An insider’s view of government: a conversation with Ari Ratner

On September 4, 2015, Gwenn Laine and Arie Kuipers interviewed PS21 board member and founder of Inside Revolution Ari Ratner about his time in the US government. Watch the video to find out more.

I think the biggest thing I learned in government is what we call the powerlessness of power… When you work in government you fairly quickly discover that often the emperor has no clothes, and even more scary, sometimes you are the emperor and you have no clothes.

A Conversation with Hussain Haqqani, Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US

Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015
Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015


On Thursday, March 5, 2015, PS21 executive director Peter Apps interviewed former Pakistani ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani.

Mr. Haqqani served as ambassador to Washington between 2008-2011. He is now a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

A full transcript will be published shortly. A complete audio of the discussion is published below and on YouTube along with a shorter interview.

Here are some of the key takeaways and quotes:

Pakistan and the United States have long struggled to understand each other’s narratives and motivations, he said, leading frequently to mutual disappointment.

While Washington has long hoped Pakistan would become a reliable ally both in and outside the region in its fight with first communism then militant Islam, Pakistan has always been more focused on India.

While the US has wanted Pakistan to focus on defeating the Taliban and associated groups, elements of the Pakistani authorities have always seen the Pakistani Taliban and Pashtun elements in Pakistan as vital to stopping India getting a foothold in the country.

“I don’t think the US and Pakistan narratives are going to be resolved any time soon,” he said. “The Americans see Pakistan as a country that has not always followed its promises.”

The rise of China has further complicated the dynamic. Pakistan, he said, saw China as a potentially fruitful ally while Beijing also saw Pakistan as a way of tying down India.

The fact Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was able to find so long in Pakistan before his killing by US forces in 2011 had done lasting damage to the relationship, he said.

“The US likes to divide the world into people they can form and people they can take a there is always a Pakistani that they can take to lunch,” he said. “But the world is rather more complex than that. I don’t think the US has ever really understood the domestic constraints in Pakistan.”


DC Event: Arab Spring@4: What Next? Key Takeaways/Media


On Thursday, February 25, 2015, PS21 held a discussion with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy on the Arab Spring@4: What Next? In Washington DC.

Chair: Sidney Olinyk, former Pentagon chief of staff for Middle East policy. Member of the PS21 international advisory group.

Ari Ratner: former State Department political appointees. Fellow, New America

Nancy Okail: Egyptian activist, executive director for the Tahrir Centre for Middle East policy

Leigh O’Neill: policy director, Truman National Security Project

The full transcript of the event can be had found here: PS21 Arab Spring Event Transcript Full audio can be found here.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Western governments and the US in particular were seen as being continuously behind the ball when it came to tackling the chaos that followed the revolutions of 2011. On the ground, frustrations continued to rise particularly with the reassertion of military rule in Egypt. Four years on, there is widespread pessimism including about the ability of foreign policymakers to tackle similar situations in the future.

“As anyone who has worked in government knows, it’s very difficult to keep up with our own internal systems, let alone the internal dynamics of a foreign country… undergoing revolution,” said Ratner.

The immediate revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had several effects, he said. Firstly, the price of oil rose sharply, helping those energy producing regimes and seriously undermining the remainder. Across the region, America’s allies looked at the abandonment of Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak and immediately worried about the credibility of America’s support for them.

The West’s ability to respond was seriously curtailed by the global financial crisis, he said, coupled with other subordinate crises such as the Japanese earthquake and the Eurozone crisis.

It was, several speakers cautioned, too soon to tell who the real winners and losers would be.

“What is happening is a battle of narratives,” said Nancy Okail. “The more powerful group is the one that sets the narrative. The victor is the one who writes history at the end of the day.”

Authoritarian regimes such as the new rulers in it you, she said, had been relatively ineffective at taking back the narrative, reframing themselves as the bulwark against chaos. The activist and pro-democracy groups, meanwhile, had in many cases fractured and lost the initiative.

Okail found herself on the receiving end of what she called a “huge smear campaign” after she returned to Egypt to push for political reform. Western-funded and backed NGOs in particular were targeted, she was arrested and put on trial.

“I see the case of the NGOs as a microcosm of everything that happens in the country,” she said. “The lack of rule of law… they had control of the media and because of that we were portrayed as enemies of the state and spies. (They) claimed that we were trying to implement this huge Zionist plan to divide Egypt.

Leigh O’Neill pointed in particular to the sample to as one nation which stood out in particular for its stability. She attributed this partly to the Jordanian government strategy of “regional relativism”, making sure the population knew how bad things were elsewhere.

“Jordanians are fed a steady diet and have embraced regional relativism,” she said. “They look around and they see things are not so great (elsewhere). That is something that the government and the people of Jordan have in common.”

