The Strategy Killer

Rising global violence threatens more than humanity's collective conscience. In 2014, America should seize two critical opportunities to address it.


The White House and State Department are hard at work on two major new documents that will lay the foundation for America’s national security policy for the remainder of the Obama administration and possibly beyond: the National Security Strategy, rumored for release this summer, and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), slated for release later this year. The usual bureaucratic tussles will ensue about what should and should not be included in these documents, and the administration will inevitably struggle to determine priorities amid the unenviable palette of challenges and paucity of big opportunities.

One challenge, however, looms larger than the rest, and addressing it should be a centerpiece of these forthcoming strategy documents: the growing threat posed by global violence and the urgency of preventing violent conflict before it escalates. Prioritizing these challenges is necessary because violent conflict threatens to derail progress on a host of other issues critical to U.S. national interests and values. And doing so will also encourage U.S. government agencies to develop more effective strategies and techniques for reducing violence.

Rising global violence is the challenge of our time. Serious conflicts now stretch across swaths of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and they hold the potential to spread. Meanwhile, tensions are rising in the South China Sea, Burma, Ukraine, and elsewhere. In most of these circumstances, the influence of international institutions is limited. The options available to U.S. policymakers are lousy.

This rise in violence across the globe is not the challenge expected at this juncture. For many, the end of the Cold War also ended the risk of war between great powers. The decade that followed saw negotiated peace agreements end lengthy — and seemingly intractable — civil wars. Rwanda began rebuilding after a horrible genocide, and wars in the Balkans concluded. More than a decade later, a newly elected President Barack Obama pledged to wind down the new era of conflict inaugurated by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, NATO began to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, and conversations about how to cut the U.S. defense budget commenced.

Yet violent conflict is now resurging, whether we like it or not.

The growing scale and scope of the violence shocks both the heart and the conscience. It also harms American interests. Indeed, these conflicts now threaten every major element of America’s foreign policy, whether it’s economic growth or energy security, human development or human rights, counterterrorism or illicit trafficking, environmental conservation or global health. It is a challenge U.S. policymakers cannot view separately from their other agendas, since violence is likely to prevent — or even destroy — any progress.

The most stunning example of resurging violence is the civil war in Syria, which has already killed more than 150,000 people — including an estimated 50,000 civilians — displaced 6.5 million people from their homes, and sent 2.6 million to neighboring countries. Syria’s GDP has dropped 40 percent since 2010, and estimates suggest that 40 percent of the country’s housing infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. An estimated 5,000 to 10,0000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, most of them to support radical Islamist groups. There is now the risk that they will return to their home countries both more radicalized and more experienced in combat. The violence in Syria has also contributed to the destabilization of neighboring Iraq, where more than 2,200 Iraqi civilians have been killed by violence in 2014 alone and Iraq’s central government is still struggling to regain control of Fallujah, where just 10 years ago, U.S. Marines fought their bloodiest battle in decades.

The long-term costs of the Syrian conflict are also staggering. The United Nations estimates that 3 million children have dropped out of school since the onset of the crisis, leading Syria’s opposition president, Ahmad Jarba, to fear a generation of uneducated children who know only the language of violence and power. Polio has re-emerged as a risk, particularly in the most violent areas of Syria, where unrest is hindering vaccination campaigns.

Away from Syria, the threat of war between states has ominously re-emerged, too. Armed Russian troops stoked the crisis in Ukraine and reintroduced Europe to the prospect of war, while tensions between Japan and China, and China and Vietnam raise fears of a major-power conflict in Asia. While that threat is not yet imminent, the options to prevent its emergence — such as restraint based on tacit agreement of red lines, dialogue, no-fly zones, communication to prevent miscalculation, and negotiation — are easier and more numerous now, before tensions escalate further. In other words, there is no time to waste.

And violence, it is important to remember, comes not just from conflict. As expertly captured in the new book The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, violence stemming from broken systems may be the most significant obstacle to confronting extreme poverty. The failure of justice systems and security and police forces to shield poor communities from forced labor, theft, illegal detention, rape, and other abuses keeps millions in poverty who would otherwise find their own way out. And as Haugen and Boutros show, it is an issue that development agencies overwhelmingly fail to address.

But remembering the many causes and locations of violence is only a first step toward ending it. Also critical is breaking current modes of thought and action that are hindering us.

Those in the national security community, for instance, must recognize more forthrightly the limits of force and invest in the long-term task of building peace. This entails not just the high politics of diplomacy, but also grassroots efforts to build political constituencies for peace. We need stronger and more effective instruments of nonviolent power, such as diplomacy, mediation, conflict resolution, nonviolent civic mobilization, and public engagement through media and national dialogue, and we need to share them broadly with those in positions to mitigate violent conflicts. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can advance this agenda by treating these instruments seriously and laying the foundation for more detailed plans to employ them, both at the strategic level and in relation to particular issues and conflicts.

Those in the peace-building and conflict-resolution communities should also admit more forthrightly that force may have a role. Some dictators are simply too ruthless to come to the negotiating table if they think they are winning militarily. A positive peace, one that includes reconciliation and justice, not just a cessation of violence, is not possible in the midst of hostilities. Often, what is first required is the legitimate use of force by police and other security or peacekeeping forces. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can help to promote more effective modes of conflict management by showing how the legitimate use of force can support efforts at political institution-building, civil society development, and public dialogue to improve conditions in places like Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma — and how the United States can help to support such efforts.

Finally, Americans must recognize that withdrawing from the world is not a viable option. Turning the nation’s back on resurgent violence will not make it go away. The consequences of violence will harm America too, in myriad ways, despite the natural p
rotection of two oceans. The country’s economy, security, and health are intricately intertwined with the rest of the world. Its self-image as a moral nation, not just one that protects its own interests, cannot withstand rigid isolationism. The National Security Strategy and QDDR can articulate, with clarity and vision, why global engagement is essential if America wants to be the strong and prosperous force for good in the world it imagines itself to be.

Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, an international education and development nongovernmental organization, and co-chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter at @kristin_lord.

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