Can the World be Wrong?

Chapter Eleven: War on Terror to War on Poverty?

 

 “In today’s globalized world, if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you.”

- Tom Friedman, New York Times, 2003 

 

“War on anything is stupid.”

- Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist Leader, 2007 

 


SUMMARY

  • The Obama Administration’s burying of the term “War on Terror” in 2013 was an inevitable result of public opinion trends over the last Decade. The question is, what rallying cry might replace warfare? 
  • Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is likely to be seen by historians as an understandable 20th-Century response to the events of September 11, 2001, but a failure in both its strategy and execution. 
  • Until recently, there has been little evidence that many citizens around the world ever thought that a WAR on terror was the way to best address the problem.
  • In the wake of the Sept. 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, GlobeScan’s research showed that, in addition to a genuine outflowing of grief and sympathy towards the US, the global public’s reaction was two-fold: passive support for America striking back against Al Queda bases and their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan; and active support for a renewed focus on global poverty reduction.
  • This public focus on extreme poverty or the gap between rich and poor has tenaciously continued, with no end in sight. 
  • Today, with ISIS outdoing Al Qaeda in its brutality and ambition, GlobeScan’s latest 2015 tracking (see chart on page 207) shows a majority of people (58%) now support military action to reduce terrorism. But that is not to say these same people have forgotten about poverty.
  • It is not only extreme poverty that is fueling conflict, but also the widening gap between rich and poor. Even if the poor are not destitute, they cannot be constantly reminded of the relative wealth of others every day on television and in the tabloid media, without consequences.
  • Looking at specific countries where majorities of their citizens saw a lack of economic fairness in 2009, it appears quite predictive of mass protests that arose in 2011 in many countries.
  • Clearly, many citizens have been stirred up by fear and a sense of unfairness, in part through events and in part by political and religious leaders with questionable motives. As a wise man once said, “When people are afraid, they tend to make bad decisions.”
  • But will a War on Poverty be mounted instead of a War on Terror? Certainly poverty as an issue has all the attributes needed for real progress to be achieved in our lifetime. Public opinion research suggests that poverty continues to have high levels of relevance, self-interest, and urgency in most countries. There are also perceived solutions available, with a growing belief that people, working together, can accomplish whatever we set out to do. 
  • This is a real leadership opportunity for someone of the stature of a UN Secretary General, a Pope, a Dalai Lama, or a European Union President. GlobeScan’s research suggests the building blocks of public understanding are clearly there for such a leader to redefine global security in a more holistic and positive manner. 

 

The Obama Administration’s burying of the term “War on Terror” in 2013 was an inevitable result of public opinion trends over the last Decade. The fact that the same Administration re-launched the War on Terror as the War on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) two years later was disheartening to those of us who see war as a hugely ineffective and expensive way of trying to solving anything. The question is, what rallying cry might replace warfare and challenge humanity to become all it can be? And who is going to lead on this?

A 25-year policeman friend of mine tells me that the American ‘War on Drugs’ was declared in 1904 when 4 percent of the American population was addicted to heroin. (It was then re-launched by Richard Nixon in 1971.) After a hundred years of this war, with untold billions of dollars spent and millions of lives affected through drug eradication programs in Latin America and soft-drug-related incarceration in America, he claims that about the same percentage of Americans are today addicted to heroin or similar drugs. After a quarter century on the beat, my friend favours outright legalization of all drugs, including heroin; saying it will drastically reduce the crime rate.

Interestingly, in 2011, a high-powered United Nation group of eminent persons agreed it is time for governments to find new ways to deal with the world’s drug problem. “The fact is that the war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said at the unveiling of the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report13

Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is likely to be seen by historians as an understandable 20th-Century response to the events of September 11, 2001, but a failure in both its strategy and execution.

GlobeScan’s August 2008 23-nation poll for the BBC World Service revealed that, seven years after 9-11, the global public’s most common view was that the US’s ‘war on terror’ either had no effect on al Qaeda (29%) or indeed had made it stronger (30%). The fact that only one in five citizens in the countries surveyed (22%) thought that the ‘war on terror’ had succeeded at one of its primary aims, to weaken al Qaeda, attracted a lot of media coverage worldwide.



Even in the US, this 2008 poll found Americans divided about the success of the conflict with al Qaeda, with as many saying that it had made al Qaeda stronger (33%) as felt that it had succeeded in weakening it (34%).