Still, she said many of the problems that helped push Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia were also true in Jordan.

“What does it take to like yourself on fire because you are subject to this relationship with a state?” O’Neill asked. “That’s an important story to tell and remember particularly when we unpack… and talk more honestly about what authoritarianism is and whether it’s “benign” or not so benign.”

Okail in particular warned against too positive and interpretation of events in Tunisia, widely regarded as one of the few success stories

“I worry so much when people over romanticised Tunisia,” she said. “It’s definitely in the best scenario in the region.(Tunisia has the largest number of recruits in ISIS and that tells you something.”

Ari Ratner said overall he remained broadly optimistic that Islamic State itself could be militarily defeated or weakened. Dealing with the underlying problems of the region, however, was more difficult.

“I have pretty strong faith that is something that is achievable,” he said. The military… are pretty effective at killing people, killing terrorists and fighting insurgencies. We will muddle our way through, and Isis will be defeated… This is just my own suspicion (but) ISIS is not the predominant story in the region.”

“The much bigger question is how you address the underlying conditions at which something like ISIS emerges,. There is no easy answer to this, in my mind.”

Many of the underlying causes of both the Arab Spring and ISIS were identified in May 2002 UN report on the region, he said: shortcomings of freedom, lack of rights, education, access to science. Few of those problems have been solved.

The simple truth, Okail said, was that in Egypt and elsewhere the youthful activists and women in particular found themselves largely sidelined in the aftermath of the revolution.

Many of those risks were also present elsewhere, Ratner said.

“It’s a very unstable world. Everywhere, to some extent, is a pool of gasoline.”

Okail said governments were often particularly ill suited to dealing with such dangers.

“Most policymakers look at the immediate situation,” said Okail. “They want to solve what is going on now without a long-term vision or strategy for what happens next. They need an actionable plan: something to do right now showcase for the media and the taxpayer. And they are very quick in identifying all recognising victory and defeat.”

Small victories, however, she said, were possible.

“Opportunities go back to the battle of narratives,” she said. “These regimes care so much about the image we can use this as an opportunity… right before a UN meeting, they might release prisoners. These are small windows of opportunity that we can keep pushing.”

For US policymakers, Ratner said the region offered little bit difficult decisions. On Saudi Arabia, for example, it was unclear whether the US pulling back nominations would make things better or worse.

“The world is always hypocritical — it’s the nature of the beast,” he said, pointing to the multiplicity of interests within the US government “people compare the US government to an aircraft carrier but it’s more like a carrier battle group because there are lots of ships in formation and if you change course only a bit that can mean a big thing.

As to the bigger picture, it was still too soon to tell what the last four years really meant, he said.

“I think it was Chou En-Lai that was asked how he viewed the French Revolution and he said it was too soon to tell,” said Ratner. “That was 200 years afterwards… but it’s certainly been a traumatic period.”

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London Discussion on Mideast Social Media: Key takeaways/media

10927527_1404460253192052_5967679135493759985_oOn Tuesday, February 17, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion with Gulf-based blogger and member of the PS21 international advisory group Sultan al-Qassemi. He discussed the changing nature of social media in the middle east over the last decade.

The discussion was attended by a selection of activists, academics, regional experts and others. It was on the record and you can hear a recording of it at this link.

A full transcript can be found here: transcript – Sultan al Qassemi

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion from PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

“Social media has evolved…… from being a tool for activists and secular forces to being used by extremists such as ISIS,” said Sultan. “The social media companies are adapting and are beginning to block some of these users so that may change. Governments have also adapted… it’s a very different environment.”

Across the region, Sultan said that the morale of activists and more liberal forces had been heavily dented in the four years since the “Arab Spring”. In countries across the region, governments had clamped down seriously on activists, many of whom are now largely withdrawn from public facing platforms like Twitter into closed Facebook groups and other more secretive platforms.

While the old Al Qaeda franchises struggled to adapt to social media, the Islamic State had been much more effective, using it as a major platform to promote its ideology and activities.

In general, the last four years in particular have seen a fracturing of the Mideast media scene. The one-time dominance of a relatively small number of satellite channels such as Al Jazeera has been somewhat undermined. There are now more voices on a wider variety of platforms. One of the fastest growing in popularity is the Arabic language Russia Today, which trades heavily on conspiracy-type stories and criticisms of Western foreign policy.

While regional governments have adapted in the sense of being able to clamp down on social media dissent, Western governments have not. The various attempts by the United States to combat the Islamic State on twitter have been little seen and gained little traction. The exception is the media outreach from arts of the Israeli government, the military in particular.

“They are criticised and mocked that they are in the conversation,” said Sultan.

