A Conversation with Ambassador Frederick Barton

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ambassador Fredrick Barton assesses challenges facing his bureau stemming from conflicts around the world.

CLAUDIA ROSETT: Welcome to a conversation with Ambassador Frederick "Rick" Barton.

Just a few housekeeping things: Please turn off your cellphones completely so they're not even on vibrate. Today's meeting is on the record. And there will be -- Ambassador Barton will make a few remarks, and then there will -- I will chat with him for a bit, and then the last -- the second half of the meeting will be open to Q-and-A.

So Ambassador Barton is from Maine. He lost his Maine accent as a child of diplomats growing up overseas.

He has worked in a series of extremely interesting posts, including deputy high commissioner of the U.N. Refugee Agency, ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council in New York. He has taught at the Woodrow Wilson School. He has done a whole variety of other things, including involvement in more than 30 conflict-ridden places, unstable places. And he now runs -- last year, last March, he was confirmed, sworn in as the head of the new State Department Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Organizations. This is an extremely new initiative in an old bureaucracy, and he has one of the most challenging job descriptions I've seen in a while: to improve U.S. government effectiveness in preventing conflicts and addressing crises.

Ambassador Barton. (Scattered laughter.)

FREDERICK BARTON: Well, thank you very much, and thanks for the good introduction, but also for the -- all the friends that have come here today. In just about every row, there's somebody that I've had a chance to work with or work for. Hattie Babbitt was my boss for a while. Johanna Mendelson helped to found OTI, the Office of Transition Initiatives at AID, which works in the space.

And I know that I've got to be brief because there are a lot of people out here who know more than I do, so I will try to be -- I'm looking forward to the conversation and the questions that all of you are going to offer and that Claudia's going to offer as well.

As she mentioned, we were created about a year ago. The bureau -- this new bureau was created as a result of the QDDR process, which Secretary Clinton really initiated. And this is one of the most direct outgrowths, that there was a feeling that the U.S. needed to be more effective, needed to be more coherent in the conflict and crisis space.

That challenge remains. What I thought I would do in the 10 minutes or so that I was invited to kind of set the table is to describe some of the internal challenges and needs that I think are really at the top of my mind after this first year and then some of the challenges that I think are most direct to the needs in the countries that we're working, and just give you a quick taste of that, not dwell on the changes we've made inside the bureau, because it really is not just the start-up; there was a bit of a merger as well of an existing office that we had to take over.

So it was a doubly complicated transaction that we really got to this year. So I'm not going to dwell on that. Happy to come back to it. And I'm probably not going to give you quite as many examples in these first critical elements because I think we'll talk about the country cases. I'm sure that each of you are going to come back to some of those as well as this goes -- as the session goes on.

But really, in terms of the -- in terms of the internal needs, obviously there's a very big map of opportunity that's still out there. And just yesterday, at the senior staff meeting that we typically have on Monday mornings, but because of the holiday was yesterday, Secretary Kerry finished the meeting by basically saying that there are still more failed states, not fewer; there are still more failing, not fewer; and there are still very bad rule-of-law trends.

Now, that all sort of falls into our basket of opportunity, I guess, so we're -- this is a job that's fraught with opportunities. And -- but the way we're trying to get at them, and I think the way to start off is just to give you quickly what I see as the internal needs, still, and I think these will ring true to many of you because you've worked in this space before.

But the first one is that more focus is required. The United States isn't going to be able to do everything everywhere. We've all said that. But even when we've gone in and spent $3 million in a place or $3 trillion in a place, we've still found that we were lacking focus. And so focus is really the first place that we've started.

And in our first year what we've tried to do is say that there are four countries that are regionally dispersed, where we've found ambassadors and embassies that were eager to take on these challenges and where we thought we could make a difference. So there are a lot of internal and external calculations, but our focus for the past year, 80 percent of our effort has been on Syria, Kenya leading up to the elections, Burma and North Central America, in particular Honduras. That doesn't mean that we have neglected the rest of the world, but that's where 80 percent of our effort is. And I think that essentially that is still a challenge for the U.S. government, to focus the efforts.

The second point is that we still need a center of gravity. It's still hard to find out who's driving the policy in many cases, who is in charge of the -- who's settling differences, bureaucratic differences, who's not just convening meetings but actually resolving and setting the direction for the U.S. government. That is still a need, although we've, I think, made a constructive contribution, in particular the early stages of the process, where the analysis -- sort of trying to bring a dispassionate perspective and several other elements are most at play.

The third point that we need improvement on is that in this immediate period, the zero-to-365-day period, there's still a need for the U.S. government to be much more agile. It happens to be the most dynamic time. It happens to be the time that if you take the right step in the right direction, you're probably going to have greater influence. It's the venture capital moment, but the U.S. has a -- can still have an excessively bureaucratic process for how we deal in these places and how we get into them.

And I've had fellow assistant secretaries say, look, on our best day, we'll be there in a year. And so you know the normal rotation process and other things that take place that can undermine that as well.

And the fourth point, on the internal needs -- and I think it's still kind of the reform that we've -- that we're looking towards -- is that we have to have a conflict lens and greater conflict experts. There's a natural tendency for people who know a place to think that they should dominate the discussion -- the policy discussion. But that's only one perspective. And one of the most prominent -- one of our most prominent ambassadors who's worked -- the Middle East said, look, I've worked in this bureau for 25 years, and I never had a single change of government, so now I'm having to deal with rapid and dramatic and radical change on a daily basis, and actually, I need your help; I would welcome somebody who has really worked that side of the issue.

