The West's war on itself

The hard truths of soft counterterrorism

Peter Harling, Alex Simon & Ben Schonveld

Over the past few years, the arcane concept of “preventing violent extremism”—known to insiders as “PVE”—has assumed an organising role in Western foreign policy-making, although few people outside a small circle of politicians, diplomats, academics and aid workers have ever heard of it. Countless PVE conferences and roundtables are organised, PVE reports written, and PVE projects funded—in a carrousel in equal portions mystifying and edifying regarding the current state of international affairs.

Even among specialists, rare are those who can define the concept. Rarer still are those who can articulate the distinction between PVE and its cousin, countering violent extremism (CVE); indeed, the two are often used interchangeably, or mashed up into the doubly ambiguous C/PVE. (Hereafter we will refer, for convenience and consistency, solely to PVE, except in direct quotations.) These concepts are conventionally understood as a soft complement to military counterterrorism, or CT, drawing on an expansive toolkit of civilian interventions ranging from countering extremist messaging to empowering youth and women, reducing unemployment and improving governance worldwide. To date, however, there is no tangible evidence that PVE works, and growing concerns that it may do more harm than good. This raises a fundamental question: how did Western policy-making become so engrossed in a hazy, apparently ineffective hermeneutic?

The answer to this question is of far more consequence than the fluffy jargon associated with PVE lets on. The evolution of PVE carries important lessons from—and implications for—the growing dominance of a security prism in Western public policy. The apparently benign, esoteric nature of the acronym makes it even more insidious, as PVE quietly reframes a variety of topical policy issues—such as the media, fundamental human rights, even parenting—from the perspective of counterterrorism.

The esoteric nature of the acronym makes it even more insidious

The impact of this trend is increasingly visible in the so-called “global south,” where PVE’s growth has begun to crowd out a range of civic initiatives designed to foster socioeconomic progress. The Middle East is a case in point, regarding which a European Union official remarked: “at the end of the day, the only three topics I can hope to get approval on for funding are migration, security sector reform, and violent extremism.” Similarly, a Jordan-based NGO worker recounted: “This woman from the Canadian Embassy came to our office and asked if we were doing CVE. I said we were trying to make Jordan a more inclusive and well governed society, which is probably good for reducing the appeal of radicalism… She said to call her if we started doing CVE.”

Importantly, these trends are not unfolding solely in far-flung corners of the world. Creeping securitisation abroad flows into a deepening Western bunker mentality; growing strains of nativism and xenophobia; and a gradual dismantling of precisely the standards we purport to fight for. In that mostly unconscious process, PVE is a strange but essential enabler.

That awkward moment
Liberalising the war on terror

In the Western sphere, the war on terror originally was associated with the conservative right-wing. That linkage crystallised throughout the half-decade following the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on US soil, as self-identifying liberals came to identify the war on terror with President George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq, and with a host of practices deemed antithetical to Western values, including ramped up domestic surveillance, torture euphemistically dubbed “enhanced interrogation,” extrajudicial killings and “extraordinary renditions” (that is, outsourcing the interrogation of terror suspects to cooperative authoritarian regimes).

So intense was the backlash that Americans, in 2008, turned to a presidential candidate explicitly framing himself as the liberal antithesis to Bush’s approach: Barack Obama was expected to wind down the wars and generally rein in the illiberal excesses of the preceding era. The rest of the Western sphere, which had almost universally come to decry the war on terror as undermining global stability, acclaimed a leader poised to redress that legacy.

A timeless, borderless conflict received an eight-year makeover

It is striking, therefore, that by the end of President Obama’s second term, the war on terror was alive and well. The US remained engaged in a series of shadowy wars across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, albeit with Bush’s predilection for regime change swapped out for a deepening reliance on airstrikes and killer drones. Most other Western governments either joined in or, in the case of France, took the lead in military operations of their own. To paper over their interventions’ obvious shortcomings, all chimed in around a growing rhetorical emphasis on redressing “root causes” of extremism. In sum, the fundamental contours of a timeless, borderless military conflict endured, but received an eight-year makeover salving uneasy Western consciences.

