Over the past decade, war has dominated the American foreign policy agenda.
The protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Debate about the wars’ worth will persist for decades. As U.S. soldiers finally return home from Iraq and prepare to leave Afghanistan, a war-weary America hopes for peace. That’s where the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) — a congressionally mandated agency that works closely with the U.S. Departments of Defense and State — can help.
The independent, nonpartisan agency’s longtime president, Richard H. Solomon, will step down in September after 19 years at the helm. But during an interview with The Diplomat at the institute’s soaring, sun-drenched new headquarters on the National Mall, Solomon said today’s organization is well equipped not only to promote peace abroad, but to help America’s soldiers improve their peacekeeping skills, as well.
Today, USIP’s officers are working with Defense and State Department personnel in Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and other global hotspots, while also helping local leaders learn the nitty-gritty fundamentals of conflict prevention, management and resolution.
And USIP’s specialty is the nitty-gritty, often-underappreciated spadework of stabilizing conflict-ridden societies. On the ground, the institute mediates local tribal disputes over land and family issues and conducts training on topics ranging from how to use the radio to educate rural Afghans on the rule of law to security-sector reform in Tunisia.
Back in Washington, unlike the broad discussions emanating from many think tanks, USIP delves into the minutiae of conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction, reporting on the effectiveness of female peacekeepers in Liberia, for instance, or the inability of young men in South Sudan to meet rising dowry demands, which forces them to join militias or cattle raids to earn enough money to get married. The institute has been examining the question of whether to negotiate with the Taliban and extremists years before the issue emerged on the national radar.
“The character of diplomacy has changed,” Solomon told us. “We fill a space that deals with the kinds of conflicts and actors in international affairs that were not part of 20th-century diplomacy.”
Solomon has served as USIP’s president since 1993 and has overseen its growth into a center of international conflict management, analysis, training and applied programs. Prior to assuming leadership of USIP, he was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Solomon negotiated the Cambodia peace treaty, the first United Nations “Permanent Five” peacemaking agreement; and had a leading role in the nuclear policy discussions among the United States and South and North Korea. In 1995, the State Department awarded Solomon its Foreign Affairs Award for Public Service.
During his nearly two decades at USIP, Solomon has pushed to expand and evolve the peace agency’s mission. The institute came into existence in 1984, conceived by Congress and authorized by President Reagan to research issues of non-violent conflict resolution and to supplement the functions of the U.S. military academies.
“The idea was that it would be a kind of complement to the military academies — that we train war fighters at Annapolis and West Point but we should train peacemakers, too,” Solomon recalled. “But this was during the Cold War and it really wasn’t clear what an institution with that kind of a charter would be doing.”
For its first half-decade, the institute focused on international conflict analysis, sharing its findings with the Department of Defense, as well as other governments interested in peace. USIP began, essentially, as a Washington think tank. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the organization began to practice what it preached.
“When the Cold War ended, the character of international conflict began to change dramatically,” Solomon said.
A series of regional but savage humanitarian crises in Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and later the Balkans challenged America’s perception of conflict and exposed shortcomings in the lumbering, formal protocols of the Departments of Defense and State.
“They’d been structured to deal with the Cold War environment,” Solomon said. “We were small and had a very flexible charter that enabled us to start doing some of the things the big agencies weren’t structured or experienced to deal with.”
He explained that the institute isn’t constrained by the protocols of the State Department, nor met with the fear, anger or skepticism that often confronts U.S. soldiers overseas.
“We’re floating between the big bureaucracies,” Solomon said. “We’re a creation of the Congress, particularly the Senate, and that gives us a kind of semi-independence where we can take up a position that the formal bureaucracies don’t easily do.”
The USIP currently has offices in Baghdad, Kabul and Islamabad and officers working in Asia, Africa, Haiti, Latin America, the Korean Peninsula, Israel, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere. Institute officers can frequently be found in villages, working face to face with local leaders. A major thrust of the agency in recent years has been improving social conditions for women in oppressed countries and encouraging a dramatic uptick in the use of women as key members of peacekeeping forces from America and its allies.
“In the case of Egypt, they see our people out talking in the rural areas to local villagers or talking to activists in the city in a more sort of open way than the formal diplomatic process would support,” Solomon said. “Precisely because we’re small and agile and sort of below the radar screen, we’re able to be active and on the ground in a way that the formal government agencies would find it harder to operate.”
Much of the State Department’s work overseas, for example, is in the formal confines of embassies and foreign government buildings.
“In the wake of our embassy bombings and all the rest, our State folks tend to be rather cloistered in very secure embassies,” Solomon said. “Our people are out and about and they give the government outreach into these societies.”
Out in the field, the institute focuses intently on the nuts and bolts of building civil societies, such as supporting judicial reform and rule of law initiatives.