These findings and recent history suggest that hard military power alone will not win 21st Century wars. The 2011 NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is another case in point. The January 2011 BBC World Service Poll found only 16 percent across G20 countries favoured continued NATO attempts to win militarily, with most (40%) favouring “negotiating with the Taliban to include them in a new government there.” Another 29 percent favoured the immediate unconditional withdrawal of NATO forces.

Actually, until recently, there has been little evidence that many citizens around the world ever thought that a WAR on terror was the way to best address the problem of international terrorism."

GlobeScan first explored this early in 2002, when there was maximum solidarity on the subject of international terrorism. Even then, barely a majority (52%) of citizens of the industrialized countries surveyed agreed “the use of military force is the most effective way of reducing international terrorism.” 

As the following chart shows, such support fell below 50 percent by 2004 and stayed there through 2009. The biggest fall occurred in America where the number believing in the effectiveness of military force dropped from 76 percent in 2002 to 48 percent in 2009.

However, the recent military advances and acts of genocide by ISIS have raised support for military force across 16 tracking countries to its highest level recorded by GlobeScan in over a decade of tracking. This and other research findings suggest that citizens of both OECD and non-OECD countries are again supportive of military action. The historical trend suggests this will not last long.



Exploring the evolution of views over the last decade is instructive in predicting the future. In the wake of the Sept. 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, GlobeScan’s research showed that, in addition to a genuine outflowing of grief and sympathy towards the US, the global public’s reaction was two-fold: passive support for America striking back against Al Queda bases and their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan; and active support for a renewed focus on global poverty reduction.

In a summer 2002 “Voice of the People” poll GlobeScan did in partnership with Gallup International, we asked citizens across 54 countries to name what they saw as “the most important problem facing the world.” The contrast between global opinion and the views of Americans was fascinating, as the following chart shows. While Americans were perhaps understandably focused on terrorism, the rest of the world was focused on what some might call primary prevention against terrorism, poverty alleviation.

In these other countries, people wanted a war on poverty while America was focused on a war on terror.



This public focus on extreme poverty or the gap between rich and poor has tenaciously continued, with no end in sight. In the 2005 Voice of the People survey that Gallup International presented at the World Economic Forum in January 200614, fully 28 percent of the global public spontaneously named “closing the rich/poor gap” or “eliminating poverty” as the most important issue for global leaders to address. While the question wording and country count was slightly different than in 2002, it suggests the poverty focus has not only continued but grew over the four years from 2002 to 2006.

GlobeScan’s research confirms that the strength of concern and indeed self-interest about global poverty has continued. The tracking chart on page 192 shows that extreme poverty held top position in our global issues table from 2007 until 2011 in terms of its rated seriousness, with seven in ten citizens rating it as “very serious” in a couple of those years, just ahead of “corruption,” and significantly ahead of all 10 other issues tested. 

From all this research, we can conclude that millions of people around the world are very sympathetic with Tom Friedman’s view that primary prevention (“fixing poor neighborhoods”), more than military force, is the best way to address the problem of terrorism. 

Had America limited its military action to Afghanistan (rather than adding Iraq) and launched a soft-power initiative to remove the underpinnings of radicalism, the world would be a very different place today. 

Rather than a world that today seems to invite the worst that people and countries have to offer, we could be closer to that very American of worlds where people are encouraged to offer up their best.

And what about today, now that ISIS has outdone Al Qaeda in its brutality and ambition? GlobeScan’s latest 2015 tracking (see chart on page 207) shows a majority of people (58%) now support military action to reduce terrorism. But that is not to say these same people have forgotten about poverty. 

The following chart shows how global problems stack up differently in the minds of citizens of industrialized (OECD) and developing (non-OECD) countries in 2015. While terrorism is the most serious concern in OECD countries, extreme poverty comes second. In developing countries, citizens rate terrorism half-way down the list, with corruption, human rights abuses, extreme poverty, the spread of human diseases, and environmental pollution all rated as more serious problems.



It is not only extreme poverty that is fueling conflict, it is also the widening gap between rich and poor. Even if the poor are not destitute, they cannot be constantly reminded of the relative wealth of others every day on television and in the tabloid media, without consequences.

The 2011 urban uprising by mainly poor black youths in the UK was the inevitable result of yawning inequity, leading to a broken social contract, leading to indiscriminant violence against a system in which they have no stake. Many of the youths interviewed during the unprecedented lawlessness and burning of businesses and shops across London and Birmingham justified their actions by saying it was only the rich and the police being targeted – the rich who were too rich compared to them and the police who were the instrument of the state in keeping them down.