Other attendees saw some similarities to what had occurred in western activism in recent years — again, primarily since the Occupy and other movements. What had once been large, popular movements have become much more inward looking, self-critical and much less confident. 

Several participants expressed concerns that the increasingly fractured nature of the debate made peace building and traditional negotiations ever harder.

The situation varied somewhat from country to country. Tunisia, Sultan said, was probably now the second most liberal country in the Middle East for media after Lebanon. Egypt, in contrast, was much less liberal as were most of the Gulf states. In Iran as elsewhere, government had moved much more into the social media space and was using it aggressively as a propaganda tool.

“Every government in the region except Lebanon has jailed online activists,” said Sultan.

It was not an exclusively negative picture, however. Some new online platforms were making progress, at least in documenting events. Elliot Higgins, the UK blogger dubbed “Brown Moses” was very successful in exposing weapons deliveries and shipments in Syria. A new online newspaper in Yemen, Sultan said, offered some hope of giving greater clarity to that conflict.

The discussion was well received by all those attending.

“The focus was the topic of the discussion as much as the speaker which makes it more interesting,” said Sultan. “I’ve been with PS21 since the beginning and it’s good to see it finally taking flight.”



DC Revolutions Event: Key Takeaways / Video


On Monday, February 9, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers.

Location: Thomson Reuters, Washington DC


Srdja Popovic: Serb activist and politician, founder CANVAS, author of Blueprint for Revolution. PS21 global fellow.

Jack Goldstone (chair): professor of public policy, George Mason University currently on attachment to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. Author, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Member of the international advisory group, PS21.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. For the full transcript click here.

“If you look through the history of these uprisings it’s always the outsiders,” Popovic said. “The power of outsiders in modern political life, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, is growing.”

Technology, particularly social media, has made organising protests and resistance in many ways easier. Popovic’s book and organisation — the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aims to share them around the world.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organise a rally, you need it posters, leaflets, radio commercials, knocking on doors and a large organisation,” said Popovic, one of the leaders of the largely peaceful revolution that toppled Serb president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. “Now I can make a Facebook group and everyone will know.”

“(There is) the phenomenon you call citizen journalism. Even in the most off-line places like Yemen, you can see people demonstrating and they are videotaping it on their cameras. So you can make sure that any type of state/police brutality can be seen by the world.”

“The last and most important events is that new media brings the power of horizontal learning… there was a girl who made a viral video called “what’s wrong with Venezuelan in a nutshell”… now somebody sees it in Ukraine. The way we can learn from this… is something we are really exploring now.”

But, he said, such technologies also bring with risk. Campaigns — such as the Kony 2012 effort to encourage US and its allies to track down the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army — can bloom quickly but also lose traction.

“Every coin has two sides. I’m thrilled about making things fast and cheap but I would say “clicktivism” is a real problem… The fact that you are “lighting” the page to save the polar bears does not necessarily mean that you have saved the polar bears.”

Social media can also be used as a tool for regimes to trace and control dissidents.

“The first thing any government will do is track your Facebook password so now it can be used to know your friends into a trap.”

Up to 2010, nonviolent revolution had a higher success rate in changing regimes and leading to democracy than violent movements. The 2011 revolts over the “Arab Spring” appeared to illustrate something similar. But in recent years there has been considerable push back. The Green Movement in Iran failed in 2007. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters failed to retain momentum.

“In Bahrain, you probably have a larger proportion of the population than anywhere else in history,” said Goldstone. “Over 10% of the population seems to have been involved on the eighth day of the movements and yet that was suppressed… does the format have to be revamped?”

Autocratic regimes, Popovic said, were adapting fast. He cited Philip Dobson’s DATE book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve”.

“The first thing they learn is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist. There are more NGOs shut down in oppressive places of the world for not following fire regulations are supposed to be anti-government.”

“Secondly, it’s a propaganda war,” he said, pointing to increased efforts to discredit activist organisations by alleging they are tied to western intelligence agencies, etc.

Maintaining discipline and organisation, Popovic said, was key.

“We think it can start small. And small means small, tangible victories. Things like graffiti, recruiting 10 people, street theatre… They show your commitment, they showed presence. And they teach your people how to do stuff.”

“One single Molotov cocktail will completely destroy the reputation of them. Plus it will give fuel to your enemy to respond very actively and nastily.”

Humour was also a powerful weapon, he said. He cited the example of a 2012 protest in a Siberian town against election fraud that saw protesters put out hundreds of small Lego characters waving signs saying things like “106% for Putin”. The authorities ordered it banned.