That is something that has to continue to be built upon. The unpredictability of events, the speed with which things happen is clearly still a challenge for our existing models. I'd like to then spend the last part of this on kind of the in-country places where we still need to make changes and there are still opportunities. The first one is that we still have to understand the context and the case much better. Our analysis has to be much more objective. As you can all expect -- as you all would assume, that if we send out the refugee bureau or the anti-narcotics bureau or the counterterrorism bureau that there's a very good likelihood that the response that they're going to come back with is going to be there happens to be a problem with refugees, with narcotics or with terrorism.

And so getting the broader context is really where we have to start.

And if you look at many of the ways that we've gotten stuck in the last couple decades, we have really not had that agreement on what the case was and everybody has come in. And so you have the splendor of the U.S. government -- it reminds me of a Van Cliburn concert.

The guy looks great, he's the tails, he can play the whole keyboard, but at the end, it's been -- you haven't necessarily settled on what needed to be done most. And the U.S. cannot afford to be Van Cliburn in these cases. We have to be much more focused, much more targeted. And it start with joint independent analysis that comes together and basically settles one some priorities.

I happy to think that in most of these places, there usually are two or three things that you better get right or you're not going to make much progress. But if we come in and try to do 25 things, and we have pages of strategies, it's unlikely that we're going to be as well-focused as we could be.

The second thing that I would like to suggest when inside of countries, is that I think we need to look much more aggressively for what we're calling silent majorities. These are the people -- vast majorities of people in almost every case that we're working in want change. They don't like the existing regime and they don't really like the predictable opposition.

They -- but they are nervous about raising their voices and getting involved in the political process. In many places, you could say they're apolitical, but generally they happen to -- you can find large examples of them in women, in youth and other significant populations that are politically underserved and are eager to have a greater influence. So we're focusing on those, but the business community falls in that category as well. And there are endless groups of sort of nonpoliticals.

The third point is that we need to go local at the very front end. It's clearly the -- there are -- in every country that we're working in right now, we find local initiatives that are likely not to succeed, but are worthy. So doesn't it make more sense to invest in that than to bring in a whole U.S. infrastructure, which we probably cannot sustain, which we're -- probably going to take us months to understand what's going on?

It increases, I believe, our influence. I think we're -- it makes us -- forces us to be catalytic. It captures local talent. It makes us much more sustainable -- a lot of reasons for going local.

But we've all talked about it for years, and we still don't produce it. The first response still is, send me 10 or 15 internationals, and even the best of us take -- you know, our -- in a new job it usually takes months to figure out what you're doing. In a new country and in a new job, it should probably be more complicated. So I think common sense would say, head in this direction.

I guess the final point I'd raise -- and this is a -- I think, an important one -- in everyone of these cases, help is needed, but in almost every case, they don't really want us to take over. And so overt assistance of the kind that we're offering fits with what these places need and want, but we should be much, much more respectful of the fact that it's not ours to own. And furthermore, we don't want to own it. When we've found ourselves for 12 years in a place, we haven't really found it be a very happy experience.

So I think these are -- these are some of the rules that we're kind of refining as we've gone through this first year. I'm more than happy to talk about some of the ways we're approaching the work in each case, because I think that will bring it to life. But since many of you are practitioners, I thought that these -- some of these points might fit with some of your own findings.

And I would just say to you, people are asking me if I'm having fun -- first off, it's a -- it's an unbelievable privilege to be in this kind of a job, and it's starting to be fun. (Laughter.)

(Chuckles.) So thank you. Thank you very much, and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

ROSETT: Thank you very much, Ambassador and Assistant Secretary.

I won't ask you if you're having fun, then. But I did want to start with a general question. In selecting these four cases where you're focusing 80 percent of your energy, is this a science or an art that you're trying to cultivate? Is it a systemic approach you're trying to develop, or are you seeing what you can do by tailoring very individually each case?

BARTON: It's really both. It has to be the -- it's the result of a process of considerable consultation with people at the White House, with the assistant secretaries for the regional bureaus, making sure that there's an ambassador there who is -- who really feels they need help. And so you have -- there is an internal game, and we -- and we sort of follow the blocks.

On the other hand, we want to be in places that really matter, that matter to the U.S., that there's -- the moment is the right moment to actually do something that will take hold and that there's something we could then do as well. So those -- that's really the criteria.

And I would just give you a quick example: How did we end up in Syria rather than Egypt, Yemen and Libya that were sort of on the table at the same time a year ago? Yemen was perhaps the easiest. We could all get killed if we -- if we went in there to work, or we might not get out of the embassy. So it didn't seem as if it was quite as dynamic an opportunity. Egypt -- for a brand-new office in the State Department, Egypt was a huge, ongoing operation, and it was -- we thought it would be hard to figure out -- unless the ambassador said, look, I want to take a review of the portfolio, which was not on the table at the time, it would be hard to figure out how we could have an influence in the case. And Libya already seemed to have more of an international flavor with the United Nations there and other cases. Syria also had a positive argument because of its location between Turkey and Israel, because of its -- we thought of its multiple strategic attractions.

There was the unpredictability of the conflict, how long would it go, and might you get caught up in sort of waiting on deck. But as it turns out, in a place like Syria, the United States government's Rolodex -- if anybody here still has a Rolodex -- just wasn't very -- wasn't very great. We didn't -- we didn't really -- the embassy at Damascus had not had a chance to really get to know the opposition and sort of where the energy was in this whole -- in this whole revolutionary process.