Here it bears noting that the “West” is a relatively recent, highly ideological and generally ambiguous construct. The concept revolves around a similarly loose value-system broadly qualified as “liberal,” which combines representative government, rule of law, individual liberties, private property, free commerce and regulatory states—albeit with national and partisan varieties. The liberal worldview is inherently elastic, prone to a host of discrepancies and double-standards—not least when it comes to international affairs. Liberalism has frequently been invoked, for example, to justify violence in one place while denouncing precisely the same violence elsewhere.

Obama invested in the supercharged spectre of terrorism

Despite this malleability, the notion of liberalism has nonetheless proved profoundly structuring in how “Western” countries conceive of themselves, organise internally, interact with the rest of the world, and are intellectualised by their counterparts. Indeed, these concepts underpin an expansive set of international norms consecrated by the UN, even though such norms are often implemented selectively. In other words, the liberal agenda is as influential as it is aspirational—a symbolic lynchpin in the edifice of Western identity, all the more vital given its inconsistency.

Bush-era foreign policy pushed this tension to breaking point, as the US and various allies increasingly flouted core tenets of precisely the liberal order they purported to uphold. This dynamic was all the more uncomfortable for the blatant reality that the war on terror had incurred immense financial, human and reputational costs, without approaching anything like victory.

At first, Obama—the youthful, cosmopolitan president with a message of humility and restraint—stepped in to right this wrong. He withdrew troops from Iraq, downsized the mission in Afghanistan, and scaled back—though never closed—the infamous penitentiary of Guantanamo. Yet Obama and his advisors, along with defense and intelligence careerists, invested in the lingering, politically-supercharged spectre of Jihadism, all but guaranteeing that the war on terror would endure and evolve. For the Obama administration, this meant ramping up the rhetorical emphasis on redressing underlying causes of transnational terrorism. The latter objective would be packaged, starting around 2010, into the concepts of “CVE” and “PVE,” applied to transnational Jihadism but also to white supremacist and other forms of ideological violence in the US itself.

Nevertheless, PVE might have remained an obscure technocratic acronym if not for the spectacular ascendance of the self-proclaimed Islamic State—and the latter’s August 2014 filmed decapitation of an American hostage—which forced the surge of Jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria to the center of US foreign policy. President Obama now cast himself at the helm of a grand coalition, which proceeded to bomb the enemy into submission. PVE thus found its raison-d’etre, just as the Western world relapsed into a posture of large-scale military intervention.

The more things change...

A turning point in this evolution came in February 2015, when the White House convened a three-day summit around the theme of countering violent extremism, triggered by the terrorist attack targeting Charlie Hebdo the previous month in Paris. Members, friends and allies of the Western sphere coalesced around the imperatives of better understanding the phenomenon; designing effective counter-narratives; and grounding their struggle in more active support for affected communities. The gathering kicked off a flurry of diplomatic events: by January 2016, the UN had rolled out its plan of action to prevent violent extremism, which was in turn captured in a resolution, echoed in summits, and translated into a spattering of national PVE strategies and well-endowed international funding mechanisms. A State Department official summed up this grandiose process:

“We brought in 60-70 leaders to talk about violent extremism. That generated a lot of enthusiasm from countries that offered to hold their own summits: Albania, Australia, Kazakhstan… It was the summer of summits. Then we collated everything into an Action Agenda for PVE and gave that to the UN, who came up with the Plan of Action for PVE—or the PVE PoA—agreeing that every country should work toward a National Action Plan for implementing its 71 points.”  

Given the degree of fanfare surrounding PVE, it is striking just how unoriginal the concept was. George W. Bush called throughout his tenure to redress the political and economic conditions conducive to terrorism, including through support for civil society and by pressuring authoritarian governments to reform. While Obama repudiated the regime change component of Bush’s “freedom agenda,” the fundamental logic—whereby redressing terrorism required dealing with deep-rooted problems abroad—remained largely consistent.

The director of an American NGO working on PVE thus noted: “It’s hard to say when the concept came into existence, but it basically was developed under Bush by the State Department, with the intention of creating a framework that the Pentagon could understand” for operations outside warzones. The logic underpinning PVE had indeed gained traction in the early- and mid-2000s: setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted growing awareness regarding the limits of military force, resulting in a 2006 UN counterterrorism strategy that stressed preventative measures—and which looks remarkably like a first draft of the document produced by the UN a decade later. “Nowadays,” a State department official remarked, “this 2006 strategy might be called CVE.”

