My job is to prevent wars. I belong to a community of peace professionals in the US. Arguably we suck at our work, because the possibility of war in Ukraine is real and the US is a key player in yet another militarized conflict. But hear me out: If our community and all the wonderful peace advocacy organizations out there have a say, we might succeed. Diplomacy and de-escalation can still resolve the current crisis, but only if they are not subordinate to the militarized approaches.
First, however, we must talk about priorities in US foreign policy toward Russia and the world. In a desperately needed shift from strong-man bravado from you-know-who, the Biden administration has emphasized diplomacy and de-escalation in the face of a foreign strong-man threatening his neighbor. The US model for peace and security, however, is built around military force. Diplomacy is the sidekick of the US war machine when it comes to relations with the rest of the world. Unsure about that? The State Department’s budget for Diplomatic Programs is $9.5 billion, one third of which is allocated to security programs. The National Defense Authorization Act showered $777.7 billion into the Department of Defense and other related programs. Money talks, this is where the nation’s priorities are.
If the US administration is serious about diplomacy and de-escalation, it needs to act accordingly. Threats of severe sanctions, amassing troops, and sending arms to the conflict context fuels war, it doesn’t prevent it. Recent research, for example, finds that threatened or actual harm can provoke an adversary rather than coerce them. Don’t trust the research? Try threatening an eight-year-old with even more TV restrictions when they act up. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work and yet I try it over and over again.
Diplomacy and de-escalation can still resolve the current crisis, but only if they are not subordinate to the militarized approaches.
Should we let Putin just bully Russia’s neighbors and silently stand by? Of course not, and an invasion of Ukraine would be devastating for the Ukrainian people. But no matter what direction this crisis takes the next days, weeks, or months, a further militarization of responses to Putin’s moves may likely ignite a classic pattern in conflict where moves generate stronger countermoves. Misperceptions and accidents become more likely when both sides view the other’s actions as provocations. And in this specific conflict, there is an elephant in the room, and it’s a big one. An escalation from conventional war to one where nuclear weapons are used would potentially cause an existential crisis for Ukrainians and all living beings.
Let us talk about what diplomacy and de-escalation means. Diplomacy is not only talk among officials and leaders, and in unofficial diplomatic backchannels. Multi-track diplomacy is a systems approach to peace that casts an even wider net, aiming to transform deeply rooted conflict using concepts of peacebuilding. De-escalation includes concessions, face-saving measures, and reassurances and reciprocal processes to turn down the heat, increase transparency, contain issues, and develop ties between adversaries. To be sure, this might not always be equitable for all, but without doubt preferable to war.
We must continue elevating the voices of diplomats and peacebuilders. Former Ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock Jr., for example, suggests that Putin’s demands perhaps are not as unreasonable as they are made out to be. In the world of conflict resolution, all parties argue and act from their respective truths and interpretations of the realities around them. Exploring those respective truths is important, making empathy a strategic tool of de-escalation.
Lastly, we must seriously question if we would find ourselves in the same crisis had the US consistently pursued a feminist foreign policy. This approach de-centers military force, violence, and domination and instead offers an intersectional rethinking of security through direct changes, priorities, and practices that have been traditionally part of a militarized security paradigm. Diplomatic and de-escalation processes along with a fundamental reorientation of foreign policy are necessary to achieve common security for all. That’s not a naïve call to “can’t we all get along.” That’s a call to finally pursue peace as relentlessly as we pursue war.
Patrick. T. Hiller, PhD., is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, Advisory Board member of World Beyond War, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association, serves on the Steering Committee of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and is Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.