control like a wildfire.
But no matter what some of us may believe in relation to justification of this military action, or many others considering this being an illegitimate war violating all principles of the international security architecture which has kept many of us safe for generations, we have to take note of the terrible impact of this war on civilians.
As a member of a post-war generation in Germany I grew up both in peace and with the conscience of a historic burden through Germany’s role in atrocities of the Second World War, and the Holocaust. As a young person, I grew up in a divided Germany and during decades of a Cold War. As a German police officer I witnessed the end of the Cold War, I witnessed peaceful events including the German reunification and the often peaceful dissolution of the former Soviet Union, but also the violent wars on occasion of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. As a police peacekeeper of the United Nations, as a member of the European Union External Action Service, or being part of the German Federal Foreign Office, until today I am witnessing the memories of people in the Western Balkans, whether in Belgrade, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, or Tirana. I am writing this from Belgrade, and everyone here is scared and has own memories of war and conflict and fear, as is the case for all other parts of the Western Balkans. To whoever I talk on the streets or in the grocery store at the corner, everyone is scared, on the grounds of own memories.
All of these memories are different. Explanations are different. Historical narratives are different. Some justify, others condemn. Acts of genocide are subject to dispute. And most recently, an allegation of genocide without any facts is being used as a cynical argument in a narrative cloaking the real intentions behind a war.
Yet, there should be one common denominator which we can all agree on: The civilian population of the Ukraine suffers terribly, and needs to be protected by all means.
However, at the end of the first week of the war in the Ukraine, all signs do tell us that there is a strong risk for ever more military violence targeting civilians, either as part of a strategy, or as a cold and even malicious calculation of collateral damage, and the psychological impact stemming from it. As I write this, these news are coming in, from cities throughout the Ukraine, whether Kyiv, or Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, or others. We have news of systematic shelling of civilian neighborhoods.
As a former United Nations police peacekeeper I have had the privilege, honor and duty to contribute to the protection of civilians in situations of conflict and war. As a former United Nations Police Adviser, I was blessed with assisting in developing the role of United Nations Police in the field of Protection of Civilians, through doctrinal development, training, and overseeing the deployment of thousands and thousands of police peacekeepers, working alongside their military and civilian colleagues in peace operations, often at gravest personal risk. We say “We go places others don’t”. I have personal fond memories of doing this jointly with Ukrainian and Russian police officers, working in the interest of peace alongside colleagues from all over the world. As police peacekeepers we work together with international colleagues in other organisations, such as the European Union, the African Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and many others, in our tireless work protecting civilians at risk. Most importantly, we work in partnership with our countless colleagues in law enforcement in countries which we assist.
Thus, we form a network of innumerable individuals in a global community who have formed a unique partnership in what Police does, and shall do, worldwide: The Protection of Civilians in conflict and war is one expression of the fundamental principle of policing as we in the United Nations understand it: To Protect And To Serve.
I call for protection of the civilian population in the Ukraine.
I call for abstaining from any military action targeting civilians, by intent, malfeasance, or negligence, in the Ukraine.
I call for an end of this war, and for returning to the negotiation table, and returning to diplomacy, in the interest of the people in the Ukraine.
I call for my fellow friends and colleagues in the field of international police peacekeeping to raise our voices and to join me in a public expression of our outrage over the suffering inflicted to civilians, especially women and children, over and over again.
If you decide to join such a call in public, by using social media or any other public means accessible to you, and if you decide to let me know about this, please send references to the email-address
Of course, you are authorized to distribute the link to this blog entry widely, and without prior approval or notification.
Stefan Feller – Former United Nations Police Adviser – March 02, 2022