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The President's Take

The Drivers of Deadly Conflict Emerge in the U.S.

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley reflects on the ongoing violence in the U.S. and how the drivers of deadly conflict are emerging in the country.

As I write this column, a country whose internal politics Crisis Group habitually doesn’t cover is aflame. The pattern of events will be familiar to those who follow our work: a member of a long-oppressed minority is killed on camera without any justification by security forces, the latest in a series of such events. Picked up by social media, footage of the incident goes viral. In response, protests break out, in the course of which a police station is burned to the ground. Further protests erupt in major cities, the vast majority peaceful but with some violence and looting. Police reactions vary across the country, but far too many are heavy-handed, militarised and violent. The National Guard and army are called in. The nation’s highly polarising leader’s provocative statements worsen the situation. All this happens during a period of unprecedented economic distress and a major health crisis. One can only imagine what Western commentators would have said if such events had unfolded in a country in the Global South. 

An American journalist described the state of the nation after the killing of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old African-American man, by a white police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for some eight minutes, as follows:

So many things make America combustible right now: mass unemployment, a pandemic that’s laid bare murderous health and economic inequalities, teenagers with little to do, police violence, right-wingers itching for a second civil war and a president eager to pour gasoline on every fire.

For 25 years, Crisis Group’s conflict prevention and resolution mission has meant exploring the drivers of deadly conflict around the world, including failing public services and poor governance, police and paramilitary violence, economic distress and inequality, disenfranchisement, ethno-nationalist leadership, exclusionary politics and inflammatory rhetoric. Viewed through this prism, the U.S. today does not fare well. Its institutions have long been stronger than most, allowing it to absorb previous convulsions of the sort it is currently experiencing, though even those show signs of strain. 

It is not clear what will stop the violence and ensure protests remain peaceful. But, as Crisis Group pointed out in a statement issued this week, U.S. political leaders and security chiefs at a minimum have the power not to do some things that will almost certainly make the situation worse – not to call protesters “terrorists” and urge that they be “hunted down like … in the Middle East”, not to call for military intervention and demand that it “dominate” the battlespace, and not to resort to excessive, militarised force.

The instinct for forbearance and unifying leadership has been demonstrated at state and local levels, where some figures have de-escalated tensions by practicing the sort of inclusive politics that Crisis Group has advocated elsewhere: reaching out to protesters, literally marching with them in some cases and taking their grievances seriously. Emulating their example, of course, plus ensuring the police show considerably more restraint toward peaceful protesters, would only be a first step in addressing the roots of the current conflagration – but without it the U.S. could be facing a long, restive summer. 

Meanwhile, our colleague and friend Michael Kovrig has been arbitrarily detained in China for 542 days. Last week, a Canadian court ruled that prosecutors had cleared an important legal hurdle relating to the extradition to the U.S. of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese technological giant, Huawei. The ruling was not about Michael. It should have no impact on his case. But we can’t deny our worry: China from the outset has linked two cases that have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Beijing should not treat Michael as a pawn in its broader struggle with Canada and the U.S. He should be released. Now.