Ending Violent Conflicts Requires Preventing Them in the First Place

President Trump and former vice president Biden, the two major party candidates for the U.S. presidency, have repeatedly declared they will end so-called endless or forever wars. From Trump’s approach to Syria and Afghanistan to Biden’s focus on terminating U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war, their plans differ in substance. But the underlying reason for their shared goal reflects significant levels of deployment fatigue and the broad unpopularity of continued involvement in foreign wars.

Ending current wars—some of which seem endless—is an admirable goal. Doing so responsibly while also focusing on preventing violent conflict is an even better goal.

The Elusive Nature of Peace

One year from now we will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The attacks of that day led to wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East that have lasted the better part of the subsequent two decades. Over 801,000 people have died in wars which have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6.4 trillion.

U.S. development assistance programs, diplomacy, and other civilian resources have tried to keep up but must adapt and innovate to keep pace with recent broader trends of increased violence and protracted conflicts. In 2019, the number of highly violent conflicts increased for the first time in four years, and roughly 2 billion people live in countries where development is affected by fragility, conflict, and violence. Civilian funding to fragile states has increased recently, but it is not evenly distributed nor consistent, mainly focusing on humanitarian aid to select “aid darlings”—places with active wars like Syria and Yemen but also including Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria—and not nearly at the overall pace needed to prevent violent conflict.

U.S. development assistance programs, diplomacy, and other civilian resources have tried to keep up but must adapt and innovate to keep pace with recent broader trends of increased violence and protracted conflicts.”

We are now experiencing a global pandemic that is proving to be stabilization in reverse, seriously disrupting not only health systems but also governance, the economy, food security, and more while providing plenty of opportunity for the proliferation of dis- and misinformation. A recent study showed the pandemic could ignite violent conflict in 13 additional countries through 2022, pushing the total to 35, more than at any point over the past 30 years. Violent extremist groups, including the Islamic State, are also leveraging the pandemic to their advantage by legitimizing their ability to provide services to communities facing economic and food insecurity.

To make matters worse, climate change is already directly and indirectly increasing global fragility, including as a threat multiplier for violent conflict. A recent study made the shocking finding that approximately 1 billion people live in countries that do not have the resilience to deal with the environmental changes they are expected to face between now and 2050. Without the ability to build such resilience, it will be difficult to prevent future violent conflicts.

A Meaningful Opportunity to Refocus on Prevention

Civilian efforts (particularly development and diplomacy) are critical to ending violent conflicts and endless wars. Evidence shows peace processes are more sustainable when civilian-led, especially when women are involved. While more research is needed on the best utilization of civilian resources in violent conflict prevention, strong evidence suggests civilian-led conflict prevention is (or would have been) significantly cheaper than the security-focused responses. Each dollar invested in peacebuilding could save as much as $16 in the overall cost of conflict, to say nothing of the civilian and military lives saved. Investing in prevention results in reduced costs to the directly affected territory, to its neighbors, and to foreign partners like the United States. Nonetheless, conflict prevention is often more art than science. It requires longer-term attention to hyper-local, informal, and political dynamics, and the evidence of what works is growing.

“Civilian efforts (particularly development and diplomacy) are critical to ending violent conflicts and endless wars.”

Despite this evidence, the U.S. government does not yet have a comprehensive, coordinated, and civilian-led strategy to prevent violent conflict. The Global Fragility Act (GFA) offers a meaningful opportunity to overhaul the United States’ outdated, slow, and nonadaptive approach to preventing the next violent conflict. Passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support and signed into law by President Trump in December 2019, the main goal of the GFA is to put conflict prevention and peacebuilding at the center of the government’s strategy. The law dedicates new authorities and resources in at least five high-priority, fragile countries and/or regions over a sustained 10-year period. A historic and long-sought victory for the peacebuilding community, the GFA mandates the U.S. government create its first-ever comprehensive strategy to address and prevent accelerating levels of violent conflict in at least five fragile countries and/or regions.

The GFA is not only about new dedicated resources, though these are welcome and necessary. It mandates that diplomacy, development, and defense strategies integrate through a whole-of-government approach. It also requires development sectors, including health, education, and humanitarian assistance, to be integrated into the conflict prevention strategy where relevant as opposed to being siloed sectors, which is often the case. Policymakers are to consult experts and trust assessments, ultimately using foreign assistance to address the actual drivers of violence and conflict. If done right, the GFA will also measure the progress of U.S. foreign assistance at the country or region level, assessing whether countries or regions are becoming more violent or peaceful and adapting as needed.

Three Barriers to Preventing Endless Wars

Despite the opportunity the GFA represents, change will be hard. Pivoting the U.S. government to a more preventive approach is no small task. It will require significant changes to a large and complex bureaucracy, funding processes, consensus between government officials with differing political agendas in the middle of a global pandemic, and a shift in the political and public narrative.

Bureaucratic and political challenges. Though it is not the only effort to prevent violent conflict, the GFA is the most recent, comprehensive, and meaningful attempt to put prevention at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The GFA mandates a comprehensive, integrated strategy with a focus on understanding and addressing long-term causes of fragility and destructive violence and identifies selected countries and/or regions that will be a core part of 10-year implementation plans. But the GFA’s journey is just beginning. While experienced and dedicated U.S. government officials are working tirelessly to operationalize the GFA, the development of the Global Fragility Strategy has been wrought with bureaucratic and political disagreements and strained by the need to adapt to an unforeseen global pandemic.

