They operate like journalists on the scene, outdoing think tank pundits by delivering crucial analysis in real time from Kabul or Kiev. They are not diplomats, politicians or spies, but they have carved out a position of global authority for themselves.
They are the specialists and advocates of the International Crisis Group, a unique nongovernmental organization. The group, based in Brussels, was founded in part to avert a repeat of the tragic bloodshed that unfolded in the Balkans during international dithering over the conflict in the early 1990s.
Now in its 10th year, the ICG has grown from 20 employees to 110 staff members from 40 countries. The group sends field officers to areas of potential and actual conflict, and it provides officials and opinion-makers with the prognosis for world crises before they erupt, along with precise recommendations for how to avoid them.
Its experts get face time with big players in the White House and the State Department, as well as in other international corridors of power.
Gareth Evans , the former Australian foreign minister who became president of the ICG in 2000, said in an interview last week that initiatives undertaken by his team have had an impact on reducing casualties in some of the world’s strife-torn regions.
In the 1990s, he said, an average of 200,000 people a year died in violent conflicts, but the number has dropped to 20,000.
“That did not just happen,” Evans said. “There has been more resolution of civil conflicts by negotiations in the last 15 years than in the last 200 centuries.” After the “terrible failures” of Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, he said, there was “much more consciousness about the need for prevention, negotiation and peacemaking.”
The ICG, however, is a “whatever-it-takes operation,” he said. “If military action is needed, we are not on the wimpish end of the NGO spectrum.”
The idea for the organization germinated during a conversation in 1993, on a flight out of Sarajevo, between Morton Abramowitz , then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Mark Malloch Brown , then a governmental consultant and now chief of staff for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan .
Since then, the IGC executive committee has spanned the globe, including former presidents such as Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico; policymakers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski , a former U.S. national security adviser; and cabinet members such as George Robertson , the former British defense secretary and secretary general of NATO.
Colin L. Powell , the former secretary of state, had high praise for the ICG in 2003, when he said it had “an expert presence and staying power in places that make headlines, as well as in places which tend to get crowded out of them. ICG tells power what it thinks” he said. It is “an organization that matters.”
Surprising Dutch Bluntness
There was something amusingly refreshing about the free-tongued bluntness of the Netherlands’ foreign trade minister, Karien Van Gennip , in a city where euphemism and diplomacy rule.
Van Gennip, a striking brunette, stole the show Friday at a dinner and preview of the Dutch Royal Silver exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In remarks to the gathering, she said she had fallen in love with “the American spirit, the can-do mentality, the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail,” when she lived in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1990s.
“Perhaps I should change my citizenship and try to succeed Governor Arnold,” she joked, referring, of course, to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. “If an Austrian weightlifter can do it, why not a Dutch engineer?”
Guests were forewarned when Dutch Ambassador Boudewijn Johannes van Eenennaam introduced Van Gennip by saying, “She might be a representative of the Dutch government, but I can assure you that she is not a diplomat.”
To make sure no one thought an exhibit celebrating the silver jubilee of Queen Beatrix was a snooty occasion, Van Gennip kept guests entertained with droll and candid observations. When preparing her speech, she said, she thought she should talk about the Netherlands being the first country to recognize the U.S. flag.
She also thought of mentioning “that we smuggled arms to the U.S. revolutionaries and lent lots of cash to the first and second Congresses. But then I thought, why bother telling them things they already know?”
She may have gone a bit too far when she opined that Thomas Jefferson did not need to “reinvent the wheel” when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. “He simply borrowed ideas from ‘our’ William of Orange’s similar declaration against the Spanish Crown in 1586,” she asserted.
Finally, Van Gennip delivered a few zingers to European and American politicians who declare they are committed to free trade but then heap conditions on it. “I’ll leave it up to you to judge where the free-trade truth ends and the hypocrisy begins,” she said.