Given the fanfare, it is striking how unoriginal the concept was

Meanwhile, conspicuously absent throughout PVE’s rollout was any credible attempt to narrow the concept into a coherent set of policies. A Washington-based governance expert thus analysed, in February 2017, that “what is distinctive about PVE is that, on one hand, the idea remains incredibly ill-defined and, on the other, there’s a really disproportionate amount of money going into it. Of course, those together are problematic.” Similarly, in April 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office—an official spending oversight entity—candidly assessed that “it was not able to determine if the United States is better off today than it was in 2011,” when it first introduced the preventative paradigm formally. “This is because no cohesive strategy with measurable outcomes has been established.” Globally, the same conclusion applies.

Absent demonstrable results, PVE has nonetheless served a straightforward purpose: projecting the necessary aura of “doing something,” in a manner supposedly distinct from that of the previous administration. The NGO director referenced above suggested that this factor was in play from the start of Obama’s tenure: “CVE was about Obama really wanting to draw down the military dimension of the war on terror; something just had to be done instead.” Another consultant working on PVE echoed this premise: “Every time a new administration comes in, they want innovative solutions. So you put a new coat of paint on what’s already being done.” The Islamic State’s rise only increased this imperative dramatically.

PVE, then, is first and foremost a narrative device: a tool used, largely unconsciously, to inject fresh legitimacy into a war on terror that by 2008 had fallen into disrepute. More specifically, PVE appears to dampen the queasiness felt at pursuing a course of action that quite obviously conflicts with Western liberal values, wrapping hard-edged counterterrorism in gentle language. In that sense, it renovates a long-held tradition.

Historical continuum
From pacification to PVE

Indeed, the roots of PVE and the broader war on terror date back to a centuries-old tendency among most societies—Western and non-Western alike—to forge their identities in an almost perpetual state of conflict, aiming to control resources or counter rivals. Such war footing demands a positive, legitimating narrative—an understanding that we fight to reclaim, defend, pacify, stabilise, illuminate and liberate. Rarely do eradication and predation announce themselves unabashedly. Rather, virtually all forms of conquest and colonisation hinge on the notion of an enemy to defeat and, alongside it, a population begging for deliverance.

From the perspective of PVE, a particularly relevant phase of this continuum was the evolution, through the 20th century, of counterinsurgency doctrines developed by European colonial powers and later adopted by the US. Western states seeking to pacify unruly societies increasingly merged hard and soft levers of power—applying direct military force where necessary, but preferring to outsource such dirty work to local allies while winning, to the extent possible, the subjugated population’s “hearts and minds.” The latter project combined a mixture of material incentives—notably through service provision and other governance functions—and propaganda contrasting a benevolent outside force with malignant local opponents. PVE draws heavily on the logic, strategy and tactics of such doctrines—although they never proved conclusively effective in establishing durable control over populations.

We fight to reclaim, defend, pacify, illuminate and liberate

Indeed, PVE is best understood as the conceptual offspring of counterinsurgency and another Western tradition—namely the human rights and development paradigms that flourished during the Cold War, and which marked an especially ambiguous episode in the history of great power projection. Granted, American foreign assistance through the second half of the twentieth century contributed to economic growth in parts of the world, and in places helped extend aspects of the rule of law. But this liberal order was itself shot through with contradictions: the US relied on the language of progress to demonise its enemies while papering over its own abuses and those of its allies, propping up corrupt and dysfunctional regimes that were on the right side of the US-Soviet rivalry—like Mobutu’s Congo. An American security analyst thus remarked on the degree to which Western civilian aid often serves primarily military purposes:

“The purpose of American development assistance usually is not development, but access; we fund governments so they allow us to operate in their territory. Nobody ever thought our assistance to Pakistan was anything other than a bribe.”

The heyday of the liberal agenda came in the decade following the Cold War: on the face of it, the 1990s saw fewer, less deadly conflicts, greater (albeit grudging) international harmony, and a growing web of Western-driven globalized norms. A curious side-effect of this unipolar moment was that the Western camp—lacking an existential foe to structure its engagement with the world—spawned a growing array of increasingly abstract foreign policy frameworks. The Cold War’s counterinsurgency, democratisation and peacebuilding—all of which purported to address the “root causes” of conflict—were now joined by “human security,” “the responsibility to protect,” “conflict prevention,” “transitional justice,” and so forth.

