Peacekeeping more than a military problem
by Karl Eikenberry
As America prioritizes its spending in a dangerous world, the White House has proposed a hard-power budget that emphasizes military investments to deter war. Yet what it first would deter is any cost-effective work to reduce the wars abroad — civil upheaval in weak or failing states — that greatly threaten U.S. interests and global stability.
This “national security budget” would dramatically reduce the effectiveness of the State Department, USAID and United Nations peacekeeping operations, and end funding for the small, specialized U.S. Institute of Peace — all vital tools for keeping America safe. We would be left with one massively expensive and blunt instrument — the United States military — to deal with any and all foreign policy challenges.
Viewed from home, the impulse to abandon most stabilization work abroad can seem understandable, if only because the violent collapse of a South Sudan or Somalia may feel too distant to matter. Even where mediation and peacekeeping can resolve wars, the results can be difficult to measure and can take years. For many Americans, it seems better to deal only with the most urgent crises, sending our forces to surgically clean things up and return home. But a budget that cripples low-cost stabilization of weak states is foolish — the national security equivalent of, say, prohibiting maintenance on dams and bridges until they visibly begin to collapse.
New analyses of the world’s roughly 30 civil wars find that they are lengthening, now averaging more than 20 years’ duration. As Syria illustrates, they also are becoming more contagious. With global influence diffusing from its earlier concentration in the hands of superpowers, contending powers in any given region are backing proxy forces and fueling wars in weak states.
These insights emerge in a study of civil wars by 35 international security specialists for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The study, to begin publication this fall, observes that international mediation and peacekeeping often has worked, to little fanfare, in halting civil wars of the past three decades. And a major conclusion is that the system must be strengthened and reshaped if it is to help meet threats from civil wars and other intrastate violence. These threats include:
•The breeding of new terrorist movements. Stanford University political scientist James Fearon details “the remarkable increase in the share of conflicts that involve avowedly jihadist rebel groups, from around 5 percent in 1990 to more than 40 percent in 2014.” These wars are hothouses for radicalization and terrorism, providing the space, inspiration and training grounds for their growth.
•The largest forced migration of people ever measured. Civil wars have uprooted the bulk of the world’s 65 million displaced people, the most since World War II. Where masses of migrants find no hope for their futures, this crisis lays foundations for an even broader, new generation of ISIS-style extremists. Mass migrations already strain politics from Australia to Europe to America, threatening to undermine humanitarian and democratic values that built the world’s most developed states.
•A potential tipping point of global disorder. Consider this near-miss in the 2014 Ebola outbreak: The virus swept quickly through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — all weak states recovering from civil wars. Had the epidemic erupted during those wars, with no local government institutions that could be engaged to control it, the United States and its allies would have faced the nightmare of deploying tens of thousands of troops to either forcibly quarantine an entire region of Africa or to fight their way in, halt the wars, and battle the epidemic at the same time. We face this danger now in the war-damaged, ungoverned spaces of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
The impulse to ignore such crises not only lets them fester; it erodes the international norms of behavior that have preserved global stability, and kept us from that tipping point of disorder, in the 70 years since World War II’s end.
Americans’ fatigue at the persistent violence of Iraq and Afghanistan obscures the good news that international mediation and peacekeeping has halted many wars, and at comparatively low cost. Peacekeeping operations had a role in 41 percent (21 out of 51) civil wars halted since 1991, Fearon finds, and appear to lower the recurrence of wars once stopped. The cost to the United States of a U.N. peacekeeping soldier this year is less than 4 percent of what it cost taxpayers in 2007 to deploy one U.S. soldier to fight the insurgency in Iraq.
U.S. military interventions usually are more protracted and expensive than initially anticipated; and the results since World War II have often been disappointing. If war is the failure of diplomacy (of which USAID’s development assistance is an important component), then a budget that guts our ability to conduct diplomacy will certainly lead to more wars.
*Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general, commanded U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan (2005-07) and was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (2009-11). He is the Oksenberg-Rohlen fellow and a professor at Stanford University.