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The Guns of August

In the dog days of August, when great thoughts are put aside to make way for lighter novels and beach reading, it is easy to forget that America is at war. That is, until you turn on your cell phone or blackberry, for a minute-by-minute account from distant corners of the globe where our values and aspirations seem under siege by bombs, bullets and bad news.

It is getting harder to change the channel; escape the world's problems and take refuge in summer. From A-Z: Afghanistan to the end of the alphabet of countries, it all seems so grim. Today's bombing in Iraq only adds to the sense of doom and gloom.

One wonders: have things gotten worse in the world--or does it just sound that way from here? Do we face Labor Day and this year's September 11th (it will be 9 years--almost a decade since the towers fell) with a real or imagined sense that the earth is spinning in a counter-productive direction? And have, we, America, the remaining superpower, lost our touch?

The truthful answer is that despite the almost clichéd nature of the phrase, "the world has changed," it has. Borders and boundaries are often useless in containing bad actors spreading extremism and conflict. Technology, once mistakenly thought of as "good" is valueless, at best. The oft-celebrated power of "globalism" can turn into a cruel joke, undermining the best of intentions. And nation-states have become fragile observers of collapsing economies and outbreaks of violence.

Yet easy as it is to concede defeat, accept a loss of moral authority, fold our cards, -- the answers are more complex. While we can agree that societies have evolved since September 11th in ways that are both challenging and problematic and that technology is, simultaneously, a blessing and a curse-- spreading information as well as deception--and that America is caught between wanting to re-make the world, and knowing we can't--there is hope.

The good news is that we have learned a great deal since September 11, 2001, and we have the knowledge and skills and institutions to improve the world. An overlooked fact is that, in the wake of the Cold War, an entire new field of peacebuilding and international conflict management has grown up, giving us a sturdy pillar of thought and practice.

Scholars, policymakers and ordinary citizens have been learning and practicing how to deal with broken countries and how to build robust, healthy societies able to withstand oppression and violence. We have decades of experience in understanding the causes of international conflict and how to use tools and strategies to do everything from break deadlocks in negotiations to removing concrete after natural disasters. Our nation is equipped to confront deadly conflict. We have tools, approaches and a good record to run on.

Think back to the 1990s when the United States succeeded in a tough neighborhood like the Balkans which was exploding with violence. Working with our allies, we dealt with refugee flows out of Kosovo, contained ethnic conflict between Serbs, Bosnians and Muslims. We practiced diplomacy at Dayton--and succeeded in bringing warring factions to the negotiating table. The Balkans, albeit still troubled today, is not an active war zone.

Even in Iraq, with all its chaos and troubles, there is progress. U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams integrated civilians and the military to reduce levels of violence and quiet restless provinces. We watched statues of Saddam fall and purple fingers etch votes on Iraqi ballots. We see young people throughout Iraq who understand more about peacebuilding than ever before and hold out hope for a brighter future.

Afghanistan is messy. But despite the seemingly endless violence there are glimmers of hope-- in the faces of Afghan women learning how to lead, in the work of tribal chiefs practicing rule of law and learning how to settle land disputes, peacefully.

Even genocides in Sudan and crimes against humanity in Africa have enabled us to understand how, if the political will exists, we can prevent massive outbreaks of violence and ethnic cleansing--if we study what we have learned about warning signs, prevention, and intervention.

Yes, the world today is unruly and uncooperative. Iran's nuclear path is dangerous and destructive. The Middle East is a tinderbox. Turkey sways between the East and the West. North Korea challenges our security and safety. And two wars continue to be waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The global economy challenges us. Climate change threatens us. Cyber security scares us.

But despair is not always followed by inaction or inertia. There are institutions and organizations like the United States Institute of Peace deploying experts in conflict management to build the elements of a civil society, from the military to humanitarian groups, civilians to soldiers--Americans that are steadied and readied to engage, positively in the world with other nations and other peoples. Training and education in peacemaking and peacebuilding is not only possible, but viable. Lessons learned and best practices in peacemaking exist if we choose to know them.

So where do we go from here? We need a strong, solid strategic narrative to remind us why the world needs us and why we need the world. If we explain to the American people that we have the skills and know-how to meet oncoming trouble and prevent violent eruptions from unsettling our way of life, we can still instill confidence and do right with our power and moral authority. We can find common solutions to seemingly intractable problems if we work at them and commit to them.

Summers are for taking stock--of what we are good at, and what we have learned about how to prevent, manage, and resolve international conflicts that threaten all we treasure and preserve. We, Americans, want our lazy Augusts but somehow we also want to ponder great things. So, as we watch carefree children building sand castles and dipping toes into calm ocean waters, let's remind ourselves of our deepest dreams and highest aspirations for a more peaceful world.

Tara Sonenshine is Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan, independent organization founded and funded by Congress.