Daniel Altman

Dollars, Not Bombs

Dollars, Not Bombs

How much is peace worth in Syria? If the United States attacks, cruise missiles worth tens of millions of dollars will wing their way toward the war-torn country, adding to the millions already spent on mobilization. There’s no guarantee this costly exercise would quicken the end of the conflict. What’s more, there’s a potentially cheaper way to promote peace in Syria and anywhere else: Buy it.

The United States already spends money on foreign aid and peacekeeping that are supposed to stem conflict and encourage economic growth around the world. But we tend to avoid sending money to countries bogged down by war, since we’re afraid it might be wasted. This is a big gap in our foreign policy, and to fill it, we need be more direct. We need to pay for peace explicitly.

There’s a market for peace. The seller’s price is how much you have to pay for it, and the buyer’s price is how much you should be willing to pay. We need to know both of these numbers and ultimately try to balance them.

Why should Americans be buying? It’s pretty simple. Peaceful countries are moneymakers for the United States. Most peaceful countries in the world import American goods and services, helping our economy create jobs and putting tax revenue in Washington’s coffers. And the more these countries grow, the more they buy.

So here’s an idea: a peace bounty paid for by the very tax dollars that peace would generate. Consider the example of Syria. It’s a country of 21 million people whose per capita income last year was about $3,300, even with the war. Syrians spent about 38 percent of their income on imports; disruptions to trade may have been balanced by disruptions to domestic production. Next door in Jordan, per capita income was roughly $4,900, and spending on imports measured about 73 percent of that total; in Lebanon, the share was 49 percent of $9,700.

Most American companies can’t legally do business with Syria, so imports from the United States are virtually nil at the moment. But about one in nine dollars worth of imports in Lebanon comes from the United States, and in Jordan, it’s about one in 16. As a somewhat conservative estimate, a free and peaceful Syria might import about $70 worth of goods and services per person from the United States every year, for a total of $1.5 billion. Of that, something like $300 million might go to Washington in taxes.

The United States government could offer to give this money back to the Syrian people, every year for 20 years or some other fixed period, provided that there is peace. Compared to the status quo, this offer would be budget neutral; we don’t get any tax revenue from Syrian imports now, either.

Other countries could sweeten the deal. Major economies in Europe would probably benefit from peace in Syria, too. Right now, none of them are among Syria’s top trading partners, despite the European Union’s policy of economic engagement in the Mediterranean region. If Europe participated, the annual peace bounty could rise to a billion dollars or more. And if the Syrian people knew that so much money awaited a peaceful and legitimate government, all sides might try harder to find a negotiated settlement.

Of course, making peace is easier said than done. For people whose lives are in peril, fighting back may be the only option. Moreover, the rewards of peace are not so obvious for all parties involved, especially the Assad clan. They could lose everything if their regime falls, and so they need a strong incentive to make peace.

As distasteful as it might be, then, it’s worth considering how the peace bounty might be shared with the Assads. It wouldn’t be the first time that a former dictator and his family were given a cushy way out of a worsening situation at home in order to smooth the transition of leadership. It would, however, be the first time such a payoff was so explicit and public.

The Syrian people might feel as though they were being robbed again by what has by many accounts been a thoroughly corrupt regime. But negotiating about money is much better than continuing the violence, and surely the Assads would want to haggle for their share. Ending the killing on both sides could be a condition for talks that might be worth tens of millions to them every year.

If peace bounties showed promise, there’d be no need to stop with Syria. From prison states like North Korea to countries hamstrung by civil conflict like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peace bounties could help to tip the scales away from violence. The best part is that since the bounties would depend partly on population size, bigger bounties would free more people from war and oppression. (To be sure, they would also depend on people’s incomes, which is a less attractive attribute.)

One catch here is that the World Trade Organization might see a bounty as an illegal subsidy to a country’s imports. To get around the rules, the payments might have to be fixed as lump sums rather than varying annually according to import volumes. Alternatively, if all the WTO’s members got together to pay the bounties, there would be no issue. In either case, such technicalities needn’t stand in the way of the overall concept.

Back in the 1990s, the peace dividend created by the end of the Cold War brought the United States within a whisker of paying off its entire national debt. Today, thanks to tax cuts and ironically to a couple of new wars, that peace dividend has evaporated. But there’s another one ripe for the taking — as long as we’re brave enough to put emotion on hold while we talk about cold, hard cash.