Comment & analysis

Bringing an end to unending war: recommendations for the next US administration

6 October 2016 David Alpher, Ursala Knudsen-Latta

Despite a range of external threats, the next US administration will have a chance to re-examine the American approach to promoting security at home and abroad. David Alpher and Ursala Knudsen-Latta urge the White House to focus on the underlying drivers of conflict, and to take a longer-term and more nuanced approach to creating the conditions that foster peace.

On November 8th, the American people will vote for their next President. No matter who takes the oath of office on January 20th 2017, they will take on leadership in a world that seems increasingly dangerous and chaotic.

Some of this perception is accurate – over the past 15 years, terrorism, violent conflict, injustice, poor governance and income inequality are all on the rise. Violent movements, whether extremist or otherwise, are spreading across borders at an alarming rate.

But while the picture looks dire, and although the threats are real, the new administration must keep two things in mind: first, the threats are real but not inevitable. They can be reduced, they can be changed, and they can be prevented. The United States is not doomed to an eternal struggle. Rather it has the options and resources for nonviolent approaches that foster justice, good governance and equality, which build the conditions that make conflict less likely, and which prove less costly than direct military intervention.

Second, the tools and methods deployed over the past fifteen years have failed to create durable peace and security because they have been focused on battlefield success and not societal change. Since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the tools and methods that the US has deployed to fragile and conflict-affected countries have evolved and expanded. However, they continue to fail because strategies remain focused on the battlefield, not on creating conditions of sustainable peace and security. The next administration has the opportunity to shift focus away from military objectives and towards longer-term nonviolent support for local peacebuilding initiatives, inclusive institution building and working with conflict-affected communities to address the conditions that make them insecure.

A successful security strategy requires a broad and long-term vision that aims to prevent violence and create conditions for peace. Since 2001, the US has allowed the military to become the most central part of its security strategy, eclipsing peacebuilding, development and diplomacy. This has left the current administration in a perpetual cycle of militarized crisis response, rather than seeking to break the unending cycle of crises through strong, proactive ‘upstream’ development, peacebuilding and diplomatic partnerships and engagement.

The current administration never strayed far from the established militarized approach. But the new administration, seeking to establish its own identity, has the opportunity to recognize a better strategy and make the necessary changes. A recalibrated peace and security strategy would include a battlefield lens when necessary, but would not be defined by it. It would understand that durable security means staying focused on the conditions we seek to create, rather than being distracted by the symptoms of current instability.

Saferworld’s briefing, ‘A Better State of Peace,’ looks in more detail at four critical areas for strategic consideration when working towards an end goal of sustainable peace, justice and equality:  

Prioritize peace: Often denigrated as lofty idealism, prioritizing peace in fact means committing resources, attention and support to efforts that help establish the inclusive political systems and good governance that make nations and peoples safer, more resilient and more secure. This requires a steady focus on positive change to address the structural drivers of violence and fragility, not just their symptoms. Changes in governance can be slow; historically, institution-building has been a result of political demand. Inclusion in processes of politics and governance is important for peace, whether in short-term peace deals or in longer-term political settlements. By keeping this focus, we maintain a level of coherence and resolve necessary for the achievement of long-term goals.

Re-think approaches to counter-terrorism and violent extremism: American counter-terrorism approaches tend to focus on the symptoms of structural problems, not the structural problems themselves. The current countering violent extremism (CVE) agenda arguably encourages a focus on the predetermined, externally driven priorities of dealing with ‘extreme’ groups rather than solving the wider conflicts, creating a relative blindness to critical issues and reform priorities. It typically fails to empower society to challenge the behaviors of external actors or governments – who are also frequently part of the problem – and instead singles out those labeled ‘extremists.’ The use of armed drones, military campaigns and special operations missions are all focused on suppressing the symptoms of extremism by stopping individual perpetrators. However, to be effective, US foreign policy must recognize and focus on the drivers of extremism, such as injustice, political marginalization, and isolation. These drivers cannot be addressed through a military approach alone, but rather require long-term peacebuilding and development engagement.

Recalibrate global partnerships: Although the US has spoken out against governments cracking down on civil liberties and civic groups, associating this with the spread of violent movements—extremist and otherwise. Western countries have maintained strong military and other support for allies acting against groups that appear to threaten the West. By prioritizing short-term stability, the US has entered into international partnerships that compromise the integrity of its message regarding good governance, human rights and justice – the very areas so critical to long-term peace and security. Many of these partnerships, such as those with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, are logistically critical to longstanding US military engagement in unstable regions, but their benefits merit greater scrutiny. Alliances with regimes that commit human rights violations, curtail press freedom and close the space for public debate, corrupt the same American ideals that are so critical to strategic goals and national identity, and foster the very radicalization that we seek to fight.

Maximize the potential of diplomacy and development: Ultimately, sustainable peace requires transparent and functional relations between different sections of a population and between the population and its government. It requires improving the conditions of human life and fostering more just and inclusive societies. While the military can help to defend this process against attack, it can’t replace the peacebuilders, aid workers and diplomats that carry out this important work. Development and peacebuilding in particular are long-term processes – and because they focus on societies rather than governments, they should not be subjected to shifting whims from one administration to the next. Placing USAID, the primary operational arm of that work, inside the sphere of US foreign policy as part of the State Department was a move in the wrong direction. It exposed development to much greater fluctuation in funding and political attention, and marginalized governance and conflict resolution offices to make room for other presidential priorities. Long-term work needs insulation from funding cycles and elections in order to keep its focus fixed on strategic goals that carry across administrations.

Properly implemented, changes such as these can help to realign US foreign policy in a more sustainable, productive direction. The process will not be easy, but it is possible and absolutely necessary.

David Alpher is Saferworld's Advocacy Manager (US), and Ursala Knudsen-Latta is Research and Policy Officer

Find out more about our work on constructive alternatives to counter-terror and stabilisation.

“The tools and methods deployed over the past fifteen years have failed to create durable peace and security because they have been focused on battlefield success and not societal change.”

David Alpher and Ursala Knudsen-Latta