The administration submitted a report to Congress on September 15, 2020. While not a comprehensive strategy, the report outlines four admirable goals:

  1. Prevention: anticipating and preventing violent conflict;
  2. Stabilization: achieving locally driven political solutions to violent conflicts and large-scale violence;
  3. Burden-sharing: promoting partnerships for stability, resilience, and peace; and
  4. Management: enabling an effective, integrated U.S. government response.

One of the most important aspects of the report is that “peacebuilding” and “conflict prevention” are prioritized in the first goal. The report also acknowledges success requires more than increased resources and assistance, identifying the need for a diplomatic cultural shift toward a strong focus on locally driven political solutions. This reflects positive feedback on the administration’s 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review framing of violent conflict and stabilization as inherently political- and governance-related issues. While this report is a start, there are obviously miles to go before a robust strategy is in place, especially one that addresses how the administration proposes to accomplish these four goals in consultation with civil society. Significant bureaucratic and political challenges remain.

Resource disparities. If one wants to know what a country values, one should look less to words in reports and strategies and more to line items in national budgets. Funding for diplomacy and development pales in comparison to the military budget. The second-largest item in the U.S. federal budget after Social Security, military spending for the coming year is estimated to be $934 billion, almost 20 percent of the overall budget. Foreign assistance, on the other hand, constitutes less than 1 percent of the federal budget, of which only 11 percent is spent supporting political stability, democratic institutions, justice, and peacebuilding. Of these already paltry resources, a small and diminishing portion is spent on peacebuilding efforts, which evidence suggests are fundamental to preventing violent conflict.

Thus, one of the most important aspects of GFA implementation is ensuring increased resourcing and appropriated funds are connected to the timelines as outlined in the law. The GFA passed as part of the FY 2020 appropriations package, authorizing funds through the Complex Crisis Fund and the Prevention and Stabilization Fund. It also authorizes a multi-donor Global Fragility Fund, an account that allows the State Department “to leverage, receive, coordinate, and program funds provided by other donors and private sector partners to carry out the purposes” of the eventual Global Fragility Strategy. However, civilian resources are heavily earmarked and still pale in comparison to what is needed to prevent violent conflict, especially since the House-passed FY 2021 appropriations bill only provides 50 percent of the FY 2020 Prevention and Stabilization Fund. It is essential that Congress restore the FY 2020 funding levels and provide an appropriation to support the unfunded multi-donor Global Fragility Fund.

Political and Public Narrative. War—and U.S. involvement in war—has become an assumed reality; Americans demonstrate unwavering trust in the military. Many of today’s college students were born after 9/11. Elevating and integrating peacebuilding and violent conflict prevention as a priority across our foreign policy and assistance architecture will be a major shift, especially if perceived to be a threat to military exceptionalism and patriotism. Despite being necessary to prevent future wars, political will for such a shift is rare. Addressing these barriers will not be easy. They are as much in the public narrative as they are in politics and policy. For decades, the U.S. government’s approach has made peace look unimaginable or unattainable. War has been normalized; the public thinks of peace as passive and conflict as inevitable.

The Way Ahead

For decades experts have argued it is easier and more cost-effective to prevent wars before violence escalates. Military interventions address the violent symptoms of war; prevention requires addressing the causes of destructive violence and violent conflict. Peacebuilding efforts will likely not have much impact on preventing endless wars while funded at current levels, especially not without a more comprehensive prevention strategy and a narrative and cultural shift. Meaningful GFA implementation could shift the focus to prevention, but this will require disrupting the status quo and addressing each of the three barriers listed above head on.

Effectively addressing violent conflict and destructive violence will also require U.S. stabilization and prevention plans to include active cooperation with multilateral institutions and other donor nations. The United States cannot do it alone. The United Nations and the World Bank are revising their strategies to significantly incorporate conflict prevention and peacebuilding, allowing them to leverage their programs and diplomacy, i.e., to share the burden, in fragile and conflict affected states.

Meaningful GFA implementation could shift the focus to prevention, but this will require disrupting the status quo.”

Whomever occupies the White House next term has a tremendous opportunity. Ending wars responsibly and sustainably so they do not reignite will be complex and difficult. But the next administration should ensure ending current wars does not detract focus from preventing future ones.

The United States should commit to elevating a prevention-focused agenda, starting with robust implementation of the bipartisan GFA through senior leadership and significant political will that includes the embassy country teams and interagency coordination. Once in place, the GFA should be expanded for a path to scale for all fragile states with the necessary appropriated funds within at least four years. The world is not getting less violent. Elevating and prioritizing this agenda will require the upcoming GFA strategy and the ten-year country/region plans to be more than just “old wine in a new bottle.”

If Trump and Biden are serious about ending wars and violent conflicts, they should focus on shifting the U.S. government to be more prevention focused as codified in law through the Global Fragility Act.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development. Elizabeth Hume is the vice president at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Elizabeth Hume

Vice President, Alliance for Peacebuilding