October 3, 2018

U.S Diplomat Calls for American Ingenuity to Foster World Peace

PEACE WORKS: Ambassador Rick Barton introduced his new book and called for American ingenuity and a venture capitalist way of thinking to help foster peace throughout the world, in a conversation with graduate scholar Caitlin Quinn at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on Monday.

By Donald Gilpin

In a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (WWS) Monday, Rick Barton, former United States ambassador and now lecturer at WWS, called for innovative thinking, relying on American ingenuity to break our “losing streak” and make progress in international relations.

Promoting his new book, Peace Works: America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World, Barton contended, “we are a country that is advantaged in the world, and we should be able to do more than we have been able to do” in helping to build peace in the world.

Drawing on more than 30 years of service in global conflict, including more than 40 crisis zones around the globe since 1994, Barton provided analysis, stories, and hard evidence to support his belief that “we have to be grounded in the local people. We have to immerse ourselves in the communities. Start with understanding the local people.”

In responding to questions from graduate scholar Caitlin Quinn, Barton advocated using American ingenuity to take creative risks. “The U.S. should think like a venture capitalist, not a pension manager,” he said. He cited examples from Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and the
Balkans in the 1990s, however, warning, “Don’t send a single soldier until you know at least 100 people in the country.”

Barton was the first assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (2011-14), U.S. ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in New York (2009-11), senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2002-9), deputy high commissioner for refugees at the United Nations (1999-2001), and founding director of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (1994-99). He is currently codirector of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative at Princeton University.

In presenting his case on the proper focus for U.S. resources, Barton posed the question to his audience: “Would you rather see $500M spent on a new embassy in Baghdad or on training 500 people to learn the language and work in the country to connect with the local residents?” Contrary to the audience’s vote and the arguments of Barton’s book, the U.S. built the embassy (at a final cost of about $700M).

“We’re much better off working with local people,” Barton continued. “We have to expand our trust.” He went on to talk about the silent majorities of people we need to connect with in many countries: “women and young people who are motivating a lot of the change, business people. These are populations that are available for us to team up with. We need to connect with these populations where they are.”

He noted that after his many years in the diplomatic world, “My dependence on the local people is much greater than it has ever been.”

Among his examples of successful efforts to achieve local changes, he described commercials purchased on Sarajevo TV amidst the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s; seeking to get into people’s minds with the message “Make Peace Your Future”; and the development of a reality show, Dawn in the Creeks, that ran on all five Nigerian TV networks to capture the public imagination and counter the dangerous, pro-violence national narrative.

In discussing the current status of the United Nations, in response to a question from the audience, Barton was surprisingly optimistic. “A moment like this is a great moment for the U.N. to step up. There is a vacuum in world leadership. It has to seize this opportunity and make some changes. The Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is a skilled politician who can take advantage of this moment. I’m hopeful.”

As far as problems on the domestic front are concerned, Barton recommended some of the same techniques that have worked on the person-to-person level locally overseas.

“Start with getting to know 100 Americans you didn’t know a year ago,” he said. “We have our own echo chambers in this country. We have to make sure we hear other people and understand their arguments.”

Barton’s final word to the WWS audience was to get interested and engaged. “Read the book and take action,” he said.