This multiplication of ever more arcane concepts derived in part from a genuine shift in the nature of conflict, from inter- to intra-state fighting: as the tug-of-war between great powers receded, crisis seemed to erupt from within societies themselves, whose internal complexities now came to the fore. Intellectual effervescence also reflected the hubris of the era: the West, certain that it had triumphed, could now develop a whole science on how to secure lasting peace and induce democratic change, captured in an archetypical 1990s neologism, “transitology.”

The war on terror brought an end to this liberal golden age, reintroducing the structuring power of armed conflict. From the perspective of Western policymakers, this return to war offered something of a reprieve: by the end of the 1990s, this litany of concepts underwriting the liberal agenda had already encountered serious reality checks. Brutal conflicts in Africa and the former Soviet republics—punctuated by genocidal violence in Rwanda and Bosnia—cast doubt on the viability of a rights-based Western order, as did the messy outcomes of well-meaning interventions in places like Somalia, not to mention the gruesome realpolitik of a devastating embargo on Iraq.

The new conflict ushered in on “9/11” was particularly well-suited to revive the dichotomy opposing good versus evil: al-Qaeda expertly cast itself as the antithesis to the American-led liberal order, calling for a borderless war against the West and all its extensions. Moreover, the protean nature of the threat offered fertile ground for Western policymakers to dig back into the toolbox of equally protean concepts that had emerged in decades prior.

In parallel, early missteps in the war on terror fueled expanding recourse to established tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. The latter came into play primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq—notably in the form of the so-called “surge” in US troops deployed in rebellious areas—but also, more subtly, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where expanding efforts at “stabilisation” sought to limit the space available to homegrown Jihadist movements. In short, the elusiveness of the West’s new enemy would demand the full spectrum of responses, civilian and military alike.

The utility of CVE and PVE was that they repackaged this all-encompassing approach into an ostensibly unified framework, while providing a civilian-centric sheen to the war on terror. This became more essential in late 2014, as the US and other Western nations embarked on a new, highly destructive round of aerial warfare in Syria and Iraq while simultaneously shutting their own borders to refugees. New concepts served the familiar purpose of framing armed conflict in morally agreeable terms.

Treading water

For all this repetition, the period since 2001 has brought remarkably little progress in deciding a coherent approach to soft counterterrorism. The present state of PVE embodies this failure, as the paradigm continues to suffer from fundamental ill-definition; lack of empirical evidence regarding what works; a disturbing willingness to persist in policies that demonstrably do not; and insidious knock-on effects, primarily at the local level in countries where PVE has become an organising factor in Western policy.

PVE’s shortcomings start with the concept’s very name. On one hand, “violent extremism”—which emerged as a technical term preferable to the politically-charged notion of “terrorism”—remains, like its predecessor, so vague as to be almost meaningless. As such, it is susceptible to a host of double standards: while the concept has indeed been applied, for example, to white nationalist groups in the US, its global application focuses overwhelmingly on Sunni Muslims. A consultant working on PVE in Asia thus noted its absence in countries grappling with Buddhist militant groups: “You do not do CVE in states that don’t have Muslims. The notion is overtly racist.”

The framework appears divorced from what might reduce extremism

Similarly illustrative is the lack of any clear delineation between the dueling acronyms CVE and PVE. A distinction exists, in principle, between programmes intended to prevent the root causes of extremism before individuals are “radicalised,” and interventions meant to counter radicalisation once it has already taken root. Far more relevant, however, appear to be the (largely arbitrary) preferences of a grant-making institution at a given time: American policymakers, for example, have primarily discussed CVE, while the UN has adopted PVE. A Washington-based governance specialist thus remarked: “I don’t know who is calling it what these days. We write grants, leave the acronym blank and then look up what a given donor uses.”

This ambiguity extends beyond nomenclature, permeating virtually all practical aspects of a framework that appears essentially divorced from meaningful evidence regarding what might reduce the drivers of extremism. While a limited—albeit growing—body of valuable empirical research has taken shape, such work largely serves to underscore how vast the knowledge gaps remain across most of the industry. A PVE expert working in Asia thus remarked:

“Increasingly, you see that not a single person can say what works. A glaring example is counter-narratives, where people will say: we don’t have any results, but we should do more of it, and here are some best practices based on our no results. Why are we continuing to push a model that has no empiricism, and that is visibly making things worse?”

