Resolute in uncertain times: peacebuilding in the new US administration

1 December 2016

The transition to a new administration in the United States following a divisive and often bitter campaign will see a reassessment of foreign policy objectives and strategies by Donald Trump and his advisers. Saferworld will continue to push for long-term, inclusive approaches to conflict prevention and peacebuilding – incorporating the lessons of a shifting global landscape and the hopes and risks surrounding the United States’ global role.     

The American election is finally over, but neither the speech nor the actions of the President-elect since the upset victory have clarified his intentions. As the dust settles, the direction his administration will take beyond American borders remains a mystery. On one hand there is no clear articulation of a foreign policy agenda through which we can anticipate its actions. On the other, we have hints and suggestions that would contradict deeply-held principles of democracy and international law – and which could risk provoking further global instability.

It is unclear whether the new President’s view of foreign policy will be interventionist or isolationist. It is unclear how his cabinet will approach foreign assistance. The recent appointments of Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus, representing two opposing ends of the Republican spectrum, do not clarify Trump’s plans—in fact, they may serve to initiate a period in which divergent approaches compete for dominance. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for the post of National Security Advisor, has a history of islamophobic comments that raise concerns about how he will interpret and address national security threats. As the transition team begins to hammer out positions on a range of issues, the civil service and other government departments are caught in a holding pattern – waiting for new strategic direction on budgets and priorities.

Clarity cannot come soon enough. While America and the world waits, global crises continue to worsen and evolve. How the US chooses to respond will have an enormous impact on what comes next.

Critical Conditions

The Trump administration will face a complex and challenging foreign policy environment from the moment it moves to the White House in January. For years now, there has been a consistent drop in the measure of freedom and the strength of democratic governance worldwide– and that slide shows no signs of slowing. We know from experience that poor governance, injustice and restricted freedoms are all contributors to increased violence, forced migration, violent extremism and criminality.

In addition, the world’s poorest are increasingly concentrated within conflict-affected and fragile states, meaning most of the people at risk from these dynamics, will be living in contexts where progress is further challenged. Meanwhile, global and regional pressures from climate change, transnational crime and the spread of violent ideologies are simultaneously eroding conditions within those states and making security issues global in their scope.

Adding to the complexity is that arguably the greatest threats in the world today do not come from uniformed armies or national governments. They come from the injustice and repression that alienates people and fractures societies, and from the fragilities and armed struggles that arise from such conditions. These problems need social, political and economic solutions — over-reliance on military solutions will continue to make the problem worse in the absence of a coherent peace strategy. Only by encouraging the growth of strong, resilient and peaceful societies can the US help resolve global instability.

Potential for Peace

American presence cannot simply be withdrawn without risking a power vacuum that could be filled by criminal groups, terrorist organizations and warlords, but it can be improved. American foreign policy must prioritize the needs of people who live in conditions of conflict and instability, by recognizing that their needs and America’s are intertwined. It needs to focus on supporting resilience, improved governance and the rule of law—dynamics that are critical to reducing the community grievances and injustices that usually lie at the root of violent conflict. This should go hand in hand with stalwart promotion of human rights to prevent repressive regimes from twisting the law to their advantage. In addition, Trump’s administration should make sure to provide support for systemic change and for peaceful civil societies, instead of pushing for stability and “law and order”— concepts with overtones of violence and suppression and which often achieve short-term results at the cost of long-term success.

Repeating failed policies of regime change, or focusing on short-term, authoritarian models of stability above long-term peace, justice and good governance, will continue to worsen drivers of conflict and violence. At the same time, too rapid a shift towards isolationism is likely to cause more harm than good.

Saferworld has written extensively about where funding and expertise should flow—for example, towards the Complex Crises Fund and USAID’s office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, and away from counterproductive, securitized practices. Increased investment in these areas would provide support critical for peacebuilding efforts in fragile states. This in turn means that civil society and NGO access to the administration to provide analysis and to advocate for improved policy is more crucial than ever before. Most deeply, it means a shift in philosophy is needed – one that preserves the right to protect Americans’ security, while recognizing that failed neoliberal policies undermine that same security in the long term.

Call to Action

This election has shown the NGO community that it must do some soul-searching of its own. Organizations that work on peacebuilding and security should recognize that the public is as important an audience as the policy community, and should work to be more inclusive in their reach.

Saferworld and other organizations like us have seen how simplistic portrayals of complex foreign policy dilemmas can build fear among the public, at home as well as in the countries where our programs operate. The fear has in turn pushed American politics to unsustainable extremes that worsen drivers of conflict at home as well as abroad. Whether or not this administration hears what the advocacy community has to say, if this election has taught us nothing else, it’s that if peacebuilders want to see change, we must reach out to the public as well as to officialdom. We must engage and provide them with the same facts, experiences and evidence that peace and hope are attainable, realistic goals.

Regardless of what kind of policies emerge, Saferworld’s recommendations for creating peace at home and abroad will remain consistent. In Washington, and around the world, those who believe in peace need to support good policy and caution against counterproductive, militaristic strategies that have proven so destructive in the past. And with the new administration – like those of the past – our mission to build peace, justice and good governance must not waver.

David Alpher is Washington Head of Office, Ursala Knuden-Latta is US Research and Policy Officer.

Read our briefing "A better state of peace": American strategy beyond the limits of warfare.

“American foreign policy must prioritize the needs of people who live in conditions of conflict and instability, by recognizing that their needs and America’s are intertwined. ”

David Alpher and Ursula Knduen-Latta