And so the training and equipping that we did of nonlethal assistance to the nonviolent opposition allowed us -- has allowed us over the last year to really broaden the U.S. knowledge of what's going on in Syria, who the key players are. And I think -- if you end up -- if you're getting closer to a circumstance where there might be either fractionalized or a -- let's call it a highly decentralized result to the conflict, then you really do want to know 100 people in Aleppo. You don't want to be dependent on just walking a white horse down -- the main street of Damascus and hoping that some leader jumps on and we go, phew.

So this is the kind of -- sort of ground -- you know, foundation- building that you have to -- that you have to undertake and that we've done.

ROSETT: Could you tell us something a little more specific about how you're actually doing that? Do you know 100 people in Aleppo? You've got a team of 200. Are you able to get people in on the ground, work with others?

BARTON: Well, we've been -- we've had to work -- it's -- Syria's a really good challenge, because you have to work out of a third country, which has its own very distinct feelings about what's going on inside of Syria and what it might mean to them. So we're working -- up until the last two weeks, we've worked exclusively in Turkey. And then we -- now we started to work in Jordan as well.

That happens to be -- I mean, this -- not that the internal bureaucratics are that important, but that happens to be two geographic bureaus and different sets of ambassadors, and -- and so again, I don't want to overstate the sensitivity of that, but that's -- that's part of what we have to do.

So what we've done is -- the answer's yes, we do know a hundred people in Aleppo, but what concerns me -- but all of them have had to come across the border, and we have essentially been running -- helping to provide equipment for them but also training sessions and how to use the equipment safely and also on some governance issues. But we still have a lot more work to do in terms of getting to know more Syrians and getting to know the ones that we do know much better, and -- because, for example, if you do a vetting exercise, where you try to -- want to make sure that they're not terrorists at the same time, as that -- as they say they're friends of ours, which is another part of our process --

ROSETT: (Inaudible) -- important --

BARTON: That doesn't actually tell you that much about how capable they are or what you can do with them.

ROSETT: And I believe you're going in a few weeks to Burma. What are you hoping to get down there?

BARTON: Well, I mean, the U.S. policy in Burma, we try to anchor ourselves with U.S. policy, and that seems to be a good place to start rather than inventing it. And so we think the U.S. policy in Burma is pretty clear, that we want to open the place up, we want to deal with the long-standing ethnic disputes, and we want to do business. And these -- we think the second one is probably the most delicate one.

ROSETT: Yeah, I was going to ask --

BARTON: Because that's the one we're on.

ROSETT: Specifically, how do you approach that? What can you do?

BARTON: Well, it's been -- it has been very delicate, and it's been very sensitive because the Burmese seem to be moving quite nicely on their own towards the first and third targets, and this is the one that is most uncomfortable.

So we've tried to find a subject matter that might breed dialogue between the parties.

And the subject matter that we've settled on has been landmines because it turns out that neither side really likes landmines and the results of them, yet there are plenty of them out there. So in two of the most conflicted areas, we're -- we are working with both parties to hopefully bring them together around the subject of landmines, feeling that if there's progress on that, then the richer discussion will follow. So that's the way we're going at it.

ROSETT: And can you give us maybe some thoughts on Afghanistan, where there are problems from corruption to the violence to the -- are you involved at all with that?

BARTON: We do have -- we had -- our largest operation was in Afghanistan. But in the course of last year, we have reduced it dramatically. We had about 30 people there, and we're now down to about four, partially because we felt that the withdrawal was -- the transition was the largest issue, and we should -- we should probably do our part to get out as well as we could. And so all of our people are now working on essentially the transition plan. So they're doing planning for the embassy and the military on the next steps. That's all that we have left in country right now. I just had a conversation with somebody the other day, and they said, gee, what you're doing in the Kenyan elections, maybe you'd think about doing in the Afghanistan elections. So we are just starting to --

ROSETT: What are you doing in the Kenya elections?

BARTON: (Chuckles.) Well, I think, as all of you know, the -- four years ago the -- Kenya really lit up as a result of the political leadership, essentially stoking the public and a lot of youth, to the point where several thousand people died, and several hundreds of thousands of people left their homes, and it really got out of control.

And so that's the focus of what we're doing.

And I think what the embassy had asked us to do was help us drive all of our attention to the election-related violence, because if that happens again, it will be by far the worst thing that could happen to Kenya. So we felt we're on the right issue. Now, what could you possibly do? We felt that there would be a great deal of attention provided by the U.S. and other international partners to the election -- to the logistics of the elections. It's -- in a way, it's both a flattering and in a way it's a bit of an industry now. There are a lot of people who know how to do elections. And even though almost every election has ballot problems and delayed -- and delays, the -- we still now seem to find the finish line.

So we felt that there were -- the greater problem was if there was violence, who would check it? Kenya's going through a period of amazing reform right now. They've got a new constitution, they've got commissions for virtually everything under the sun. It's almost over- reformed in the sense that it's got too much for the body politic to absorb at the same time. And the police reforms happen to be lagging behind.

Now, we had to make an assumption that the police probably would not be in shape to do what we would hope they would do. And standing and belaboring that point we didn't think was particularly smart either. So what we've tried to do is to find ways of using an amazing network that the U.S. government, AID, State Department and others have already got under way for fighting AIDS, for fighting -- for horticulture programs, for a series of initiatives that are going -- that are ongoing in place. How do you take that essentially apolitical mass of people and engage them in the election-related process?

