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Robert Ricigliano, Milwaukee Peacemaker

Apr. 18, 2012
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Robert Ricigliano came to Milwaukee from Boston with impressive credentials, including a résumé of conflict resolution projects in South Africa, the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, Colombia and elsewhere, and consultation work with USAID and other federal agencies. Ricigliano is now director of UW-Milwaukee's Institute of World Affairs and coordinator for the university's peace studies program. His new book, Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding, diagrams his strategy for steering the world in a positive direction.

How did you become involved in peacemaking?

It started for me in law school. I took a class with Roger Fisher, the author of Getting to Yes, and became his T.A. [teaching assistant].

He wasn't content to stay within the academy?

He always said he got his tenure by accident. He was an active academic, always working. He was working on conflict resolution in El Salvador when I was with him and became involved with the Harvard Negotiation Project. We eventually wanted to form a nonprofit organization that wasn't under the auspices of Harvard. I became the founding executive director of the Conflict Management Group and worked for it for many years.

Why did you come to Milwaukee?

My wife is from Sheboygan and none of us had family in Boston. The birth of our third child made us realize we couldn't get along without a family support network. I have no regrets. I love it here.

What's wrong with peacemaking as it's often practiced?

The problem is we're preoccupied with fixing pieces—individual symptoms. If you're an expert in economic development, you'd say the economy of Afghanistan is broke and needs capital to encourage entrepreneurship. Others will focus instead on relations between ethnic groups or some other problem. When you design programs targeted for these individual pieces, you might get progress on some issue or other, but what we've found is that these smaller projects don't add up to big changes. We need to see the whole context before we jump in.

A holistic approach?

Right. What would happen if you walked into an emergency room and a physician decided to treat your skin rash when you're about to have a heart attack? You need to step back and examine the patient.

And know who the patient is

Yes, knowing who is Sunni and who is Shiite is an advantage. In the case of Iraq, the intervention was focused on fixing one piece—the removal of a dictator—but without understanding the system that was Iraq. It wasn't just the Bush administration. A lot of actors assume that the fewer bad guys, the better. But instead of intervening in a particular problem, we need to engage the whole system and not impose an external vision on it.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I'm generally an optimistic person anyway, but I'm wildly optimistic at this point. In Washington the people who are the loudest proponents of peace building are often members of the U.S. military—the majors and colonels who grew up in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned the hard lesson that these are not primarily military problems. They learned the holistic approach the hard way. It's not good enough to drive out the bad guys…

Robert Ricigliano will speak at 4:30 p.m. April 25 at Mount Mary College's Caroline Hall Student Lounge.
The event is free and open to the public.


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