The Flickering Lights of Peace

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When Matthew Hodes C’79 was an undergraduate majoring in international relations at Penn, he took a course that would, in a subtle way, change the direction of his life.

“The person who turned me on to international relations as a field was a professor named Bill Quandt,” recalls Hodes. “Shortly after that, he left Penn and took a position with the Carter Administration. He was directly involved in setting up the Camp David accords. And sure enough, he’s now [as a Middle East expert based at the University of Virginia] the person I deal with most on Middle East issues.” 

Hodes, director of the Conflict Resolution Program of the Carter Center in Atlanta, also deals a lot these days with Quandt’s former boss, who is currently his own: former President Jimmy Carter Hon’98. (Quandt, incidentally, describes Hodes as an “excellent student,” and says he was “delighted” to reconnect with him in his Carter Center activities. “It is always gratifying to a professor to learn that a former student has gone on to make good use of what you tried to teach,” he added.)

The center, founded in 1982 by Carter and his wife Rosalynn, is a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization (NGO) that monitors the planet’s armed conflicts and assists in ways that are somewhere between traditional diplomacy and the unofficial diplomatic activities that directly impact the people affected by the violence. Those activities range from high-profile war zones in the Middle East to places like Sudan, Liberia, and Venezuela, where he and his colleagues are “working to assist the process of dialogue” between the government and the opposition.

The processes that lead to peace “operate in phases—you see positive movement, but then you see setbacks,” he points out. “But there is a linkage to all of them, and they are all part of one ongoing process.

“Nongovernmental organizations have a special role in the field of conflict resolution,” he adds. “The Carter Center has unique access to world leaders but also can operate in longer-term peace-building activities.”

Hodes describes the center’s relations with the current occupants of the White House as “pretty cordial.” 

“We have contact with them on a wide variety of issues,” he says. “The Carter Center is by definition and practice a nonpartisan body, so the fact that President Carter is a Democrat and the current administration is Republican doesn’t have much bearing on how we engage it.”

Hodes brought plenty of hands-on experience, having served in a variety of peacekeeping and post-conflict-operations positions in the United Nations and as the Judicial Reform Coordinator for Bosnia at the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo. In 1993, he was posted to Somalia to help investigate the killing of U.N. peacekeepers, and provided legal advice to the Secretary General of UNOSOM (United Nations Operations in Somalia).

He describes his appointment as an “incredibly flattering event,” adding: “The idea that I get to work with a man as remarkable as President Carter on issues of significance where we may be able to make a difference—that’s pretty important. Given President Carter’s history, given his continuing interest in trying to help bring peaceful resolutions to conflicts around the world—there are not too many places better than this to continue to serve the international community.”

Carter’s “clarity of thought” and “incisiveness” are both inspiring and challenging, Hodes says. “Inspiring because you want to do the very best possible job for him, and challenging because the standard he sets is remarkably high.”

Asked for an illuminating memory from his stints in the former Yugoslavia, Hodes says that although there are a couple that he’d “rather not discuss,” he will share one. Having just helped secure a cessation-of-hostilities agreement with the Bosnian Serbs, he and his team were driving back to Sarajevo from the Serbian stronghold of Pale on an icy secondary road over the mountains.

“We made one last switchback turn going over the mountain,” he recalls, “and as I looked down at Sarajevo, I saw the lights were on. They hadn’t been on in months. Even though that agreement didn’t hold, the fact that the lights went on for a little while, and hope was restored, is something I didn’t forget. That moment, however fleeting, I and the people I worked for had made a difference.”


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