So we had, for example, a conversation in the Rift Valley. There were 14 people there. And rather than having each of them tell us the wonder of their programs, we got -- we had a conversation that got right to the question: What worries you most about your country this year? Election-related violence. Are you doing as much as you'd like to be doing to combat that? No. Is there -- would you like to be more engaged? Yes. Is there anything that you think you could bring to this that might be helpful in terms of an early warning system, in terms of making the police more capable, in terms of checking how the election is going?

The first person to speak was a man running a horticulture program, a Kenyan, and he said, I don't know if I can help, but I've -- because I've only got 4,000 Kenyans in this area who are part of my program. My immediate thought was, you could get elected governor of any state but Texas with 4,000 people -- (laughter) -- as your base, right?

So the next person to speak was the person running the AIDS program. And he happened to say, well, we have several hundred thousand households that we visit in this region every week. So we said, OK, what would it take for you to bring your assets to this charge? Now, AID already had a wonderful "yes, you can" initiative, which had literally tens of thousands of youth engaged in the election process. So combining these people -- and there were Catholic bishops who had had thousands of refugees on their -- on their land during the last violence, and they were already involved in. So it was really a question of how did you -- how do you bring these Kenyans to the next level of capacity?

And it was -- and the one thing they said was, let -- we need to come together right away. And secondly, if you helped us get some local Kenyan staff to take our asset and put it to this use, we'll continue doing our day jobs, but this will be -- so a whole Champions of Peace initiative was started in the Rift Valley; something like it in the coast.

We're still very, very worried about places like the slums of Nairobi, which are tougher.

But anyway, I think it will make a difference, and at the very, very, very least, there will be thousands of Kenyans who are more involved in a political process than they would have been. They would have been spectators, and now they are participants. And I believe that can only help.

ROSETT: Thank you. I'm --

BARTON: Long answer. (Chuckles.)

ROSETT: That's quite all right. I'm -- I think I'm going to open up the floor to questions. Please wait for the mic. State your name and affiliation. Keep your question brief. And --

BARTON: And if you're a friend, keep your questions friendly. (Laughter.)

ROSETT: Yes, and keep your questions extremely friendly. (Laughter.)


QUESTIONER: Amitai Desoni (ph), George Washington. I must tell you I'm terribly impressed. It doesn't happen often. (Laughter.) I mean, we're going to focus. We're not going to jump in with both feet. (Laughter.) We're going to let the locals do some of the work and -- (inaudible) --

BARTON: We're trying. We're trying. (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: And we're going to realize that if we spend 3 trillion (dollars), you're not going to get -- that's -- wow. My question is when are we done?

BARTON: When are we done?

QUESTIONER: Yeah, because what's your end state if it's not make them into a Switzerland? I keep hearing, we're not going to make them into Switzerland, but I never hear what we are going to make them into. Romania? Lebanon? (Laughter.) Where are we going?

BARTON: Yeah. Thank you. I've enjoyed your work over the years, so thanks for your -- thanks for your compliment. I'll take it as -- I hope there was no sarcasm in it. (Laughter.) Just a touch.

Well, in a case like Kenya, for example, we're done probably after -- a month after the second -- if there's a runoff election, after the second round.

But I don't believe that in every case it's that clean and simple. I mean we will likely be involved in Syria for maybe six months after the change in regime, but we believe that we will help to get things started and really create the opportunity.

And it should fit into sort of other opportunities that the U.S. governments and the international community see in this place. In a place like Honduras right now, there are certain elements of the work that we've done that are already finished because they were looking for kind of emergency help with prosecutions. And the issue there was this explosive homicide rate and the loss of government control and the total loss of public confidence, quite a few things, but they were tied to the highest homicide rate in a nonconflict zone in the world.

And so we did give them some initial emergency help to bring some prosecutors and some homicide investigators because they didn't have enough of those in place. But that part of the program has already ended, really, and what we've tried to move on to is local initiatives that we believe are quite promising, including a national tax on the business community to make the country safer -- something that took considerable legislative action, but the likelihood that it's going to be implemented particularly well is not that great. So how do you -- how do you try to build a success out of a nice idea that might or might not work?

So those are the -- but we can see -- I mean, we say zero to one year because that's the big -- that's the biggest window and nobody else is -- I mean, that's not overpopulated by U.S. capacity and capability. But I also just -- but it's not religious.

It's a period that we -- we can extend it as -- for six months or a year as needed, but it should make us be more urgent to really drive the -- drive the exercise. That's what I'm -- we find that when we bring urgency to almost any discussion inside of the U.S. government, it's a constructive thing to do.

QUESTIONER: I'm Will -- (last name inaudible) -- from DynCorp International.

BARTON: Hey, Will.

QUESTIONER: There are a number of areas in the U.S. government that look at failed and failing states. The undersecretary for political affairs has that responsibility of state, there's the CIA's Failed- Failing States Index and the NSC chairs or used to chair an interagency coordinating committee to look at failed and failing states. How does CSO play in this?

BARTON: Well, first off, we've tried to -- we tried to work and less play with everybody that you mentioned because we really want to be -- we want to be aggregators of talent and of good work that's going on. And for example, even if something is simple as a -- seemingly as simple as analytics, we have a -- we have a meta -- we have a metadata analyst in our -- in our shop now. And -- but we don't want him to -- we want him to be an aggregator of aggregators. I keep saying to him, you're -- you've got to be Nate Richard -- Nate Silver on steroids -- (scattered laughter) -- because -- we can't possibly run enough stuff through you, so you've got to go out.

And it turns out, the intelligence community loves being called by the State Department. They -- I mean, they're flattered by it. They want to -- they want to have their work respected and called upon. And so it's not hard. And it's the same with the military community. They're -- oftentimes, there have -- may have been times when the State Department has not been as friendly a door as it could be to these other partners.

