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Peace Works: America's Unifying Role in a Turbulent World
Review by J. R. Bullington

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Peace Works: America's Unifying Role in a Turbulent World
By Rick Barton
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 2018
Pages: 312
ISBN-13: 978-1538113004 and ISBN-10: 1538113007

Rick Barton is passionate about peace. Yet, he is no pacifist. His lengthy career has been focused on conflicts and how American diplomacy, economic development, and humanitarian aid can be used to avoid them if possible, bring them to a successful end, and build long-term stability to preclude their recurrence.

That's what this book is about. It uses stories, history, and analysis to develop lessons and policy prescriptions for American involvement—or its avoidance—in foreign conflicts.

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, my Foreign Service career was also in large measure focused on conflict, from my first overseas assignment, in wartime Vietnam in 1965-68, to my post- retirement recall to active duty as a special envoy in Senegal to help end a 30-year secessionist insurgency in the southern part of that country, the Casamance, in 2012-14. In the latter assignment, Rick was my boss, as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, CSO, to which I reported. He was a good boss, both empowering and supportive, and I hold him in high regard.

Rick was born in Buenos Aires and accompanied his Foreign Service family on several assignments. After graduating from Harvard, he became a Congressional staffer, ran unsuccessfully for a Maine Congressional seat, and was Chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. He began his international career in 1990 as an election trainer and observer with the National Democratic Institute. He then served as founding director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, promoting democratic change in conflict-prone countries; Deputy High Commissioner of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR; co-director of a post-conflict reconstruction project with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he led conflict-related studies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Pakistan; and U.S. Representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, working on development, peace building, and human rights.

Rick brought this rich and relevant experience to his next job, as Secretary Clinton selected him to head the newly-created Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations in 2012.

CSO was the latest organizational result of a recurrent struggle within the State Department over the nature and structure of the U.S. civilian response to foreign conflicts and unstable countries. In response to the weaknesses and insufficient capacity of civilian support for the conflict-related requirements that emerged after 9/11, Secretaries Powell and Rice had advanced concepts for "transformational" and "expeditionary" diplomacy, and to implement them created a new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). This office focused mostly on building a civilian reserve (or "surge" capacity) to meet potential needs for future conflict contingencies such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

This focus, however, was dramatically changed after the Obama Administration, which had no interest in preparing for this sort of contingency, took office. Nonetheless, Secretary Clinton and her team at State saw the very real need to upgrade the Department's capacity for conflict response. She called for a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which proved highly contentious but was finally issued in 2010. It proposed creation of a new bureau, CSO, to replace S/CRS. CSO was to focus on conflict prevention and smaller-scale peacekeeping and peace building activities. It became operational in 2011.

Rick Barton writes that on taking office as CSO Assistant Secretary, he "believed that the new structure could gain traction and drive convergence of policy and practice in conflict settings." He decided to re-focus the Bureau on five engagements that were deemed to be important but of manageable size, and that could achieve visible results in a year:

  • Supporting the then-emerging Syrian opposition to Assad with non-lethal aid and government transition training.
  • Preventing widespread violence that seemed likely to accompany the 2013 national election in Kenya.
  • Reducing the sabotage and civil conflict that was plaguing the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
  • Calming the longstanding ethnic conflict in the Kayah State of Burma.
  • Countering murderous gang violence in Honduras that was driving refugees to the United States.

In addition to these five top-priority projects, Rick agreed that CSO could also take on a few smaller target-of-opportunity projects elsewhere, one of which was my Casamance peace initiative project in Senegal.

"The immensity of starting something new in a recalcitrant organization," Rick writes, "showed up on a daily basis." Also, although Rick does not explicitly address this issue in the book, the departure at the end of 2012 of Secretary Clinton, who had championed the concept of building a more effective conflict response capacity and the creation of CSO, seemed to result in a loss of direction for the Bureau. It was not a high priority for Secretary Kerry. Although Rick also does not discuss the reason for his own departure in 2014, it was likely influenced by intractable cultural and bureaucratic resistance to CSO within the Department and Foreign Service, particularly after Secretary Clinton was no longer there to back it.