Increasingly, flashy programs and technocratic jargon appear to stand in for any demonstrable impact. In one example, a multi-million EU program—called “the radicalisation awareness network center of excellence” published “key findings,” based on discussions with 53 partner organisations and translated in 21 languages, which boiled down to understanding the target audience, its channels of communication, and “finding a way to engage” with it.

Accordingly, disillusion appears widespread among policymakers and NGO workers alike. A State Department employee thus explained, in 2017, that she had gradually phased herself out of the PVE circuit: “I’ve been to so many of these events the last five years, and it’s just the same thing over and over again. I couldn’t do it anymore.” Similarly, in a large, two-day conference held in the Arab world to discuss PVE, a distinct consensus emerged around its shortcomings and liabilities, more than its relevance and promises. An American NGO director thus expressed her frustration: “Today everyone is exhausted. We see that nothing has worked, and everything is worse, and we’re not sure where to go. Should we go back to a focus on peacebuilding? Or women empowerment? This is something we are struggling with.”

Defeating the purpose

Beyond this general sense that PVE has exchanged much commotion for minimal progress, there are also indications that the framework’s expansion may be making matters worse in precisely the places where it is meant to be making them better. At one level, PVE offers a convenient smokescreen for authoritarian regimes whose behavior is, unmistakably, part of the problem: while evidence remains weak regarding drivers of extremism, it is broadly understood that bad governance—including human rights abuses, suffocating repression of the public space, corruption, economic predation, and so on—is at the heart of the issue. Against this backdrop, regressive governments have latched onto the feel-good, fuzzy logic of PVE as a cover for their most pernicious habits.

In one example, the Saudi government launched in May 2017 its Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology—a futuristic hub complete with an iconic glowing orb—while simultaneously forging ahead with a war in Yemen that is unlikely, through sweeping destruction and siege-induced famine, to mitigate “violent extremism.” Present at the grand opening was Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, whose regime has fashioned itself into a partner in the war on terror while ratcheting up domestic repression to counterproductive extents. Likewise, in late 2014, Iran hosted a conference on countering violence and extremism, while dispatching its militias to the aid of the Syrian regime, and abetting its boundless repression.

Governments have latched onto this cover for their pernicious habits

Similarly, an Asia-based expert noted the incongruity between Islamabad’s warm embrace of PVE rhetoric, on one hand, and an overall posture fostering militancy, on the other: “Pakistan’s primary foreign policy lever is the export of terrorism. So, I’m not sure how you make that logical leap.” Even the ostensibly responsive political class of a country like Lebanon, while embracing a National Strategy to Prevent Violent Extremism, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis more than a million, highly vulnerable Syrian refugees; pushed the country to the brink of a financial crisis; and quietly allowed an abusive, dilapidated and overcrowded prison sector to fester.

A second set of concerns relates to how PVE unfolds at the micro level, in the distribution of humanitarian and development assistance by local and international NGOs. In Nigeria, a senior regional donor noted that “policy focus and funds have been redirected to fighting terror in the North, allowing the many other conflicts around the country to worsen and metastasise.” As Western attention increasingly prioritises security, grassroots organisations have found themselves effectively forced to adapt their work to the trend—including by diverting resources from other thematic focal points in which they have proven experience.

This dynamic manifests starkly among both grant-makers and their partner NGOs, whose financial health often depends on alignment with international funding priorities. An NGO worker in Jordan thus noted that his organisation—whose original mission focused on civic engagement and public policy—had largely repurposed itself:

“Our leadership seems to have convinced itself about PVE, but I can guarantee you that if we didn’t have the funding constraint we wouldn’t be doing this stuff. Honestly, almost all our work has shifted in this direction, and deep down we’re frustrated with this diversion from our core mission.”

A PVE expert grumbled: “My partner recently sat with a [Western donor] to discuss an initiative involving LGBT rights in Asia, and the guy said: ‘If you put the words violent extremism in this, it will make my job a hell of a lot easier.’ That may sound like a joke, but it’s not.” A Lebanese government official echoed this theme in his public remarks at a high-profile event to launch Beirut’s PVE strategy: “PVE means absolutely nothing to me. It is a void word. But I know it brings in a lot of money, so I’m okay with it.”

