This article was originally published as a collection of essays by New America.
On April 4, a Black man was needlessly killed; an event that has repeated itself throughout history across the globe. Black and Brown people, the targets of normalized collective aggression, are seen as what is wrong with society and the world, rather than what is intrinsically good and worthy of value. In this case, the Black man was Martin Luther King Jr., and the year was 1968.
We pigeonhole King today as a champion of racial justice inside of our country. But he offered visionary ideas about what exactly constitutes security within and between countries. His ideas, part of a global stream that includes Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, centered on equity and racial justice, and developed what he termed “positive peace”—peace that is grounded in justice, which necessitates a focus on local peacebuilders and the communities they serve. In 1967, King saw that “racism, materialism, and militarism” ruled the day in terms of foreign (and domestic) policy. Positive peace links security and justice of all kinds, including racial. Fifty-five years later, the idea still challenges us: Have we moved the needle? Is U.S. foreign policy a relic of colonial times? Could it be reconceived as a vehicle for peace, equity, and human agency, both within and outside our borders?
Positive peace recognizes that the agency of local actors is vital for achieving outcomes that are just and sustainable. Such a re-think of U.S. security calls for renovated approaches and courageous funding that features greater flexibility and autonomy for local implementers.
Instead, however, U.S. foreign policy is characterized by the othering of non-American populations, especially non-white ones, and a belief that U.S. global leadership is both necessary and globally beneficial. U.S. strategy continues to center a militaristic approach above all else. Reporting, for example, about China, Russia, and Iran—and, by extension Chinese, Russian, and Iranian people—continues to be dehumanizing and uncomfortably reminiscent of colonial-era language, featuring them most often as threats to American security. U.S. strategy remains rooted in White supremacist notions that demonize non-white governments and insist that only through force will our own population be secure.
Despite our outsized spending, it is doubtful whether a strategy rooted in those ideals is making Americans safer. According to a report by the Cato Institute, the total number of terror attacks globally at the start of the War on Terror was 1,880. By 2015, the number reached over 14,800. Conversely, in 2020, the level of global peacefulness . This is the ninth overall global deterioration in peacefulness in the last 12 years.
We have focused on extinguishing the threat posed by “the other,” but have failed to accomplish peace. Our current foreign policy strategy is not making us safer, and our government is increasingly aware of that. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks has said that “a budget is about priorities, and we continue to overinvest in defense.” For foreign policy to accomplish its aims of keeping the U.S. population safe, it should begin to reframe its global peace efforts as an integral pillar in security strategy.
As we invite an expansion of our conceptualization of security to include peacebuilding, we have to consider how to ensure we are working towards a positive peace. Current practices position U.S. peacebuilders as leads, relegating the local communities they serve to the sidelines, or the recipients of services. Peace Direct’s research has long shown that peace-building efforts that are led by local communities have more buy-in, are more sustainable, and most importantly, are most impactful.
So, where does decolonization come in?
Decolonization refers to deconstructing and dismantling neo-colonial ideologies regarding the superiority of Western approaches and working toward a redistribution of power that was accrued because of colonialism. Decolonization centers local inclusion. It asks us to be less risk-averse and more pro-community in our on-the-ground foreign engagement and less militaristic in our foreign policy. As a country that holds a significant amount of power, it is our responsibility to recognize the regions that have been destabilized by our past efforts to promote our own political and financial interests. To rectify the incredible disparity between certain countries, and especially the unequal global-local power dynamics, the United States will have to change its approach to peace to one that engages at a community-level in a meaningful way.
What would it look like to decolonize aid? We should start by centering the inclusion of local communities in peace-building efforts, in addition to having a less militaristic foreign policy.
Poverty, hunger, and conflict cannot truly be addressed through a military-first foreign policy. We know that locally-led peacebuilding is the most reliable way to ensure peace is sustained beyond peace agreements. In a forthcoming report on closing civic spaces, Peace Direct and the Alliance for Peacebuilding show that locally-led peace-building efforts are seen as relevant by local stakeholders, allowing for higher levels of buy-in and support. In a truly decolonized U.S. approach to the world, support for local peacebuilders would be the first, and best-funded tool policymakers reached for.
U.S. policy has already taken a few tentative steps towards this approach. Legislation like the 2019 Global Fragility Act supports efforts to move towards a preventative approach to violence, atrocities, and genocide. USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently committed to delivering 25 percent of USAID’s funding through local partners in the next four years. USAID’s funding pledge acknowledges the current exclusion of non-elite, typically non-white local populations.
Still, there’s much more to be done. The United States could create more opportunities for diplomats, such as Foreign Service Officers abroad, to engage directly with local community members and leaders. Funding more locally-led peace initiatives with flexible funding over longer periods of time could create opportunities for sustained relationship-building. The United States. also holds a great deal of sway in determining who is and is not present at peace negotiations in many places around the world. We, therefore, have an opportunity to insist on the meaningful inclusion of women, youth, and people of other marginalized identity groups in formal peace processes from the very beginning. Peace-building efforts are also woefully underfunded: the creation of a peacebuilding fund would support these efforts by transferring a portion of the resources allocated to the Department of Defense to USAID and the State Department.
Desmond Tutu warned that “if… leaders fail to reach out to each other and restore peace, if they fail to comprehend that our shared humanity is our greatest gift, they will forever bear the burden of this growing human disaster.” The United States spends trillions of dollars on the military-industrial complex, yet peace could be possible for pennies on the dollar. We must take a hard look at what continues to make war so attractive to those in power and incentivize peace.