You would be hard-pressed to find a town anywhere across the United States without a firehouse or fire department. Along with a post office and town hall, it’s all but standard issue.
But it would be equally difficult to find modern homes and apartments without smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. In most places, that is the bare minimum to be up to code. Put another way, that’s what you have to do to follow the law.
If heaven forbid, your home does catch fire, you call the local fire department. They will be there in no time with every tool and piece of equipment necessary to put the fire out, and — perhaps more importantly — prevent it from spreading. We view fires as calamities that brutally take lives and destroy property. We take every practical step we can to stop them before they begin. And if that proves impossible, we have tens of thousands of highly trained experts ready, willing, and able to fight the most monstrous of blazes.
War, we should agree, is among the worst man-made calamities. What are we doing to prevent war — or better yet, build peace — before war even begins? How can we nonviolently intervene to stop its spread where it has already begun?
The answer is not the Department of Defense and/or the military. Their mission is to deter attacks through military might, to fight, and to win wars. They seek peace through strength and influence through intimidation: right through might. While the Pentagon may seek to strengthen our national security, deterrence cannot build sustainable peace. Deterrence is predicated on the threat of violence to coerce others, and while it might prevent the outbreak of violence among major powers, its “peace” is unequally distributed and has led to proxy wars and created instability in several regions of the world.
INVESTING IN TOOLS FOR PEACEBUILDING
Wherever there is inequality, oppression, corruption, poor governance, or a lack of resources, there is potential for conflict leading to violence. Violent conflict may seem to break out spontaneously, but even when a community seems relatively calm, the seeds of conflict can take root. Peace is, after all, a lot more than the mere absence of war.
Peacebuilding works to transform cultures and institutions that generate violent conflict at every level, from the community to national and international.
The United States consistently underfunds its civilian tools that could address these seeds of conflict and waits to respond once the violence has already begun. These tools include our diplomatic corps and development professionals and funding mechanisms that support local civil society groups that monitor human rights, document violations and atrocities, counter misinformation, and promote good governance and social cohesion, such as Reconciliation Programs or the Complex Crises Fund. Even then, the focus is often on mitigating damage and minimizing civilian harm as opposed to breaking deep-seated cycles of violence at the local level. One needs only look at Somalia’s recent tenuous “stability” to see this happening right now. Violence and war have not stopped, and civilian deaths increased as the United States redeployed troops in 2022 to seek elusive security.
Peacebuilding is a long-term, often generational process that addresses the underlying causes of violent conflict by resolving injustices in nonviolent ways. It works to transform cultures and institutions that generate violent conflict at every level, from the community to national and international. It requires access to justice and responsive governance structures. It often calls on leaders to address conflicts through diplomatic negotiation, the promotion of human rights, and accountability for those who have violated human rights and/or committed war crimes. The United States, with these goals and strategies in mind, should participate fully and in good faith with the UN and other international organizations pursuing peace and justice.
However, peace cannot be dictated from the top down. It must also take root within communities and individuals. Therefore, we should complement increased engagement in multilateral institutions with support for locally-led peacebuilding in our foreign policy and foreign assistance agendas. For example, although serious challenges remain, the United States has played a critical role in supporting efforts to build sustainable peace in Northern Ireland through earnest diplomatic engagement and committed support to local peacebuilding efforts. In a long overdue paradigm shift, the United States must put diplomacy, peacebuilding, and violence prevention — not the military — at the center of its foreign policy.
A good firefighter can spot fire hazards a mile away: oily rags near electrical sockets, space heaters, and broken smoke detectors. These same red flags exist in areas where peace is far from the norm. Wars can be averted. But only if we are willing to invest in peace.
As any good firefighter will tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Ursala Knudsen-Latta is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Peacebuilding Legislative Manager. Ursala lobbies to change foreign policy from an overly militarized and security-driven approach to one that prevents, mitigates, and transforms violent conflict and builds sustainable peace.