And I think -- and particularly when you get to something like the policymaking, there's been a -- there's been a kind of -- this secret formula, sort of like Kentucky Fried Chicken. You have to go into the backroom, and nobody can tell you what the -- what the elements are. And I happen to believe that the -- that the process should be widest at the beginning and then narrowed down rather than being narrow at the beginning and then hoping that everybody's going to jump on board. So that's the way we're trying to do it.

ROSETT: Question over here.

BARTON: Each time I give an answer, 10 times more hands go up. So I'm obviously not clarifying. (Laughter.)

ROSETT: I want to hear about how the intelligence community loves being called by the State Department. But -- (laughter) --

QUESTIONER: Hi, Pauline Baker, The Fund for Peace. Rick, I'm also impressed at the -- at the process that you've gone through, and particularly it being catalytic in terms of the bureaucratic politics of it, not just bureaucratic in terms of the impact on the ground. But I have something of a concern about the short time horizon. You said it was -- the window was zero to one year. And the real problem with failed and failing states are that there are deep-seated structural issues. And if you're really going to get at the heart of that, you have to have a longer-term strategy of some sort. And even if you use the example of Kenya, for example, sure, everyone's concerned about the elections, but one of the problems we've had in the past is that we focus on elections and then go home and think everything's OK, and it's not. So how do you get to the next stage of what you're doing, where you really get to some of the fundamental underlying drivers of the failing states rather than just the triggers?

BARTON: Right. Well, I think -- I hope -- and in my answers -- but I know -- but even more so in our work, that we are -- we are touching on those issues right at the front -- at the front end, that we're not -- we're not just running through an election process, but we're really going at the core issue of -- in particular, in a place like Kenya, of surrounding the political elites so that they don't have the room to instigate violence around the country.

So it's basically -- the big -- the bigger idea of getting all these people in play is that they will not only tame idle youth but they will let the political candidates know that the space that they're operating in is shrinking dramatically every day in terms of how they can incite the public. So it is -- it starts with precisely the behaviors of the -- of the political elites in that country. And it has -- and it -- but it -- but you have to figure out how you check it, because in a place like Kenya, you've got a wonderful press, you've got a very rich civil society, you actually have some rule of law. I mean, a lot of things are going on that don't exist in other places. But there's been something that has been used over and over and over again through the decades, and it tends to -- at least our analysis has been, tends to come back to a few players who have been acting highly irresponsibly, and they're trying to limit the political dialogue to one of tribal divisions as opposed to how the country is run and how it should be run looking forward.

So -- but -- so it's not -- and I -- the second part of the answer is there are many, many parts of the international community, including the U.S. government, that actually play the -- that are there supposedly to play the longer game. And in some cases, it takes them two years to get there, three years to get there, but that's where most of the money is. There happen to be two places where the money sits in our system. One is in the instant emergency and the other is in the longer-term play. And in between, we haven't done that good a job, and I don't think we've even done that good a job of getting started in the right direction.

And if we get these programs -- if somebody who's working on AIDS starts worrying about the political elites, they're going to be a -- much more effective in terms of what they do with the AIDS program as well. So I think it's -- I think there's -- I mean, we're definitely thinking about it.

And -- but I see -- I see what the U.S. government needs to do is to be much more vectored on the problem. And we're here at the beginning of the vector, OK? And what we do should fit inside of this vector, and it should be highly catalytic. But we're not responsible for the whole ride, nor is any part of the international community. It's got to be a contributor, so I think there's been a paternalistic mindset as well, which is a whole nother issue, but that we've come in and we've said, OK, we want to fix this place. At the end of the day, it's probably like having an alcoholic relative, you know? You're going to have to help out where you can, but let's keep it on focus if you -- and that's -- that's not easy, by the way, because we have a lot of -- we have a lot of wonderful things we do, like to do.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Shan Hassim (sp). I have a question that's a follow-up to that question on rule of law. You mentioned rule of law and failure of rule of law in failed and failing states, and the real problem with the lack of governance. And to what extent on the business and economic development and creating or helping them create a better economic environment, to what extent does -- do you get involved with that type of work? Because there's a lot of seeding projects you could do that area which could have real long-term implications, especially in a country like Honduras.

BARTON: Sure, sure. I'm not sure this is exactly answering your question, but we see the business community as being a huge area of opportunity that hasn't really been called upon as aggressively as it should be in these kinds of cases, and so we're trying to do that.

I'll just give you a couple of quick examples. We had a dinner one night when I was in Mombasa, and the general manager at a hotel, the general manager of the hotel said something like -- he had 684 rooms, and during the last round of violence, he had eight guests in his hotel.

So he was very -- (chuckles) -- attuned to how radically things could change if they're not managed well.

In Honduras this tax on the business community has to be -- has to be collected fairly. Already there are signs that the collection is -- it is dropping. The collection rate is dropping or the compliance rate is dropping. It has to be spent wisely. There are signs that it -- that the -- that it could be used as a slush fund by key political operatives.

So these are the kinds of challenges that -- but the business community can't afford to privatize their entire security operation in a place like Honduras, which is what, effectively, people do. And then even when you have totally privatized security operations, such as oil compounds, they too are not immune from the kinds of disturbances we're seeing.

So we've obviously got to think about this in a much more sophisticated way. And these people have a huge interest (in/and ?) the huge investments, and they haven't been particularly -- necessarily forward-leaning. They're taking care of their own -- their own, as opposed to the societal plan, and so we've got to figure out how to -- how to engage them more broadly.

