CREDIT: <a href="">aktivioslo</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: aktivioslo (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Ending War in Our Lifetimes?

Dec 17, 2009

"I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. … We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," said President Obama during his Nobel acceptance speech.

To most people, he was stating the obvious, but coming from a president who campaigned on change and hope, and delivered in front of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, it was a bit of a downer.

The world has never been more at peace than today. So much so that it should no longer be preposterous for a president of the United States to set a vision of eradicating war in our lifetime. Short of a definitive solution, a new foreign policy doctrine is needed.

Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, war deaths are near the all-time low, according to the Center for the Study of Civil War. While some major conflicts remain unresolved (e.g., Korea, Kashmir), dissuasion has contained them. The United Nations and regional organizations are doing a decent job of bringing many lower-intensity conflicts toward a solution.

Terror is no existential threat as the Soviet Union used to be. Big powers now compete peacefully. The U.S. military's ability to win conventional wars anywhere remains unchallenged, and North Korea and Iran are the only states daring America. Cosmopolitanism is on the rise, fueled by deepening globalization.

Yet clouds nevertheless gather on the horizon. China may want to challenge the U.S. supremacy more forcefully. Terror and counter-terror operations fuel tensions. Global resource conflicts gain momentum over energy, food, and water. Multilateralism stalls as G8 and G20 powers can now veto each other's preferred global policies. Despite globalization, nationalism is alive and well.

In the coming couple of decades, today's near-peace could thus engender either a more complete and permanent peace, or new cold wars. It is imperative to navigate such uncertain waters with a clear compass.

Unfortunately, the foreign policy establishment is stuck in old doctrines: realism, internationalism, neoconservatism. The inevitability of war is hard-wired in the training of every diplomat and foreign affairs analyst. Even the collapse of the Berlin Wall failed to shatter core assumptions, and the establishment quickly found new threats to apply old concepts.

Let's face it: President Obama probably would not have been elected had he not proclaimed his readiness to use force in general, and had he not declared a nuclear Iran unacceptable in particular. His inexperience and liberal leaning were sufficient challenges, but exposing himself to charges of naivety from the foreign policy establishment would have been fatal.

Today, Americans tire of international interventions and Barack Obama enjoys the credibility of his position. He could start preparing public opinion for an even more progressive foreign policy in his second term. What would it look like?

First, President Obama should say that he will use force only in self-defense or as authorized by the Security Council.

Nuclear proliferation and humanitarianism are two other popular justifications for war. While I do not have sufficient space here to argue against them, let me simply note that Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan know that Obama has enough problems to rule out a new war in the foreseeable future.

"Leaving all options on the table" therefore has little upside in terms of twisting arms. But it has a major downside. From Moscow to Beijing, Brasilia to Caracas, Cairo to New Delhi, diplomats and analysts know they are still playing the same old ballgame: The president of the United States is a realist, so they play balance-of-power politics as well, and there will not be peace in our lifetime.

Second, President Obama should resist the temptation to retreat into isolationism. America minding its own business is not likely to lead other countries to behave better—indeed, some might be tempted to aggressively fill the vacuum. Ruling out military interventions is perceived and rejected by the foreign policy establishment as isolationism. It does not need to be that way.

NATO has successfully kept the North Atlantic region safe through dissuasion. Given the geopolitical uncertainties of our multipolar world in the next decades, NATO membership could become a valued prize for other countries. Enlarging NATO incrementally to countries outside of the North Atlantic region could, over two to four decades, extend this island of peace and stability to the entire world.

But countries such as Brazil or Indonesia will not join NATO unless it goes through a vigorous reform and rebranding exercise. I argue elsewhere that NATO should become synonymous with prevention, inclusion, and power sharing.

At his first inaugural address, President Obama said: "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." That was a good place to start. I hope at his second inaugural address he will go further:

And to all foreigners, we say let us join together in an alliance to build a world of freedom, peace and prosperity. If you choose to join the alliance, you are welcome, whoever you are, as long as you agree to play by the rules. And we say: We are ready to die if necessary to protect you. If you prefer not to join the alliance, it's your choice. But do not fear us. We say to you: We will never attack you unless you attack the alliance first.

Didier Jacobs is special advisor to the president at Oxfam America.

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