Some argue that the U.S. is at a precipice not faced since the Civil War and that the divides are so serious that serious civil conflict could be the result. The events that took place on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol were the most stark and disturbing example of what has been going on. Understanding the grievances of protesters and those disgruntled is important. But, preventing further unrest is more pressing. In the language of my field: conflict resolution and peacebuilding are called for, but conflict management might be the immediate need right now. Consider the ceasefire lines set up to keep peace that exist around the world manned by United Nations “blue helmets.” It is doubtful that something like that can work here. Do we set up a ceasefire line between “red” West Virginia, and “blue” Maryland? The kind of conflict we are dealing with, though often pitting geographically located Americans, reflects differences that are not always based in where we live, as much as how we live. Innovative and maybe unconventional strategies are needed to respond.
History is replete with examples of outsiders supporting reconciliation and peace. Often these efforts go unnoticed. For a number of years I worked at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a U.S. government funded entity which provides training and education in resolving global conflict. Much of USIP’s work has been in bringing peace to places that Americans don’t closely follow like Colombia, the Philippines, and Nigeria. The roles that an outside can play can take many forms including direct negotiations as a mediator, helping prepare parties to engage through training, setting the exceptions and rules for an engagement, or acting as guarantors of the agreement reached, a role that the U.S. played in the 1995 Dayton Agreement ending the war in the Balkans. Similarly, the U.S. as an outsider mediated the conflict in Northern Ireland that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. A major U.S. success was in 1978 with the Camp David Accords settling the Egyptian-Israeli conflict, reached as a result of President Jimmy Carter’s efforts.
The U.S. is not the only country that has provided its expertise, economic (and even military) support, and good offices as outsiders. Traditionally neutral countries such as Norway and Finland have played this role, as have major powers such as Russia, most recently in bringing resolution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The incentives for an outsider intervening are not always pure, as has been the case in Russia’s interventions where its national self-interests included obtaining long-term regional influence.
We don’t take well to outsiders getting into our business. American exceptionalism is premised on the notion that we know what to do and can fix our own problems: an unfortunate hubris. With our history of social and racial injustice, endless military conflicts, and violence against our own people, we have a mixed track record of fixing our own problems.
We can benefit from outsiders’ perspectives, experiences, and support. These can be national governments, but also organizations as well as individual mediators and nongovernmental groups that work with those in conflict. The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize have been a mix of individuals and groups often working quietly to bring peace. The international standing of the U.S. as a result of the Trump years has taken a significant hit. Restoring our image in the world is going to be a prime objective of the Biden administration. Does that mean going back to the days where the U.S. was expected to lead, but at times muscled its way to achieve its own interests? The U.S. can move from a paternal and to a fraternal role. Brothers (and sisters) look out for each other and seek and accept help when needed.
In this new era, let’s welcome all those who can offer insight and expertise, regardless of where they are from. Other societies have dealt with the type of social and political conflict we are seeing in the U.S. Our exceptionalism doesn’t mean our problems are unique. Countries that have gone through their own struggles with extreme polarization, and economic and social division, can play a role in assisting both our local communities and national constituency in helping to transform us into a more peaceful and just society.
David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education. He is adjunct faculty at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org