In spite of these problems, CSO produced several small-scale successes. Perhaps the most publicly heralded was creation in Syria of the "White Helmets", a volunteer rescue organization that has saved thousands of civilians injured in the fighting. CSO also helped reduce election violence in Kenya and conflict in the Niger Delta, catalyze land-mine removal in Burma, and strengthen peace-building NGOs in Honduras. Its most enduring and influential accomplishment, though, may be the development of sophisticated research and analysis on conflicts plus planning tools on how to address them.

In Peace Works, Rick draws on his experience with CSO and in his previous conflict-related work to analyze how many American conflict interventions have failed and how they could have succeeded. He develops several guidelines for such interventions, including:

  • Timely preparation for conflict response does not necessarily lead to interventions, but it provides a broader range of potential responses.
  • "The cardinal sin of conflict problem-solving is failure to know the place and its people."
  • We have to "acknowledge that security is the precondition for progress."
  • The focus must always be on the people we want to help, who should be engaged as partners in both planning and implementation.
  • Those we send to work in conflict settings should combine "the political acuity of a good diplomat, the long-range vision of a development professional, and the action orientation of a humanitarian."
  • America should practice humility in any interventions and always act as a catalyzing (not colonizing) force.
  • We have to recognize that operations in conflict zones are inherently risky, and be prepared to accept those risks if we undertake the operations.
  • Before deciding to intervene in foreign conflicts, consider these questions:
    • Does it truly matter to the United States?
    • Is the timing right? Will delay clarify the choice or worsen prospects for success?
    • Can we make a difference to the main drivers of the conflict?
    • Are viable local partners available?

These are sound principles, on which most conflict professionals, military as well as civilian, could likely agree.

What is the future of CSO and, more generally, American capacity to provide leadership and address global conflicts with diplomacy and development assistance?

The limited progress that was made under the late Bush 43 and early Obama Administrations faltered in the late Obama Administration and seems to have rapidly regressed under the Trump Administration. The 2015 QDDR, which replaced Secretary Clinton's 2010 QDDR, did not provide meaningful direction or support for conflict response capacity, and in his budget proposals President Trump has specifically called for the elimination of CSO (although Congress did not agree). Moreover, continued funding for CSO projects is uncertain. For example, financial support even for the highly successful "White Helmets" project in Syria has recently been suspended.

A joint State-AID-DOD Stabilization Assistance Review was completed and released to Congress in April 2018. Though it hasn't yet been made public, it is reportedly intended to be a guide for U.S. operations in conflict zones and fragile states. It remains unclear if this plan will be implemented under Secretary Pompeo, or if such operations will be funded.

Does peace really work, in the sense Rick Barton means, to enhance American security in a turbulent world? In this book he makes a good case that pro-active efforts to prevent or ameliorate conflicts, along with post-conflict stabilization programs to prevent recurrence, can work if done selectively and skillfully. In practice, however, efforts to enhance U.S. civilian conflict response capacity have been weak and faltering for the past quarter century, and conflict interventions have become increasingly militarized, despite the valiant efforts of Rick Barton and others. Prospects that this trend will be reversed under the Trump Administration appear dim.

And yet, those who want increased American security in a more peaceful world must continue efforts to improve our peace building and peacekeeping capabilities. Rick's book provides reasonable guidance for doing so.white star

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

AuthorJim Bullington was a Foreign Service Officer and Ambassador, serving in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa throughout his career. He has contributed many articles to American Diplomacy, and was its editor in 2007-2009. His two most recent books are Expeditionary Diplomacy in Action: Supporting the Casamance Peace Initiative (2015), and Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads: A Foreign Service Memoir (2017).

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