World news headlines over the last few months have featured more diplomatic initiatives than body counts.
Ongoing conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Central African Republic, and elsewhere still provide violence vultures with ample stories. But high-stakes negotiations with Iran, Israel and Palestine, and even South Sudan have become dramatic, and drama makes news. Furthermore, against the urging of a few hawks, the United States is not sending troops with guns and bombs to intervene whenever and wherever trouble emerges. In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of ending wars, not starting new ones, and he insisted on the primacy of diplomacy to avert violence and build a safe and secure future.
Preference for diplomacy over military action should be self-evident, but not for everyone. Some still pine for the days of old when the Dulles brothers waged clandestine wars across the globe to impose the U.S. will on sovereign nations — often installing brutal dictators who would protect our interests at the expense of democratic values and local needs. In his Weekly Standard magazine, veteran neoconservative activist William Kristol describes leading through diplomacy rather than military might as “feeble execution of our foreign policy.” But we are paying a severe price for Kristol’s prescriptions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are not trusted in Iran, much of Africa, and Latin America because of the Dulles folly. More military muscle will not help.
Others fear a reduction in military action will collapse the economy. After all, every American was raised knowing, without question, that war is good for the economy. Several years ago, I introduced several members of Congress to the concept of peacebuilding. One of them, an old friend, rejected the idea of building a more peaceful world out of hand. “You can’t do that,” he exclaimed. “It will ruin the economy.” He meant it.
Shortly before he died in 2011, the columnist David Broder urged President Obama to start a war with Iran to save his presidency and the economy. “As tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve,” he argued. Broder was often right, but not this time. We know better. The Vietnam War, for example, not only failed to achieve victory on the battlefield; it also created large deficits and fueled inflation leading to economic crises in the 1970s. More recently, we have fought not just one but two large wars, and the economy crashed. The myth that war is good for the economy has been busted.
Correlating Peace and Prosperity
The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) has calculated that war and violence worldwide has a net 11-percent drag on the global economy. The IEP’s Global Peace Index ranks countries based on their peacefulness, and the correlation between peace and prosperity is almost absolute. GDP per capita rises by approximately $3,000 for every ten places higher in the peace index. The data indicates a clear correlation between peacefulness and prosperity. With the exception of a few statistical outliers, peaceful countries are prosperous and countries mired in violence are not.
In their optimistic 2014 annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates refute the myths that block progress for poor countries, and they predict significant growth. But they add, “A few countries will be held back by war, politics, or geography.” Peace by itself will not make a country prosper, but, as Paul Collier and other development economists assert, violence virtually guarantees economic stagnation. The poorest nations enhance their prospects for prosperity through peace, not war.
The United States ranks 99 out of 162 countries in the 2013 Index. The low status is due to internal factors such as violent crime and the world’s highest incarceration rate, as well as external engagement in warfare and high military spending. As a prosperous country, the United States is among the few exceptions to the peace and prosperity correlation, but we could do better on both counts. The IEP publication Violence Containment in the United States concludes that “If policy makers clearly understood the economic burden of non-productive violence containment, then improving the levels of peacefulness would be seen as central to long term structural reforms.”
A few years ago, I was invited to give the keynote address to the annual Ben & Jerry’s executive conference. Their theme was Peace, Love & Ice Cream, and Ben Cohen wanted me to help them make it more than a clever marketing slogan. About halfway through my remarks, the vice president for marketing interrupted and said, “I get it. You sell more ice cream in peaceful places than places at war.” With the exception of munitions, you sell more of every product — and everyone lives better — in places at peace than at war.
Shifting to Diplomacy
The shift from permanent war footing to permanent diplomacy may or may not be real, and it may or may not last. But it has significant potential for economic progress as well as averting massive death and destruction. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, we were assured that the cost would be negligible at most and that economic gains would ensue. It was a false promise, and we dare not fall for that line again.
Diplomatic solutions are almost always available to resolve ideological, ethnic, social, political, and economic conflicts. Diplomacy takes time and patience, and it rarely produces national heroes. But war often takes even longer, with dreadful results. The outcome of diplomacy is more apt to be positive than the consequences of war.
Of course, we need a reasonable military capacity for national security, and it can even be a back-up tool for diplomacy. But over the years, especially since the 9/11 attacks, the balance has shifted toward military power without making America or the rest of the world safer or more prosperous. The president has made the revival of the domestic economy a focus of his remaining years in office. Peace, as he appears to realize, makes good economic sense at home and abroad.
Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.