A parallel and closely related shift relates to the degree to which this trend privileges actors most adept at speaking the language of donor agencies—regardless of whether they have the most relevant programming. While this tension pervades many development interventions, the unproven contours of PVE make the framework especially fertile ground for pandering to grant-makers. At a PVE roundtable in Europe, a participant thus teased donors: “If your local partner understands what PVE means, it’s probably not a good local partner. It’s just another organization that knows how to fundraise at the expense of their own agenda.”

The aid sector ends up doing the opposite of what it claims to want

Aware of this tension, the head of a well-established Syrian NGO explained that his organisation, although it mostly eschews such funding, sometimes takes on PVE-labelled projects when they fit other programmatic focal points such as psychosocial support. Even this, however, has provoked criticism from peer organisations for being willing to engage with PVE at all. In other words, PVE—as a particularly extreme example of an industry ever more saturated with ambiguous jargon—ends up doing exactly the opposite of what the aid and development sector claims to want: evidence-driven, impactful, sustainable empowerment of local players.

Some organisations that can adapt to the PVE agenda therefore harbor deep misgivings about doing so—typically because they view it as ineffective, or as a construct that serves to vilify or “securitise” the communities that they aim to help, or both. Indeed, the expansion of soft counterterrorism has meant that a given society’s access to development funding depends on the degree to which donor states regard that society as a likely source of violent extremism, rather than on traditional indicators of need. A host of other objectives have been abandoned outright, or recast as secondary priorities only to the extent that they may prevent terrorism: human rights, democratisation, good governance, the empowerment of youth and women, economic development, freedom of expression, and other core components of the decades-old liberal agenda have been conscripted into the service of the war on terror, eroding the assumption that such goals have any value in their own right, while making them more suspicious to purported beneficiaries on the ground.

This makes little sense, given that even reports funded by the PVE industry suggest that “violent extremism” often boils down to precisely such obvious, banal issues—namely repressive policies and poor governance in the “global south,” and underemployment in wealthier countries. It is remarkable, then, to note how difficult it has become to get Western governments to publicly recognise, let alone act upon, the strong empirical linkage between human rights abuse, bad governance, authoritarianism, on one side, and radicalisation, on the other. PVE almost appears as a means not to address fundamental problems, because that would rattle the status quo.

What is actually “working,” in superficial ways, are military measures, which display significantly more effectiveness—in the short-term—than any PVE counterparts. Put simply, the Islamic State was defeated, for now, through largely indiscriminate bombings, causing vast destruction of infrastructure and an untold number of civilian casualties. In the process, no serious effort was made to address any of the phenomenon’s “root causes”: governmental neglect, poor local and national representation, rampant abuse at the hands of the security services, territorial encroachment by armed factions, and so on.

What goes around comes around

A final set of concerns relates to the ways in which PVE—or, more precisely, the hyper-securitised posture it represents—has been reverberating within Western societies themselves. At a glance, there is no clear link between the carousel of frivolous PVE programs, on one hand, and the swell of nativist politics that has been breaking across the Western sphere, on the other. Both, however, are part and parcel of a radical transformation in the Western rapport with “the other,” which is increasingly conceptualised solely in terms of the potential threat it represents.

At the heart of this shift is the near-total abandonment of any positive values in Western foreign policy. While the American-led order of the 20th century was always riddled with inconsistencies, the latter tended to coexist with pockets of tangible progress associated with vaunted liberal values. The period following World War II brought the advancement of global norms on issues such as the use of chemical weapons, the right to asylum and freedom from torture. Ambiguous as it was, the push for human rights of the late 20th century paid off in places. Meanwhile, Western war-making never was clean, but it nonetheless gradually incorporated certain standards that were part aspirational, part operational. As of the 1990s, the claim to strike “surgically,” however overstated, did translate into greater attention to civilians. In other words, the schizophrenic promulgation of Western liberalism surely did much bad, but it also did some good.

Even the pretense of moral standards eludes Western foreign policy

Today, it is difficult to pin down even the healthy pretense of moral standards in Western foreign policy. Barack Obama, his motto of restraint notwithstanding, presided over not only the vast expansion of borderless warfare via killer drones, but also the redeployment of all-out aerial campaigns that have destroyed entire cities in Syria and Iraq. In the meantime, America and its allies have lied shamelessly about civilian casualties, thus denying victims even meager compensation; slammed shut their borders to refugees, and been complicit in the latter’s forced return to warzones; and broadcast almost satirically poisonous, jingoistic narratives regarding the “enemy.” In other words, Western societies have not only ceased to exert meaningful pressure on abusive regimes abroad—they have also, increasingly, emulated some of these regimes’ worst practices.

