Rectifying America’s low peace-index ranking

As the United States government works to bring peace and stability to Iraq, Darfur and Kosovo, it appears that our own backyard is in desperate need of some tending. The fact that the U.S. ranked 96th in The Economist’s recently launched Global Peace Index (GPI), below Cuba, Syria and China, should surprise no one. GPI’s criteria included access to small weapons, percentage of population in prison, military expenditures and respect for human rights. Sadly, the U.S. ranks poorly in each category: 300,000 to 400,000 firearm-related crimes annually, nearly 2 million citizens in prison, a defense budget that surpasses the rest of the world combined, and a human rights record that includes Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and CIA rendition.

However, the poor ranking, just one above America’s adversary Iran, should depress no one either. The U.S. can easily bump itself up a few notches and should consider a plan for doing so, in preparation for next year’s ranking. Here’s how to do it:

On access to small weapons, especially in light of the recent Virginia Tech shootings, tighter controls and background checks are critical. In a country where gun ownership is part and parcel to American identity, gun bans are hard to come by and often ruled unconstitutional by the courts. The reversal of Washington, D.C.’s strict gun ban, for example, cited the Second Amendment for backing. Short of placing parameters on all guns, however, at minimum the AK-47s — which remain legal in the U.S. — should be harder if not impossible to acquire. When the Second Amendment was forged, the guns of the day involved a time-intensive gun powder loading mechanism that resulted in only one shot. AK-47s by contrast can do damage to innocents in a matter of minutes. Certainly, some moderation is worth considering here.

On prison populations, America is headed toward a discomforting 2 million by 2011. Currently at roughly 1.5 million, or 500 prisoners per 100,000 people, the incarcerated have few reform opportunities available to them. Why? Because reform and reduced recidivism are anathema to the industry. Prison has become a lucrative business in the U.S. and the $50 billion-per-year corrections industry is disinclined to lose its clientele. At $20,000 per prisoner per year, prisoner upkeep is an inefficient and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars. For far less money, rehabilitation programs could help reintegrate the majority of prisoners, many of whom are in prison for small misdemeanors and felonies, back into the community. Halfway homes have proven successful in reintegrating ex-felons into society, but they’re hard to find. There urgently needs to be a real desire in Congress to rehabilitate those citizens who have gone astray.

On military expenditures, U.S. defense spending now surpasses the total combined defense spending of every other country in the world. The annual military budget in the U.S. is now $700 billion, twice what it was five years ago. Concerns remain, however, even among the military brass, that the dollars are being misappropriated. Much of the funding goes to heavy energy-intensive infrastructure that is less relevant in a post-Cold War world. Additionally, much of the funding goes to private defense contractors while the troops remain unprotected in the field and underserved when they return. But perhaps the larger point is that the big spending is not yielding big results in terms of security. What it’s garnering is competition.
Japan, China, Britain and Russia, not to mention Iran and North Korea, are eagerly developing their weapons stocks to stay current with U.S. armaments.  Rather than making America safer, defense spending is having the opposite effect. Consequently, it’s time to spend more money engaging adversaries and less money isolating them.

On respect for human rights, the U.S. must show consistency in its discourse. While advocating for civil liberties and individual freedoms in the Middle East, the U.S. abrogates them at home, most egregiously at Guantanamo. Sending Guantanamo’s hundreds abroad to be tried elsewhere is not the answer. The rights of habeas corpus — a court order safeguarding individual rights while determining whether a detainee is lawfully serving a sentence or should be released from court — should fundamentally be applied to all criminal interrogations. Why? Because it helps set the standard high for other countries. If the U.S. sets the standard low, as it has done in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, then other countries will follow suit, and Americans may then be the victims. It is time to set the bar high; the results are worth it.

These recommendations in response to four criteria—access to small weapons, prison population percentage, military expenditure, and respect for human rights — are just a few ways that the U.S. can rank higher in the Global Peace Index.
Lowering the homicide rates and improving relations with neighboring countries are two additional ways of improving the score (and desperately needed regardless of the index). What’s clear is that there is much work to be done to make America more peaceful. And with real leadership, a better ranking is possible. It’s time to turn the “96” into a top 10.

Cobb is the director of George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.