But we are keeping that in mind everywhere.

QUESTIONER: Doug Feith from Hudson Institute. Rick, your bureau is an outgrowth or an evolution from the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. How would you describe any differences between your bureau's mission and what was the original concept of the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization?

BARTON: I'm probably not the best historian. I know I've got some people who work for me who could probably do a better job. But what I could say is that when I -- when I was offered this -- when -- this job, by Secretary Clinton, the prior office had lost the confidence of key players on Capitol Hill and others in the U.S. government. So I just thought it was a chance to start over.

And I think that probably a lot of what we're doing was originally -- was in the original conception. And we've tried to -- I'm trying to throw out the baby with the bath water -- probably nobody's said that since their grandmother died, right? (Laughs.) I don't know why that phrase came up.

ROSETT: Oh, perfectly good phrase.

BARTON: But -- so, my feeling is that I think the original intent was to be strategic and to have a policy influence. And then I think when it went through its middle stages as a coordinator, it had lost -- it had never gained traction in the State Department. And so it then went into kind of a supplier of people and -- which I thought was too limited. So we've tried to recapture that we want to be part of the policy conversation.

And this -- I mean, we've had -- we've been very fortunate to have the dynamic support of Secretary Clinton for the first year of our existence. And now what we're finding is -- I've only been in a handful of meetings with Secretary Kerry, but in every one of the meetings -- every one of the meeting he had said: Bring me ideas. Get me some out-of-the-box thinking. We've got to find another way of doing some of these things. Which -- and I'm hoping that our bureau can be a very aggressive supplier of ideas and of different ways of doing things.

And that way, I think we'll -- I think if we come up with good ideas, we'll have influence on policy, we'll be invited to the right meetings, and we'll be seen as a valuable instrument of change for U.S. foreign policy. And I know that's the case with the embassies that we're working with.

So, you know, a lot of you -- I mean, I don't know how many of you have worked in the State -- have many of you have worked in the State Department?

(Laughter.) I'm probably not -- I'm probably not speaking a totally foreign language here to you, but you would understand that we've got do it one day at a time and occasionally with a big idea. But one day at a time is probably -- I -- you know, this is kind of a digression, but about two or three months ago, when it was kind of in a relatively stressful time in this job, I thought, you know, why am I doing this job? And then I thought, well, you know, I might have one advantage that a lot of people don't have: I'm the youngest of three brothers. That means for the three years of my life -- the first 12 years of my life, I haven't -- I had an undefeated losing streak. I lost every time -- every time I did anything, I lost -- for 12 years. But I -- my favorite line was always, let's play again, let's play again, let's play again. And I can tell you, I got about a 50-year winning streak on my middle brother right now in tennis. So -- (laughter) -- you can -- you can -- you can get to that point. And that's sort of the way you got to do it at the State Department. You got to be there every day. It's persistence.

QUESTIONER: Mari Salino (ph) from Northrop Grumman. I like the -- what you were just saying about new ideas, and I think there is a place just a couple miles from here with a deadlocked government that could use some new ideas but -- that your bureau might provide. Just kidding.

BARTON: (Chuckles.) I'm sure we won't be invited.

QUESTIONER: My question is, how will sequestration affect your bureau?

BARTON: Well, we've made a lot of -- we've made a lot, a lot, a lot of administrative changes. We've probably -- we've actually restructured 40 percent of our budget in the last year. So -- and part of that is to create more liquidity and to not just have -- not just to sit on people. So we've -- so I think we're probably positioned than some, but we're actually -- we're not particularly well-funded.

I think Secretary Kerry actually even mentioned this in his speech today at the University of Virginia, and he said something like -- I wasn't watching it, so I've been told this, that he said, I've got $60 million for conflict and (sic) stabilization, which is what apparently was spent to produce "The Avengers," the movie "The Avengers." So he said something about us being superheroes. (Laughter.)

But, you know, there does come a time. You do -- liquidity, I mean, again, all of you worked in the State Department. You know that having a little liquidity -- good ideas is great, but liquidity is also really important. And this is something I did talk to Secretary Clinton about when I took the job, that I'd just like to be able to go to any ambassador and say I got a couple million bucks in my pocket.

But also, it's important for the people that work for our bureau that they go out and they think they've got a million-dollar credit line from the taxpayers, so they're forced to be creative. Otherwise, it's like, "I don't have money, I don't have the time, you know, don't have enough people." But no, you got a million dollars; if you got a good idea, call. OK? But the phone still needs to be -- we still need to activate the phone a little more, but that's -- we've given them that license.

ROSETT: There's a movie in this.

BARTON: I want to recognize Steve Morrison, who also started -- helped to start OTI and was one of the founders of it.

ROSETT: Steve, where are you? Yes.

BARTON: Thanks.

ROSETT: Yes, in the back.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Genie Nguyen with Voice of Vietnamese Americans. Congratulations to your new position, and congratulations to the new winning streaks, and we hope to continue lasting for you. (Laughter.)

BARTON: I hope my brother's not watching C-SPAN. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: You state from the beginning -- you mentioned focus. And you also mentioned we have to listen to the silent majority. And so President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both refocused or rebalance their focus to Asia-Pacific, even though we've only rebalanced. And you said that you have worked with Burma. So my question is to what the -- Southeast Asia and what you share with -- your vision of how to build capacity for Burma and how to build Burma up so that it can -- next year I think Burma will be the chair of ASEAN -- how to build ASEAN up to the centrality role and how to work into that the code of conduct and the rule of law in the Southeast Asia sea? Would that help to resolve some of the conflicts that we are concerned about?

