There was probably no need for Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, to welcome an “old friend and supporter” of the foundation by mentioning the magnitude of the current geopolitical crises, for us to understand what John Kerry’s speech would have been focused on. Almost everybody at the small Swiss town was expecting the US Secretary of State to raise his voice about “the foremost issue we have to confront”, as Professor Schwab stated.
“I am here today to talk about countering violent extremism”, Mr. Kerry stated at the very beginning of his speech, while commemorating the suddenly-perished King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. With those words he unveiled his plans to the audience in Davos Congress Centre. “It is a moment of turmoil, a moment of upheaval – the world in transition”, he said. “I, nevertheless, remain very optimistic about the possibilities”, he also said, with pure American passion, “and I’ll share a few thoughts about that today”.
Understand “what we’re facing”
Secretary of State John Kerry soon tried to catch the audience’s attention on the main topic: the IS, or “Daesh”, as Mr. Kerry and other leaders now use to call the self-appointed Islamic State. The naming is definitely not fortuitous, and deserves some attention. The choice of using the acronym of “al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham” comes from a precise will of using a name the IS itself doesn’t like, and for the attempt of drawing a sharp line between the group and Islam.
A few months ago, France‘s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that ISIS was a bit of a “misnomer”, because it was lending “the imprimatur of Islam to a group that the vast majority of Muslims finds despicable”. Mr Kerry’s choice of using this new title says a lot about the US Secretary of State’s strong attempt to tell the world that the West knows that terrorists are not speaking in the Muslim people’s name.
A matter of choices
In order to tell the world who lies under the name “Daesh”, Mr Kerry mentioned the horrible stories of numerous children forced to serve as human bombs in Nigeria, Iraq and Pakistan, and refused to blow themselves up. Those horrendous, disgusting stories have been covered extensively by the main Western media outlets in the past weeks, but John Kerry wanted to proceed with his treatise taking them as an example of choice.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, those […] examples represent just about the basic – most basic choice there is: between death and life, between destroying and building”, he said. An example to also present the choices the whole West could make, perhaps, and the actions that could be taken, as we will see. That was the main point of Mr. Kerry at the World Economic Forum.
Mr. Kerry soon enriched his speech with explicit elements, definitely not using details sparingly, to drag the audience’s attention to the point. Women killed with stones, little girls sold into slavery, children forced to witness in the torture of prisoners are other more horrific case. Mr. Kerry used to described this “form of criminal anarchy, a nihilism which illegitimately claims an ideological and religious foundation” the world is witnessing, and most of all should not be confused with religious acts.
No grounds of religion
“Religions don’t require adherence to raze villages and blow up people. It’s individuals with a distorted and an even ignorant interpretation of religion who do that”, US Secretary of State firmly stressed. The risk of fuelling religious turmoil – as it happened in the early 2000s, right after 9/11 terror attacks – and sewing anti-Islamism is clear and present, and Mr. Kerry knows it. “The biggest error that we could make would be to blame Muslims collectively for crimes not committed by Muslims alone – crimes that the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose”, he said.
The main risk for the West now can be that any future move might be used by its opponents as an act against the whole Islam, and to bring the world to the edge of a global conflict. John Kerry’s speech is focused on this main question, and this is evident, as clear it is that taking measures is exactly what the Secretary of State was asking for.
“This kind of atrocity can really never be rationalized; these kinds of actions can never be excused. They have to be stopped”, the American politician told the audience in Davos, last Friday. “We can’t shy away from this reality that terror networks in some places are operating with near impunity, and imminent danger in others, and a potential threat everywhere”, he maintained.
The underlying causes
“So what should we do?”, Mr Kerry asked the audience of the main congress hall in Davos. This was the question the Secretary of State used in order to get to the core of his speech. Kerry’s analysis became even clearer and – I would say – critical.
“Eliminating the terrorists who confront us today actually only solves part of the problem. We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism, a resupplying on a constant basis. We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge”, he said. This is, I believe, a crucial point for the actions needed to be taken in the future, an analysis that could sound as a response to the numerous nationalist parties in Europe, which claimed that suspending the visa-free Schengen Area or thickening borders would be the best response now.