PVE is both the representation and rationalisation of this downward trend. On one hand, it drafts a diverse array of civilian foreign policy tools into the service of the war on terror. On the other, PVE’s convolution and halo of liberal moralism help obscure an uncomfortable reality: Western foreign policy has been reduced to an incoherent, almost hysterical effort to protect our borders from a threat that we fail to adequately define.

That threat, as such, is viewed as extending across vast constituencies abroad and at home, creating an atmosphere eerily reminiscent of McCarthyism—albeit with dense layers of ethnic and religious prejudice folded in. This ethos, inevitably, bleeds into Western societies and political systems, fueling the re-emergence of radical and often violent hate-groups and parties who push public discourse to ever more intolerant lows. The problem with PVE, therefore, lies in its all-encompassing, highly militarised and vaguely paranoiac underpinnings, whose effects are visible on the home front, in the form of ever-expanding domestic surveillance (particularly against minority communities), security-driven legislation, the degrading treatment of asylum seekers and the rise of various forms of xenophobia. Such trends, supported by an overtly racist section of the media, have been astonishingly disruptive: just as nativist impulses and anti-immigrant sentiment are tugging at the seams of the European Union, the rise of Donald Trump—and the white nationalist zeitgeist to which he gives vent—is tearing at the moral fabric of American society.

This dynamic, it bears repeating, did not emerge suddenly, in a vacuum, but rather evolved and crystallised over the past decade and a half. In a telling admission, two key Obama administration officials, shortly upon leaving office, penned an op-ed suggesting that an excessive focus on counterterrorism policies—which they helped design and implement—may have shaped the emotional climate for Trump’s victory. By the same token, the current trajectory of Western societies all but guarantees that we will continue to lurch toward new levels of insularity and securitisation, both at home and abroad.

When all else fails
Trust common sense

The seeming inevitability of this drift—and thus the enduring relevance of PVE, or something like it—creates incentives for those involved. Many have ridden the wave, capitalising on the pool of funds available for soft-counterterror projects. Others have distanced themselves from what they view as a particularly odious and incoherent fad. In between these two extremes sits a more ambiguous camp, comprised of policymakers and practitioners who reluctantly accept that PVE is here to stay, and must therefore be negotiated to maximise benefits and rein in worst practices.

For those struggling to push PVE in more constructive directions, the starting point must be a return to common sense. This would demand, above all, a more modest and contextual approach, which refrains from conjuring new vocabulary and instead focuses on existing means to respond to well-identified factors of violence. The provision of basic services, protection from injustice, opportunities for social mobility, some measure of political representation—all of these needs are as urgent and self-evident as they are neglected, in virtually every country where PVE has become a structuring force.

This back-to-basics logic would revolve around a set of relatively straightforward questions: In what ways does bad governance contribute to radicalisation? What, exactly, do various forms of militancy tell us about the failings of a particular state? What realistic measures could redress those failings, even partially, and thus reduce the potential for radicalisation? Why are security and military measures insufficient in redressing root causes, and how, specifically, might civilian tools fill in the gaps? Put simply, there is a stark need for research driven by honest, introspective analysis rather than a retroactive need to justify funding and policy decisions. Such research has indeed begun to emerge—spearheaded by a few forward-thinking players such as Mercy Corps and International Alert—but for now remains the exception that proves the rule.

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Needless to say, this shift is far easier said than done. PVE—like the war on terror more broadly—is propelled onward by powerful undercurrents, including sheer bureaucratic inertia; vested financial interests in an ever more expansive industry; the reluctance of all states to discuss their own role in driving terrorism; and—perhaps most importantly—the enduring hegemony of terrorism in Western political consciousness. The forcefulness of this trajectory, however, is all the more reason to find ways of pushing back against PVE’s most disruptive aspects while zeroing in on what positive progress can be salvaged from this grim landscape. In the meantime, the most important question of all may not be whether the West is winning or losing in its fight against terrorism, but how much of itself it is forfeiting in the process.

5 February 2018

Peter Harling is director of Synaps. Alex Simon is Synaps’ Syria program director. Ben Schonveld is a freelance consultant.

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