BARTON: I think it would, for sure. I have to say that I -- since I haven't had a chance to visit Burma myself yet, I'm probably less conversant with it than I am with the other major cases that we're working on. But clearly, there is plenty of opportunity for progress in this space, and I think that's -- and the U.S. policy is really trying to drive that.

In terms of the rest of Asia -- of Southeast Asia, I'm not -- we -- right now as we look at sort of future engagements, I think that there probably are a couple of countries that we have to be sensitive to but -- and that we are reviewing, but I'm -- we haven't gotten much beyond that stage. So I'm sorry not to be better informed to answer your question.

ROSETT: Way in the back row there.

QUESTIONER: Thanks, Claudia. Will Davis with UNDP. Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned that it's a crowded field out there --

BARTON: I always worry when somebody says that. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: -- doing pre- and post-conflict. How does CSO plug in or not plug into the other actors that are out there, either bilateral or multilateral?

BARTON: We're -- I'm hoping that our -- thanks, Will, for that softball. (Laughter.) I'm hoping that we will be completely opportunistic in terms of who our partners are. We have actually two people from our partnership office here today, and -- Raphael Carland and Andrew Hyde over here. And they -- their job is to make sure that we do not play the entitlement game, but we just look to see who's got the best talent on the ground, who's got the best ideas.

And for example, on the way over we were talking about calling some of our European colleagues because the Canadians had called us a couple months ago saying: We want to do something on the Syrian problem, but we don't really know where to start. And we said, well, how about two of the platforms that we have helped to create in Turkey -- one, an office of foreign assistance, basically, for the opposition and another was kind of a media -- a media hub.

And the Canadians have jumped in for a couple million bucks, which is terrific. I mean, why not? We had already jumped in with the -- with the U.K. on the media idea. But I -- we want to -- I -- we are putting people into U.N. missions as well if that's the best platform in the place, and that's where we can make the -- make the most difference. So you know, I see Fred here and, you know, Fred and I worked for a couple years on trying to get a better -- a higher -- a better participation between UNDP the U.S. government and anybody else who would join in -- the World Bank or whatever.

And we had a little experiment going in Mozambique, who seemed -- which seemed promising and -- because we all realized, do we all have to put the same kinds of people on? Do we all have to rent all the good housing? Do we have to hire all the teachers to drive our cars? Can't we -- can't we actually concentrate our effort and really -- and really be more effective? And I believe that we have to do that in fiscally constrained times as well.

And furthermore, it's better practice. So, I mean, it's not just about money; it's actually just better idea because nobody is that smart. And it's hard to get a really good leader. If one of us had a good leader in any of these places, let's (all fall ?) behind that person, because getting three good leaders in one place is almost unheard of. So there are real limitations here, and I think if we're more honest with ourselves, we'll be more effective, and we'll -- our partnerships will be richer.

ROSETT: A question in the front here.

QUESTIONER: Ambassador Don Bandler. I was -- what about --

BARTON: It's for others. I can hear you.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. OK. (Laughter.)

ROSETT: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Tanzania and Malabo (ph), the very small state which at one point was really a -- doing very well, and now it's almost nowhere, so it's just another part of East Africa.

MR. : (Inaudible.)

BARTON: Well, I haven't done any work there. I mean, we are doing some early -- we've done some early analysis, for example, of Zimbabwe. I mean, we've gone -- assuming that there's going to be a change in some time when you have an 80-something-year-old leader. And so we've really tried to go in there and say, OK, what should we do if there is a change in government or there is an opening? But we haven't done any work in that space, and so I really -- sorry.


BARTON: Thanks.

ROSETT: How about halfway down there? Yeah.

BARTON: Hey, Dane.

QUESTIONER: Dane Smith, American University. I was struck, in your initial points, that you said more expertise was needed in -- on conflict. Under SCRS, there was a lot of emphasis put on training. Everybody had to go to training. But my sense was that others in the State Department were not taking advantage of this, and I'm wondering whether the training bug has -- on conflict resolution has seeped down at all into the culture of the State Department.

BARTON: I'm sure that there's further progress possible -- (laughter) -- sort of picking up Amitai's tone here. I would say we're very -- we were helped by Maria Otero, who is our undersecretary for the last few years. She saw a need for kind of a broader J family, which is kind of the whole citizen security/civilian security side of the -- of the --- State Department now -- they've put together a number of bureaus, including our own -- and that that the course be broader than just -- that there be kind of a survey course. And we really did a lot of work in taking some of -- what we thought our best elements and putting it into that core.

So FSI's now offering that, and that's a start (too/to ?) -- but there's still -- I think there's still plenty of work to do. The way we're -- the one way we're trying to do it is to try to set aside maybe two weeks a year for each of -- every person who works for us, for professional growth and professional development, so that we logically think about -- think about it that way, and then we customize the training of those people.

And -- but I'm also a big fan of having people, leaders in the field, Dane, that are -- that actually are pretty seasoned and we do more field mentoring than -- because these places are just really difficult. I mean, I read an email in the last couple days about how stressed out one of our teams is in one of these places, and, you know, it was pretty troubling, really, so -- because we're pushing them to do a lot, and furthermore it's dangerous where they are. And that's -- that would naturally put you on edge.

So we've got to think about how -- you have to have special types of people to do this work. It's way too -- it's way too demanding. There are a lot, a lot, a lot of people who don't want to face physical -- the prospect, even, of physical danger on a regular basis. Understandable. So I think we've got to -- we've got to start by having some better leaders ourselves and identifying other good leaders in the State Department and using them more aggressively. And we're just getting to that. I'd say -- I'd say there's still quite a lot of -- quite a lot to do in that space.