It’s the “underlying causes” which have to be studied and then fought, as John Kerry said during his speech, the ones the West should “respond effectively” to.
Although Mr. Kerry openly mentioned the military side of the response to the terrorist menace, he proceeded with proposals that concern the “social” side of the question, and the reasons on the basis of the terrorist groups’ origin which are related to decline and neglect. “Now inevitably there will be, yes, a military component to the strategy. […] But ultimately, this fight is not going to be decided on the battlefield”.
The outcome is going to be determined in classrooms, work places, houses of worship, community centres, urban street corners, in the perceptions and the thoughts of individuals, and the ways in which those perceptions are created”, the American official underlined. “In short, we have to do a better job of creating alternatives to violent extremism”.
Frustration vs. opportunity
In substance, the US Secretary of State was in Davos to ask the world for more. Especially to ask the existing US partners and allies to do more to fight against terror groups – yes, with military actions, but not only. His analysis was not merely practical. He covered with acute sense of observation of this very moment in history many other aspects that are peculiar to understand the future risks for the West, Europe, and the world itself.
He then mentioned one of the biggest plagues in Europe too, an immense threat for the European Union’s development itself: youth unemployment. “In some countries – and I hate to say this, but including in Europe – as many as 60 percent of young people are both out of school and without regular jobs. Each one of these men and women, my friends, is a story that will end either in frustration or opportunity”, he said. Truth is, any vacuum left by institutions represents an opportunity for any terrorist group to find new followers, to gain more power. That’s the risk in our cities’ poorer areas, in Paris’ banlieues, in Rome’s suburbs, in London’s outer districts.
Finding the money
Mr. Kerry’s speech turned more practical towards the end. “We need to put resources into helping to build the enterprises that can counter these extremists. And using many of the same mechanisms that we use to deal now with global challenges like disease and famine, Ebola, AIDS, poverty”, he outlined. And in order to prevent any question regarding where to find this money in a historic moment in which it seems very hard, John Kerry provided a clear – although quite personal – explanation: “Historically, when we have believed we need to do something, we found the money. We did it. We found the resolve”. “We made things happen”, Mr. Kerry said.
The US secretary of State also cited one of the major economic moves in the EU recently as a proof of the feasibility of gathering funds for important reasons. “Just yesterday, the European Central Bank announced they have plans to purchase more than a trillion dollars’ worth of public and private sector bonds as stimulus. They perceived a clear need to combat inflation and stagnation, and so they found the money”.
Now, I believe that the ECB launching a trillion-euro bond-buying programme in a bid to ward off deflation and boost the Eurozone economy is slightly different thing than governments putting resources to organise common actions; they are simply not comparable, but John Kerry’s message was clear: fighting violent extremism is a priority. “Let’s prove it”, Mr. Kerry said. “If we don’t make those investments today, we will pay far more for it down the road”
The US Secretary of State concluded his passionate speech with a positive message. “ I see nations working together to negotiate new and far-reaching trade pacts, to bring an end to the Ebola epidemic; to seek a peaceful resolution to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program; to restore peace based on law in Ukraine and having come together around sanctions and held together and made a difference”, he posited.
He did want to leave the stage without an affirmation of faith in the Western world’s possibilities and will of contrasting the new issues and crises, the ones Professor Schwab referred to before. “We have faced even more significant threats in the past – and we have prevailed”, Mr. Kerry said, before concluding. “We are where we are because we […] are builders. We’re the descendants of innovators and doers who survived slavery, plagues, global conflicts, depressions, fascism, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. So now, it’s our turn.”
It remains to be seen with much interest how Mr Kerry’s commitments in Davos will be monitored in real time international relations strategies in the months to come.
Stay tuned at the European Sting, the only Brussels media that effectively broke the “Brussels bubble” and made it to Davos with live critical coverage of the most important sessions of the World Economic Forum 2015.
You can view his full speech from Davos here: