President Joe Biden faces more than his share of global threats. The rise in inequality, injustice, and instability worldwide over the past two decades, combined with the worsening impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, have laid bare the need for new approaches in American foreign policy. War and weapons cannot solve today’s most urgent challenges. Climate change, pandemics, extreme inequality, corruption, and anti-democratic movements at home and abroad all make Americans less secure. These problems can only be uprooted and resolved through peacebuilding, diplomacy, and conflict-sensitive development.
In the last decade alone, more than 100 million civilians have been forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution, and human rights violations. During the same period, the number of water-related conflicts has increased by 270 percent. Beyond the human toll of the violence, the combination of conflict and fragility have undercut performance in education, health, and economic growth, among other sectors. In 2019 alone –and before the pandemic — violent conflict cost the world $14.5 trillion, or in excess of 10 percent of global GDP.
Even before COVID-19 hit, the Institute for Economics and Peace projected that within the next three decades, 5.2 billion individuals will live in the world’s 40 least peaceful countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, COVID-19 has set back important measures of global development by “about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” as a Gates Foundation found, sparing no country, large or small, industrialized or developing, resilient or fragile. Instability and armed conflict reduce markets for trade, destabilize governments, trigger mass migration, and degrade the environment.
Biden already has committed to putting diplomacy “back at the center of our foreign policy.” In his first foreign policy speech as president, during a Feb. 4 visit to the State Department, Biden underscored his support for diplomatic and multilateral solutions to global challenges such as climate change, pandemic disease, authoritarianism, nuclear proliferation, conflict, and violence.
While these changes reflect a stark (and welcome) departure from the last four years, Biden must dig deeper to match his rhetoric with action. To carry out the promise in his inaugural address “to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s,” Biden must make peacebuilding a priority. Only by doing so can he and his team meet the real threats to human security in America and abroad.
Long-Term Work on Underlying Conditions
Peacebuilding itself is not a single activity, but rather a framework to understand and respond to the complex problem set of preventing, managing, and resolving conflict. It includes all policies and actions that work over the long term to improve societal and structural conditions in a specific context by addressing the root causes of instability and war.
Peacebuilding can include locally-led peace committees, for example, that resolve community disputes, conduct civic education, and engage in dialogue with armed groups, in order to address grievances and reduce the risk of violence, while improving social cohesion in the long term. Peacebuilding can also include large-scale justice and security sector reform focused on prioritizing human rights and protection of vulnerable communities. Through a peacebuilding framework, local, national, and international actors can work together to achieve sustainable peace and reduce fragility, as has been seen over the last 25 years in Nepal, Timor-Leste and Rwanda – all of which graduated in 2020 from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s States of Fragility, based on pre-pandemic data.
To establish peacebuilding as a central foreign policy goal, Biden and his national security team must include it as a core component of the National Security Strategy, usually reviewed early in a president’s term. And they would need to request commensurate funding levels for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to support the requisite diplomacy and development efforts.
In particular, the president should request increased support to the Complex Crises fund and Prevention and Stabilization fund, both of which provide essential funding for implementation of to the Global Fragility Act (P.L. 116-94), and to the Atrocity Prevention fund, which supports the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Act (P.L 115-441). These two laws, alongside the Women, Peace, and Security Act (P.L. 115-68), provide opportunities for USAID’s Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization and the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations to work together to achieve important national security objectives.
Congress must not only increase support to peacebuilding in annual appropriations, but also hold the administration accountable to fully realizing the potential of both the Elie Wiesel and Global Fragility Acts. Members should ensure effective oversight through public hearings and ensuring adherence to reporting requirements.
The new administration, for its part, will have to ensure that security, humanitarian, and development assistance ‘do no harm,’ and do not escalate current conflicts, undermine peacebuilding efforts, or exacerbate human suffering. Biden already has made important steps in this direction by announcing an end to U.S. military aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen and reversing the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.
Reform Security Assistance
But one-off change is not enough. The administration and Congress must work together to reform the oversight and approval process for security assistance and arms sales. For example, they could mandate an updated national-level risk assessment before approving arms sales or other security assistance to gauge the risk that the proposed equipment or training could be used to violate human rights, escalate conflict, or cause civilian harm. Congress could also “flip the script” on arms transfers by requiring that major sales receive their affirmative approval, rather than allowing them to proceed as long as Congress does not vote to reject them.
Biden will need to rebuild America’s foreign policy institutions, demoralized by four years of the Trump administration’s determined dismantling. Already, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged to set ambitious goals for hiring, training, and promotion of racial and ethnic minority staff and taken steps toward a more inclusive workforce. Congress can support these efforts by ensuring that the foreign affairs agencies have the requisite funding and authority to expand hiring and training efforts, holding them to account for progress, and identifying remaining barriers that require redress.
To strengthen the institutional voice of peacebuilding, the Biden administration should increase the power and authority of the human rights and civilian security bureaus within the State Department. Foreign assistance programs should be made conflict-sensitive by requiring that up-to-date conflict assessments inform the design of all foreign assistance programs to ensure that they do not unintentionally worsen ongoing conflicts or trigger new violence.
And the many local peacebuilding efforts around the world should receive much more support. Those organizations and individuals know the terrain and have a clear enduring stake and make U.S. programs more effective and efficient, and supporting their work keeps American involvement to the minimum necessary while empowering local leaders and initiatives.
Finally, the Biden administration should continue to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to multilateralism by rejoining international organizations and treaties that it abandoned in the last four years. Biden has already taken crucial initial steps by extending the New START Treaty, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and returning the United States to the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council. But additional imperatives to support global governance include reversing Executive Order 13928, which sanctions International Criminal Court officials for doing their jobs. Biden further should align with the global consensus on arms control by submitting the Mine Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification.
To be sure, peacebuilding is a long game, and will not be easy. It takes time, resources, commitment, and determination. If he is willing to go beyond a return to the status quo ante, Biden can make good on his inaugural promise to reclaim American credibility and moral authority as a “strong and trusted partner for peace.”