A new model for American foreign policy

After January 2009, the Bush-Cheney administration will be gone and new leaders will be tasked with cleaning up the mess created by ill-conceived and poorly executed foreign policies. But how will they succeed in avoiding the mistakes that have cost our country so much in lives, money and international respect over the past eight years? A key imperative, it seems to us, is to make conflict resolution and prevention, rather than military threats and punitive sanctions, the centerpiece of a redesigned global role for the United States.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail. But it is now clear that the vast majority of problems faced by the U.S. and its global allies will not yield to bombs, bullets and threats of force. In fact, coercive force generally succeeds only in worsening the problems that cause violent conflicts around the world.

What drives most violent struggles around the world are unsatisfied human needs. Where people’s basic needs for dignity, identity, justice and autonomy are not fulfilled, rebellion, terrorism and crime are the predictable results. 

Capturing terrorists and other “bad guys” is fine, but unless the conditions that generate violent movements are changed —unless people are empowered to solve their own social problems — there is no way to prevent new terrorist leaders and new ranks of followers and supporters from emerging. What our nation’s long-term security most requires, then, is more effective methods of solving the problems that generate civil violence.

Iraq serves as an unfortunate example of the ineffectiveness of force to solve serious social problems. In that suffering nation, violent invasion, occupation and resistance have created a virtual petri dish of social pathologies — a situation in which crimes against humanity occur every single day. By contrast, in dozens of formerly strife-torn nations, from Northern Ireland and the Balkans to South Africa and Mozambique, the concepts and techniques of conflict resolution have helped people figure out how to resolve their differences without foreign intervention or internal bloodshed.

How does this work?  Conflict resolution and prevention depend on a few basic principles, of which the most important are these:

Only the immediate parties to conflict — not outside invaders, occupiers, or do-gooders — can identify the problems that have poisoned their relationship and decide how best to solve them.

What warring parties most need to help them do this sort of problem-solving is assistance by expert, impartial, trusted facilitators — not outsiders dictating pre-arranged solutions. “Impartial” means that outsiders with their own partisan interests in the conflict can not be effective conflict resolvers. Great powers like the U.S. must learn to step back and give conflicting parties the freedom to resolve their own disputes.

Conflict resolution takes place when the parties are empowered and equipped to envisage a wide range of potential solutions to their problems, to cost them out carefully, and to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions.

Once a solution has been arrived at, the role of powerful outsiders is to support it, not undermine it in order to pursue their own regional or global ambitions. This requires a commitment to “peace-building” — long-term processes of development and healing that remove the structural and psychological causes of violent conflict and open the door to sustainable peace.

These principles are now being recognized in Western Europe, where the German government and others have appointed high-ranking officials to reorient diplomacy and development assistance toward peacemaking and conflict prevention. Even in our own country, new agencies like USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation and the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization are whistling a new and better tune.

Or perhaps the tune is not so new. Top military officials themselves concede that the fist of military power has demonstrated its ineffectiveness to solve the problems that have spawned bloody social conflict in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. It is time to permit the open hand of conflict resolution to accomplish what force alone can never bring about — real national security, which rests in the last analysis on satisfying human needs and healing broken relationships.

We need not disarm militarily to achieve this sort of security.  But we need to arm ourselves with new weapons of conflict resolution and prevention. Only when we have reconfigured America’s relationship with the world will we be able to realize the age-old dream of safety and peace.

Davis is a member of the Oversight and Government Reform, and Education, committees. Rubenstein is a professor at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.