Together with the uprisings across the Middle East, led by disgruntled youths, as well as in places like Spain, Israel, and most notably America with the Occupy Wall Street movement, this all suggests more unrest to come. This is because, at the root of the gap between rich and poor is the issue of fairness and justice – the perceived lack of which generates uprisings, as human history has amply shown.

Not only do citizens of industrialized countries think their governments are being unfair with poorer countries in trade negotiations, they think their governments are not fairly distributing economic benefits and burdens within their own society. The following chart shows how views on economic fairness among citizens of OECD countries are stuck at very low levels, while in developing (non-OECD) countries, citizens are increasingly seeing economic fairness in their (still growing) economies.



Looking at specific countries where majorities of their citizens saw a lack of economic fairness in 2009, it appears quite predictive of mass protests that arose in 2011 starting with the Arab Spring (Egypt), the London Riots (UK), and the Indignatos (Spain), through to Occupy Wall Street (US). With strong majorities of citizens continuing to see economic unfairness across OECD countries, the rich/poor gap will continue firmly on the political agenda in these countries, with further civil unrest likely to be seen in response to local or national conditions.

Clearly, citizens in many countries have been stirred up by fear and a sense of unfairness, in part through events and in part by political and religious leaders with questionable motives. As a wise man once said, “When people are afraid, they tend to make bad decisions.” And our research suggests the War on Terror along with the second (and third) Iraq war will be seen by history as mistakes. 

But will a War on Poverty be mounted instead of a War on Terror? Certainly poverty as an issue has all the attributes needed for real progress to be achieved in our lifetime – indeed there has been much progress already, including achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015. Unfortunately, the UN estimates that 1.2 billion of our fellow humans still live on less that $1.25 per day. Public opinion research suggests that poverty continues to have high levels of relevance, self-interest, and urgency in most countries. There are also perceived solutions available, with a growing belief that people, working together, can accomplish whatever we set out to do. 

But even with today’s high levels of personal commitment to help reduce global poverty and the rich/poor gap, unlocking significant amounts of money to fund such a war from national treasuries impoverished by bailouts and recession will be challenging to say the least.

The US Congressional Budget Office has estimated that US$1,300 Billion will have been spent just on the second Iraq war. This is about twice what the entire world needed to spend in order to meet all the Millennium Development Goals agreed by all countries at the United Nations in September 2000. More than half these goals had not been fully achieved by the 2015 target. 

So the easy money for a War on Poverty is long gone. Some are now turning to innovative sources to fund needed poverty-alleviation initiatives including the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions and other global taxes on everything from air travel to shipping. Add to these initiatives various tax reform measures aimed at reducing the rich/poor gap through so-called “Robin Hood” taxes like the one being proposed by Warren Buffett in the US. Where there’s a will, there’s a way; and it seems likely that there will be important innovations and breakthoughs. The first globally-levied tax is likely to make it into the history books by the end of this decade.

Not only is money a challenge, so too is continuing public support for a War on Poverty. While still supportive today, there is evidence of a rising, more bellicose us-and-them stance in some OECD countries, driven in some cases by a “fear agenda” from politicians. Who will step forward with a compelling primary prevention case for poverty reduction, education and youth employment initiatives as the most cost-effective and enduring way to truly improve global security?

This is a real leadership opportunity for someone of the stature of a UN Secretary General, a Pope, a Dalai Lama, or a European Union President. GlobeScan’s research suggests the building blocks of public understanding are clearly there for such a leader to redefine global security in a more holistic and positive manner. 

To underscore the importance of all this, even in the world’s richest country, nearly a quarter of American children are living in poverty.15 Their number increased for the fourth year in a row to 22 per cent in 2010, the highest since 1993. Child poverty was the fourth highest in 2010 since the mid-1960s, when a federal “War on Poverty’ was launched by President Lyndon Johnson.

But calling it a WAR on poverty is perpetuating a mental construct that is so ‘last Century.’ Mobilization of resources is key; but surely ‘sharing the wealth’ would better build on the success of the Eighties and Nineties when unprecedented wealth was created in the world. It only now needs to be better distributed. 

And, as for WAR, surely ‘no enemies’ would be a rallying cry better able to send the signal that humanity needs to hear today; that we’re committed to bringing everyone with us into the future with dignity and with their real needs met. As Ghandi said, “The world has enough for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” 

 


References:

13 Along with Mr. Cardoso, the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s members included former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

14 Gallup International’s December 2005 “Voice of the People” survey interviewed 50,000 people across 68 countries.

15 US Census Bureau, 2010