PCAST Report on Preventing Deadly Conflict

Executive Office of the President

President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology
Washington, D.C. 20500

November 22, 1996

President William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

During the course of the past four years, your Administration has responded effectively to difficult post-Cold War foreign policy challenges which have included outbreaks of violence, expulsion, and slaughter on a massive scale targeted against specific populations. These have been situations in which the hatreds and fears of groups are exploited in violent ways by political opportunists, and circumstances in which the potential for uncontrolled possession of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons menaces the lives of millions. We commend you and the Vice President on the global leadership you have provided on behalf of the American people in responding cons tructively to such dangerous situations.

Millions of children born since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been victims of scores of conflicts around the world. About one million Rwandans died at the hands of their neighbors before the horror ended -- and the former Yugoslavia slogged through almost four years of mass violence and destruction. Can such events be prevented? Why, in some circumstances of marked instability, does mass violence not erupt? Why did the transition from Communist rule for most former Soviet and Eastern European states happen in relative peace? Why did the transition to post-Apartheid South Africa not degenerate into massive violence?

The world is now, as it has been for a long time, awash in a sea of ethnocentrism, prejudice, and violent conflict. Such behavior is an ancient part of the human legacy, but what is new and very threatening is the destructive power of our weaponry and the worldwide spread of technical capability. It is possible almost everywhere to make or at least to use effectively the weapons of high technology. Other current dangerous developments include: the miniaturization of weapons conducive to terrorist use; technology that readily permits widely broadcast justifications for violence; and an upsurge of fanatical behavior. So the next century is likely to become exceedingly dangerous.

Your Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) believes that prevention of deadly conflict must become a high and consistent priority for American policy, not only foreign and defense policy, but science and technology policy as well. As fortunate citizens of the country with the most powerful science and technology capabilities, PCAST has an obligation to consider ways to employ these capabilities to meet the growing challenges to global peace.

PCAST believes the time is ripe for science policy to stimulate a more broad and intense effort to understand the nature and sources of human conflict and to develop effective ways of resolving conflict short of disaster. The deeply international and highly cooperative scientific community is the closest approximation we now have to a truly global community; it could provide a model for transcending the biases and dogmatism that have torn the species apart throughout human history. What is required is a shift in thinking akin to the change of emphasis in medicine from emergency rooms and intensive care units to preventive primary care and public health.

A recently completed PCAST study, Preventing Deadly Conflict: What Can the Scientific Community Do?, draws several fundamental conclusions:

  • scientific research can clarify causes of deadly conflict at the individual, group, and international levels;
  • research and development can sharpen the concepts and techniques of conflict resolution and violence prevention;
  • such research can help diminish the development of prejudice and ethnocentrism during childhood and adolescence; and
  • international cooperation among scientists can play a valuable role in contributing to the prevention of deadly conflict.

PCAST recommends that the Administration support enhanced activity in each area.

The scientific community first and foremost provides understanding, insight, and stimulating ways of viewing important problems and can do so with regard to deadly conflict. Through their institutions and organizations, scientists and educators can strengthen research and education in a variety of areas: for example, the biology and psychology of aggressive behavior; intergroup relations; prejudice and ethnocentrism; conditions fostering cooperative behavior and tolerant pluralism; the origins of wars and conditions under which they end; the relation of socio-technical change, environmental conditions, and resource scarcity to emerging conflicts; mutual accommodation and conflict resolution. They can also explore the application of such knowledge to urgent problems in contemporary society at various levels of organization, such as families, communities, and nations.

During the decades of the Cold War, scientists, scholars, and expert practitioners came together to clarify many facets of avoiding nuclear war. This experience shows that there is a useful role for the scientific and scholarly community in international conflict resolution -- often acting through non-governmental organizations yet maintaining open lines of communication with governments. There are a few distinctive advantages to drawing upon this community: 1) accurate information, sound principles, and well-documented techniques; 2) flexible actions to explore novel or neglected paths toward conflict resolution; and 3) relationships among well informed people who can make a difference in attitudes and in problem-solving across adversarial boundaries. There are several efforts already underway in the United States which need encouragement and continued support from the Administration. Examples are:

  • The National Science Foundation. The NSF had an initiative on democratization involving research on the transformation of formerly authoritarian systems toward democratic institutions and processes. A second initiative is on the causes and consequences of violence, with funding from Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish a National Consortium for the Study of Violence.
  • The National Academy of Sciences. The National Research Council has undertaken a major Study on Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution in international Relations, drawing together the world's experience in recent research and assessing the potential utility of this work for contemporary conflicts.
  • National Institutes of Health. NIH recently concluded in its portfolio assessment that it needs to play a leading role in violence-related health research and must allocate more of its total budget to this kind of research. NIH recently requested applications for research on domestic violence.
  • Centers For Disease Control. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) is paying close attention to violence occurring within the family, particularly violence against women. This attention affects both its research and public health functions. 
  • The US intelligence and defense communities. They are engaged in research related to conflict, with the intelligence agencies focusing more on understanding the factors contributing to conflict, and the Department of Defense focusing more on conflict prevention and resolution. The existing portfolio of government-supported research is weighted toward domestic violence for cogent reasons; yet more attention is needed to worldwide inter-group and international conflict, since much of it will affect us in the next century. By the same token, our government can usefully enhance its efforts to foster international scientific cooperation for preventing deadly conflict.

The members of PCAST believe it is now vital to enlarge public understanding and government policy regarding the needs and opportunities for preventing deadly conflicts, including science and technology investments in prevention of conflict both at home and abroad. This will require, in the years ahead, a reorientation of many government activities and non-governmental organizations, with the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) serving in a government coordinating role.

Presidential leadership can be uniquely significant in alerting the nation and the world to the mission of prevention. Important steps in this direction have recently been taken by Secretaries Perry and Christopher, so the time is right for your worldwide leadership on this critical issue. For example, an interest in preventing violent conflict could be stimulated by a biennial PCAST/NSTC Conference involving Presidential and Vice Presidential leadership. The role of the scientific community could be the stimulus for these conferences, with other sectors such as business, religions, or the media to be included as appropriate.

We hope these observations on this vitally important problem are useful. We are prepared to pursue the matter in any way that would be helpful to your Administration and the country.