“It was effective because someone is putting the opponent in a losing situation,” he said. “If they let the toys protest, everyone will see (it) but if you ban it, you are afraid of toys… humour breaks fear.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, in 2011 in particular took to the streets and governments quailed. By 2014, however, many of those movements have faltered. “A good year for bad people,” Goldstone said, pointing to events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. Popovic called it “the year of bad hangovers”

“There are many different reasons why movements fail,” said Popovic.

“If you play video games, you understand that they are made of levels. When Mubarak is down you don’t claim “game over”. You know that more nasty people are coming in a nastier spaceship that they will throw more bombs at you.”

“The second thing is losing unity too early… Part of the reason Syria failed is that the Sunnis could bring the Christians onto their site to oppose Assad. Look at Ukraine. Great victory in the Orange Revolution and then (opposition leaders) Tymoshenko and Yushenko stop fighting from the moment they start sharing office and it all falls apart.”

Popovic cited the example of Occupy as a movement but failed to capitalise on its potential. It became committee said, far too broad, too keen to be all things to all people and never really worked out what it wanted.

“The enthusiasm is great, the topic of social inequality is the most important topic of the 21st century,” he said. “What’s problematic with Occupy is they… adopted this “we need to build a consensus around everything every time”. That’s death for an organisation.”

One of the most important things when Popovic said, was to ensure there was a roughly shared view of the future a movement wanted.

The discussion was fast moving, light-hearted and well received.

“Very hard to make Serbs serious,” said Popovic.”You tried bombing our country and it didn’t work.”

“One can learn a lot from scholars and academics about nonviolent resistance but there is absolutely no substitute for the wisdom and inspiration of those who have done it,” said Goldstone.

“This was a talk that I wish had gone out to a thousand or ten thousand people, Thanks to the Project for Study of the 21st Century for organizing this and keep your eye out for more such events, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

View a transcript of the discussion here: Leaderless Revolutions transcript.

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DC Superpower Discussion: Key Takeaways / Video


On Thursday, January 29, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Avoiding Disaster in a New Era of Superpower Tension.

Introduction: Gary Barnabo, President, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and member of the PS21 International Advisory Group (IAG).

Moderator: Joshua Marcuse, Founder and Chairman YPFP and member of the PS21 IAG.

Nikolas Gvosdev: Prof of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College, PS21 international advisor

Fiona Hill: Former US National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia. Director, Centre for the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Ali Wyne: RAND Corporation. PS21 global fellow

Elbridge Colby: former Pentagon nuclear strategist. Senior fellow, Centre for a New American Security

Here are some of the key takeaway from the discussion.

The world has changed dramatically from the multipolar US-dominated 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. Both Russia and China are keen to reassert themselves in their region and also globally. Both in and outside government, Washington has yet to formulate a response.

“Policymakers will not be able to cope with the new, rapidly changing world,” said Gvosdev. “They are unable to interact with a multipolar world in which compromise is a necessary interaction and not a policy defeat.”

Both Russia and China have very different views of the world that the US often struggles to comprehend. Russia has successfully showed it is flexible enough to make major strategic gains despite multiple inherent weaknesses. It perceives not just the world but also recent history very differently.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union is not seen as… a US victory (in Russia),” said Hill, adding that — like the Islamic State — Moscow was increasingly adept with its media strategy. “Russia is winning the media war because Putin makes it entertaining.”

China’s rise is inevitably straining international relations, particularly in Asia.

“Strenuous assurances of both parties that they do not want conflict actually breeds suspicion” said Wyne at RAND. “The US believes that China is attempting to dominate East Asia and China believes that the US is trying to contain it.”

The risk of potential superpower conflict is therefore quietly growing.

“With an unclear international power structure for states are more willing to resort to the use of force to achieve their goals,” said former Pentagon nuclear strategist Colby. “To face these challenges, the US must prepare for a major power conflict even though prevention is the goal.”

In the Middle East, great powers are struggling to manage rising conflict without antagonising each other further. Sometimes interests coincide, often not. The US might welcome greater Chinese engagement in unstable areas of Africa, for example, but much less in the Gulf.

In both Europe and Asia, America’s alliances complicate matters still further in different ways.

In Europe, Russia remains shocked by the your use of NATO military power against Yugoslavia in 1999. NATO has been unclear in its strategic ambition — whether its priority is mutual local defence or global security. It is unclear whether Russia genuinely believes NATO states would act militarily in the event of a crisis involving the Baltic states, once part of the soviet union and now NATO members.

In Asia, the US has multiple allies who feel threatened by China. Again, it is unclear what it can genuinely do at this uncertainty in itself but we instability.

“It’s not in the US interest or ability to “contain” China,” said Wyne. “The US should set up a regional economic architecture so that (other regional) states do not have to make the choice between the US and China.

PS21 Superpower Transcript