ROSETT: Way in the back there.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Ambassador, as a Mainer myself, I feel like I have the prerogative to ask you the hard question.

BARTON: (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: This is Bobby Charles. I spent a little time at State.

BARTON: Yeah, (hi, Bobby ?).

QUESTIONER: The GPRMA law -- OMB, I notice, is not here at this event, so we can ask this question -- is very harsh. It's putting down a whole new set of process markers. What are your metrics for success in this bureau, given its newness, against the duplication in some of the other bureaus, and including my old bureau?

BARTON: That's a good question. I don't -- first off, I don't think there's a ton of duplication. I'm finding much more of a vacuum than duplication as a problem, and in particular in the early days of getting going.

But you know, there -- we're trying to feature real-time evaluation. I don't want to -- I don't want to hear from the inspector general or the special inspector general two years later of the various things that we could have done better. So we're doing -- we're already doing evaluation in some of our programs that they're -- only been out there three months.

And I want it to be highly honest. I don't want people to come back and tell me we're the best thing the U.S. government's ever done. I want to -- I want to know how we can do everything better.

But one measure of -- a fair measure is how well we play with others. And for example, (your own ?) bureau, we work with a lot. And in Honduras right now, we're very twinned up with them. We're talking about -- we just got a -- we just got a kind of a special appropriation last night, the first notice of it, for additional work in Syria, and we're going to do some of our rule of law training with your -- with INL. So -- but that doesn't mean that it's going to be good. That doesn't mean that it works.

And for example, we were working with a police reform commission. I think the best evaluation you can ever have is one that says, look, these things didn't work and these things did work. Then people think you're credible. I find when I go to the Hill, if I say I -- everything I did was brilliant, they tune out almost immediately. And if I say, look, these are some things that I wish we'd done better and this is the way we can see to do them better that that has quite a lot of resonance, and also in getting resources directed to you.

And it's -- also makes you more credible with the F bureau because you're not just -- we're not constantly just championing ourselves. We got -- we've brought back $30 million of money that had not been obligated, crisis funds that had sat in embassies for two years. Now, it's hard to make the argument that it's a crisis if it sat in an embassy for two years. But nobody in the U.S. government thinks that you can actually go out and grab back the money.

So we went out and grabbed the money. We did it in a very -- highly predictable way, so everybody could see it coming. It wasn't a surprise. And we got $30 million out of it. That $30 million hasn't come back to us. Some of that money has gone to AID. Some of that money has gone to INL. So if you're an honest broker as well, then you -- that's another way that you can show that you're more credible.

So in terms of measures, you know, if the election -- if the election in Kenya's mostly safe, we still won't be able to take credit for it because it's kind of a big thing. But I think we'll be able to say, these are the elements that we've contributed to that. If it's mostly violent, we can say, you know, was it less violent where we were? I mean, I -- you know, but if these are -- I'd rather be measured on what we were actually trying to do, rather than all of our inputs were fine and my people behaved well. And what's the point? I mean, the bigger point is the reason we're there. So that's the way I'd like to be measured.

ROSETT: Thank you. We have time for one more question. And before we take it, I just want to remind you all that this meeting is on the record. (Laughter.)

BARTON: That's too bad. It's too late now. (Laughter.)

ROSETT: Yes, it's too late now. But -- yeah, right here.

BARTON: Can you -- make it a multiple choice, if you would. (Laughter.) Or true/false would be even better.

QUESTIONER: True/false. (Chuckles.) I'm Nancy Berg (sp), George Washington University. Hi, Rick. I'll try to make it true/false. Is it true that you have a lessons-learned process to share with yourselves and the rest of the government?

BARTON: Well, we do, and it's -- but it's also a work in progress. I don't want to overstate it. And for example, we've just -- we had -- we had a lot of people work in Afghanistan, and of course, the last few years, not so much the last year but the last few years. It turned out 115 people from the -- our predecessor office and our office had worked in Afghanistan. And so the obvious question was, well, what did you all learn? And they've come up with a really excellent paper now, which is -- which they have now taken over to the Afghan/Pakistan office as well and shared it with 30 people there.

And so the learning process -- this gets back to sort of Dane's question -- how do you make the learning process broader than just yourself, because ultimately, you can't just play by yourself in this -- in this work.

And so that's the way we're trying to do things. We do have -- we're asking people, if we do a tabletop on Mali on Friday, how do we package what we've learned on Friday so it gets through the State Department and AID and the intelligence community and anybody else -- the White House -- anybody else who thinks -- the Defense Department -- who thinks that they are part of that -- part of this exercise? Because even if we're -- even if our -- the six experts that came to our round table aren't right, they have surely said something that's of interest. And let's make sure that it doesn't end up being the exclusive province of just a few people.

I think there's a little bit of a culture of holding stuff to yourself, and our culture is explode the knowledge if we can, because we all have to get smarter a lot faster than we've been doing it, evidenced by our success ratio in these -- in these very tough places.

So thank you all very much. (Applause.)

ROSETT: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador Barton. Good luck. May you outdo the Avengers. (Laughter.)






Top Stories on CFR


The closely watched elections on July 28 will determine whether incumbent President Nicolás Maduro wins a third term or allows a democratic transition.

International Law

The high court’s decision could allow future U.S. presidents to commit grave abuses of power with impunity, with serious implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Election 2024

The Ohio senator is Donald Trump’s choice as his running mate for the 2024 presidential election.