Co-authored by Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton
With the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, it may be hard to recall the heady few years starting in 1989, when Americans could reasonably believe that the United States and the world in general were entering an enduring period of widespread peace. The Cold War had ended without violence as did Soviet domination of countries in Eastern Europe. The generally peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union coincided with a negotiated end to proxy wars in Central America and elsewhere. In South Africa, the struggle to end apartheid was successful, again without feared bloodshed between whites and blacks. Neighboring civil wars in Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola ended with negotiated agreements after protracted violence. The long-lasting fight about the status of Northern Ireland was settled. The UN became much more effectively engaged in interventions in civil wars, diplomatically and with peacekeeping forces, leading many to hope that the end of the Cold War had given way to a new era of global cooperation.
These transformations were associated with new ideas and insights about why violent conflicts emerge and how they can be contained, deescalated and settled. In the preceding decades, the fields of peace studies and conflict resolution emerged and began to become institutionalized, particularly in the United States and Western Europe. These fields advanced constructive strategies relating, for example, to negotiation and mediation, to non-official diplomacy, to mutual confidence-building measures, to inter-cultural exchanges and dialogue groups, and to reliance on nonviolent actions. Soon, courses and graduate degree-granting programs were being established in the United States and around the world devoted to the study of conflict transformation and peacebuilding.
Trump's victory however, may cap any dwindling hope that the world has entered a new era of cooperative peacebuilding. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States has become embroiled in unending violent conflicts both overtly and covertly, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. Horrible violations of basic human rights are being carried out daily by governments and extremists alike in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, often in full view of an unresponsive international community. Waves of refugees are met with suspicion and fear by many people in Europe and the United States as those countries turn inward.
What happened to reverse, in many cases, the progress that had been underway? First, frightful violations of the practices of the constructive peace and conflict resolution fields were perpetrated by actors who contradicted them by committing horrible terror attacks. Second, in response to the attacks in the United States on 9/11, the lessons of those constructive ideas were widely ignored and extraordinary violent escalations were executed in a global war against terrorism and by invading Iraq. Subsequently, some constructive U.S. government efforts during President Obama's presidency, were hampered by opposing partisan groups. Third, the fragile international consensus around collaborative peacebuilding was fractured by wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Georgia, and the Ukraine. Fourth, extremist ideologies flourished in the vacuum of effective governance across many nations in the Middle East, North Asia, and Africa.
Where do we go from here? How can Trump's unrealistic depiction of the world and America's role in it be altered or limited? Fundamentally, the growth of the ideas and practices of the peace and conflict resolution fields need to be strengthened and expanded in the United States and abroad. The biggest tragedy of the current era is that never have we known so much about the causes of violent conflict and credible pathways to constructive peacebuilding but not applied this knowledge in practice. Doing so entails several elements. Knowledge about the constructive conflict approach and of its possible applications must be diffused at all societal levels and sectors. Some constructive work has been done at all educational levels, within various governmental agencies, and among the growing number of nongovernmental organizations; but the scale of work needs to increase. Old and new channels of communication should recognize successful constructive ways of handling conflicts, and celebrate when destructive escalations are avoided or finally, destructive conflicts are positively transformed.
Organizational and educational efforts should be taken to counter the vested interests in perpetuating the overused and ineffective strategies relied on in the past and which may be enhanced during Trump's administration. Alternatives to the naïve and dangerous belief that reliance on coercive force is nearly always an effective pathway to national security must be put forward. The military-industrial complex has been augmented by congressional and educational ties and has become so pervasive that it is hardly discussed. But its magnitude heavily influences all kinds of decision-making. The capabilities that it provides make it the obvious supplier of the tools to apply to problems. This results in recourse to violence and threats of violence when other means of influence might be more effective. This reality should be explained.
Governmental and non-governmental Institutions that have alternative tools for conducting and resolving conflicts should be strengthened. This obviously should pertain to the Department of State, which has been sadly underfunded for a very long time. It also relates to the Department of Justice and to the Department of Commerce. The value of greater reliance on the UN and other international governmental and non-governmental organizations should be promoted. Moreover, transnational corporations and other non-governmental organizations can conduct their operations with greater consideration of their effects upon the emergence of conflicts and how they are waged.
The federal government's departments and agencies, under the leadership of the likely choices by Trump and his supporters, will tend to pursue regressive policies. Leaders in the Democratic Party and also in the Republican Party should identify constructive alternatives. Civic organizations should also formulate alternatives and rally support for well-grounded constructive policies. Available appropriate alternatives then can be used when conditions are propitious.
More analyses of ways to constructively wage and transform conflicts are needed. This should be combined in some settings with formulating detailed strategies for dealing with specific conflict situations. Such work can be done in existing institutions such as the United States Institute of Peace, university centers, and think tanks. In addition, new think tanks should be created for these purposes that are relatively independent of the U.S. government and the military-industrial complex.
With determination and perseverance, Trump's election can be used to spur new thinking among the many Americans who had been going along with the failing conventional approach to American engagement in foreign conflicts. Now, with increased risks of disastrous policies at home and abroad, they may give new attention to constructive ways to advance peace. Trump then may unwittingly help galvanize efforts to strengthen the infrastructure for peace. With the ascent of Trump to the U.S. presidency, the need is greater than ever to think and act creatively. We can join and support organizations that already strive to build a stronger infrastructure for peace and we can create more.
Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton are co-authors of the 2016 fifth edition of Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. Louis Kriesberg is Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies and the founding director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He has published numerous works in the field of conflict resolution, including Realizing Peace: A Constructive Conflict Approach. Bruce W. Dayton is Director of the CONTACT Peacebuilding Program and Associate Professor of Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more