“If you’re going to have a democratic government, you need to have a population that is organized below the level of government, and have some way of aggregating public opinion and playing a role that feeds into the formal mechanisms of government,” Solomon said.
By law, the institute is obligated to spend a quarter of its annual budget of roughly $50 million to institution building in countries that have experienced government upheaval.
“We help build civil societies in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan,” Solomon said. “It creates a balance between the formal institutions and the public.”
Institute board members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Nominees tend to have bipartisan support. Some of the nation’s most hawkish Republicans — including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — are among USIP’s most enthusiastic supporters. Solomon also keeps in regular contact with the nation’s top military brass and mentioned that he had dinner with Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, in April and talked about peacekeeping training for soldiers.
“The biggest supporters of our mission are people who would otherwise go out and fight and die,” Solomon said. “Our work has very clearly saved lives and money by keeping people out of a fight.”
In fact, when the House voted to cut the institute’s budget last year, Anthony C. Zinni, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, came to USIP’s defense in a nationally published op-ed titled “Peace-Building That Pays Off.”
“The Institute of Peace is like the Marine Corps or special forces for foreign affairs and peace-building. When others are fleeing conflict around the world, you’ll usually find institute staff members going in,” wrote Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general.
“In Afghanistan, the institute conducts mediations on issues from refugees to property and water disputes. In the last year, these operations have resolved 18 tribal disputes throughout the country, mostly involving the abuse of women, and included 30 training programs for government officials, lawyers, mullahs, tribal councils and community leaders. The network is even supporting dialogue along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the earth’s most dangerous frontier,” he wrote.
“Congress would be hard-pressed to find an agency that does more with less. The institute’s entire budget would not pay for the Afghan war for three hours, is less than the cost of a fighter plane, and wouldn’t sustain even 40 American troops in Afghanistan for a year.”
Solomon is often asked about his thoughts on war given his capacity as chief executive of a national institute for peace, not war.
“It’s really hard to eliminate a lot of conflicts,” he said. “Our objective should be to manage them by nonviolent means, to prevent conflict from crossing that line from dispute into violence.”
He added: “The notion that you’re going to create a world of peace absent of conflict doesn’t seem to be the way the human society works.”
In the absence of world peace, Solomon said USIP is constantly trying to calibrate how much time and resources it spends on preventing violent conflicts versus managing them. The budget tells where the priorities are, he said.
“Much of our budgetary increase has been for the post-conflict stabilization efforts — to get us out of Iraq and help stabilize the situation,” he explained. “One of the dilemmas in our business is what I call the political will problem. We’ve run a program on genocide prevention but for some reason, people really don’t want to get involved until public opinion or the cost of a conflict becomes overwhelming.
“The political will often isn’t there for preventative action,” he added. “We can do an awful lot with a minimal amount of resources in a preventative way.”
Sometimes people are confused about the agency’s mission. Solomon was careful to stress that USIP does not protest American military action overseas. It tries to manage it to a peaceful conclusion.
“People ask, let’s say in the case of Iraq, why were we not out demonstrating [against U.S. military force],” he said. “We are not an advocacy outfit. We are trained professionals and in an operational sense try to control conflict.
“If you’re out there on the streets demonstrating, you’re too late,” he pointed out. “We can be more effective if we prevent the conflict or bring it to an early conclusion. In that sense, we’re very practical rather than just being a political demonstration outfit.”
As Solomon prepares to head for the exits, he said he is eager to leave his management responsibilities behind and get back to research, teaching and training. Solomon, who started his career as a political science professor at the University of Michigan, doesn’t have a full-time job lined up yet, but said he’s talking to potential employers and plans to write books — perhaps more on Chinese politics, his longtime area of academic expertise.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have the kind of experiences that I think give me a unique perspective on what international affairs and conflict management means,” he said.
Solomon said USIP’s next big push is in the realm of public outreach and education. The center’s new headquarters boasts 20,000 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibit and conference space — an asset that Solomon is eager to put to use in training students, foreign and domestic government officials and others who want to learn more about building peace.
He also noted that satellites and high-definition televisions have the power to transform global communications and training because international instruction and interaction can be achieved via satellite instead of expensive, time-consuming and exhausting airplane trips.
Gesturing toward his panoramic office window with its spectacular views of the Lincoln Memorial and the adjacent Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, Solomon noted that the site of USIP’s new, gleaming white building, which opened for business last year, is often described as the “war and peace corner of the Mall.” The building has dramatically elevated the profile of an agency that formerly was relegated to renting space from the National Restaurant Association.
“It dramatizes our work and makes it much more visible to the tourists who come to see the memorials,” Solomon said. “One of our areas of growth is our public outreach and explaining how tax money is being spent for peacemaking instead of just war fighting.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.