The heart of security

December 17, 2012

New IPC director Allan Stam is taking the research center in bold new directions. His latest project on the 1994 Rwandan genocide shows, for him, what's really at stake: how to improve the lives of citizens.

Allan C. Stam, the new director of the Ford School's International Policy Center, has been officially on duty for 27 days, and confides that he's feeling a little behind. He doesn't seem behind to an outsider though. He seems energetic, effusive, funny, and ambitious. He seems like he's got his head in the game and is just about ready to reinvent it. And he seems like someone who throws himself, body and soul, into whatever he undertakes, whether that's goose hunting in Manitoba, tackling the Himalayan range in Nepal, investigating ongoing caste-based discrimination in India, or, as is now the case, running an international policy center.

A professor of public policy and political science at the Ford School, Stam is undertaking a few new projects these days —some small, some large. He's formalizing the school's exceptional seminars on economic development and security studies, he's adding a new student-organized debate series to the mix, and, on the larger side, he's developing a bold vision for a world-class human security program at the Ford School.

A world-class program in human security would take some doing, for sure, but it would build on existing Ford School strengths, Stam explains. Already, the Ford School is home to an impressive mix of thought leaders and practitioners in international security, foreign trade, human rights, public health, civil society, and economic development. Human security bundles those disciplines, breaks down silos, and encourages holistic approaches that focus not on states and governments but on the overall quality of life of ordinary citizens.

While a traditional approach to security would address nation-state interests and national borders, human security recognizes that safe borders and stable regimes don't always improve the human condition—they don't ensure safety from crime, poverty, hunger, disease, or discrimination; and they don't ensure freedom of speech, access to education and living-wage jobs, or economic opportunity. "From the human security perspective, we care about governments because we care that they live up to their responsibilities, that they provide for the needs of their citizens," says Stam.

It must be said that Allan Stam has a taste for innovative, unconventional, and sometimes downright controversial approaches to security problems. That taste has taken him to the Army Special Forces, where he served for three years before earning his bachelor's in government from Cornell; to Gujarat, India, where he helped an NGO interview 150,000 people to gauge contemporary attitudes about untouchability; and to Rwanda, where he studied the 100-day civil war that left perhaps one million Rwandans dead and many more displaced or traumatized. That taste has also made it difficult for him to back away from important political science research—like his Rwanda work—merely because it uncovers uncomfortable facts.


piled clothes of genocide victims at Nyamata Genocide Memorial

Piled clothes of genocide victims at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, the former site of the Nyamata Parish Catholic Church, where thousands of people were murdered in 1994.

After the Rwandan civil war, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport (now a professor of political science at Michigan), were driven to understand how the U.S. and the international community could have failed to recognize—and stop—a genocide as it was happening. Stam hoped that by clarifying what had happened, they could contribute information that would help prevent further atrocities. Instead, they stumbled across information they never expected to find and, in their words, "came to understand just how uncomfortable it can be to question conventional wisdom."

Through careful quantitative and qualitative research, Stam and Davenport were able to reconstruct the 100-day war over time and space, illuminating the location, scale, and severity of violence against the location, scale, and military capacity of the Armed Forces of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In doing so, they discovered that both Hutus and Tutsis suffered devastating mass violence, and that the RPF led by Tutsi-expatriate Paul Kagame (Kagame was widely lauded as the savior of Rwanda and has since been elected president) not only failed to stop the violence, but likely exacerbated it.

Though Stam and Davenport were criticized as "genocide deniers," and targeted with violent threats by members of Kagame's administration and others, Kagame himself has faced mounting accusations of violating international humanitarian law, intimidating journalists, and arresting dissidents. As a former expat who grew up amidst ongoing ethnic violence and spent much of his adult life fighting, perhaps it's not so surprising that Kagame sees threats everywhere he turns.

Borrowing insights like this one from the well-developed field of behavioral psychology, Allan Stam's most recent research investigates the impact of formative life experiences on every president, dictator, king, generalissimo, and prime minister from 1875 to 2006. He's studying 2,400 leaders in all, including Paul Kagame, of course, but also Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, Gerald Ford, Francisco López, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, and Ho Chi Minh. Stam and his collaborators have collected a vast quantity of biographical data on each of them. Did they suffer traumatic events when they were children? Did one of their parents die tragically? Did they live through a civil war? Fight in one? Grow up in poverty? Or go to boarding school?

While Stam hopes that the data set will grow, and that other scholars will use it to explore economic and social policy concerns, he and his colleagues are primarily interested in armed conflicts: how likely specific leaders are to enter into and escalate them based on their formative life experiences and the influencing constraints of their cultural and political systems.

Stam points to a paper collaborator Cali Ellis (PhD candidate) is writing about childhood traumatic experiences as an exciting example of work in progress. "A lot of these leaders had horrendous upbringings," he says. They witnessed relatives and friends murdered, maimed, raped, and brutalized. Stam asks, "Remember that poster from the 1960s that says, 'war's not healthy for children and other living things'?" He gestures in the air to illustrate a large wall poster, then folds his hands, his look intense. "Turns out it's right."

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2012 State & Hill here.