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Peace-Building Training: An Imperative for U.S. Diplomats March 9, 2010

Posted by Laura A. Hall in Analysis.
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Each Tuesday BFAD features a guest blogger- these are experts from a variety of backgrounds writing about what they know best.  This week features Ambassador Dane Smith, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Adjunct Professor at American University and Laura A. Hall, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow and in residence at the Stimson Center.

Peace-Building Training:  An Imperative for U.S. Diplomats

By Ambassador Dane Smith and Laura A. Hall

The State Department stands at the center of peace-building in the U.S. Government.  That is because diplomacy is at its core about conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and most post-conflict reconstruction.  Most conflicts in the post-Cold War era are intra-state rather than inter-state in nature, rooted in specific regional contexts.  They involve governments, disaffected regions or minorities, a breakdown of law and order, and impact on neighboring countries.  These new kinds of conflicts draw on the same diplomatic base but require new ways of operating.

Criticism of State’s crisis response mechanisms have tended to focus on the growing pains and sometimes marginal role of the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), created in 2004 to staff the Secretary of State in her responsibilities to coordinate U.S. civilian agencies in responding to overseas conflict.[1] In principle, S/CRS, as the locus of expertise for whole-of-government conflict management, should be the primary peace-building partner of the geographic bureaus within the State Department.  During its almost six years of existence, S/CRS has learned a lot about conflict management.  It has deployed to more than 20 countries and has done useful planning for contingencies and post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization including in Haiti, Sudan, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.  It has been building an expeditionary capacity to respond to overseas crises (Civilian Response Corps) that is funded to grow to 250 active-duty, on-call, full-time, highly-trained professionals from eight executive branch departments and agencies.   It has managed hundred millions of dollars in reconstruction projects in more than a dozen countries.  It has developed with the Foreign Service Institute a constellation of courses on conflict management, conflict response, planning, and deployment security.

However, it has played no role in Iraq and has been only a marginal presence in Afghanistan.  In the cases of Lebanon (2006) and Somalia (2007), its efforts to get involved were stiff-armed by the geographic bureaus.  Its future is uncertain and may depend on the outcome of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review initiated by Secretary of State Clinton.

While a central management and planning function and a trained specialty cadre of first responders are certainly needed, conflict management is the “day job” of the Department of State and its Embassies.  Embassies – and the State Department geographic bureaus they report to — have direct knowledge of the situations in these countries of concern and are usually in the best position to make judgments about the seriousness of a potential conflict and the appropriate U.S. reactions.   They are already on-the-ground, have the relationships, and will be there after the first response is over.  Therefore it is critical to address a major weakness of geographic bureaus and their regional and country experts.  With few exceptions, their personnel are untrained in conflict management.

Since the end of the Cold War, conflict has become a major concern for State officers overseas and in Washington.  Political officers assigned to posts in much of the world – Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Latin America and Southeast Asia – are often involved in reporting on and making policy recommendations relating to conflict.  Economic officers may be charged with responsibilities for reporting on the sources of funding for insurgencies, weighing the efficacy of sanctions, or assessing the economic recovery effects of post-conflict reconstruction projects.   Public affairs officers find themselves explaining U.S. policies and actions concerning political strife abroad.  Those from other specialties – consular and administrative – may find themselves dealing with conflict when they work as country desk officers.  Foreign Service Officers, faced with conflict, work doggedly and often imaginatively to achieve U.S. objectives. Sometimes they do a terrific job, but not because they know anything about conflict management.  They could do better if they were trained and not starting from scratch.

The training deficit has something to do with the proclivity of FSOs to view on-the-job training as the best way to learn the arcane and subtle rules of diplomacy.  State Department leadership indulges that fantasy.  For the most part those taking the conflict management courses offered at the Foreign Service Institute are involved with S/CRS and its civilian response.  That pattern needs to change.  Because preventing and responding to conflict cuts across all activities, training in conflict management and resolution should be built into ongoing training particularly for those in the political and economic cones.

  • An introduction to conflict management should be one of the units presented in the A-100 course taken by all entering junior Foreign Service Officers.
  • During mid-career political, economic and public affairs should be required to complete a training module on conflict.  It should also be recommended for consular and administrative officers.
  • The special training courses for deputy chiefs of mission and ambassadors should be revised to include a unit on conflict management.

A particular merit of the draft State Department authorization bill produced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is the close attention it pays to training.   It mandates that FSOs deploying to areas in conflict or at risk of conflict receive training in conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution.  It specifies that such training should include peace processes and negotiations, patterns of escalation and region-specific issues contributing to conflict.  It calls for special training on how to function effectively in situations of high insecurity.[2] The State Department should welcome this training fix, particularly since it is one which can be accomplished at modest cost.  Phased in over as little as five years, so as to accelerate the positive impact on the mid-career cadre, an expanded conflict management training program would impose a relatively small burden on the State Department operational budget, the Diplomatic and Consular Program account.  And unlike many Congressional mandates that run the risk of making everything important (and thus nothing important) by tossing out “you ought to” language and cluttering training requirements with short-term fads, this is core business and core mission.

It will not be sufficient, however, simply to mandate such training.  As long as there are too many front-line vacancies for the limited numbers of officers, training will be last in line. Foreign Service Officers, particularly political officers, will find a way around mandatory training if it is not tied to promotions and assignments.  Specifically, promotion precepts for entry into the Senior Foreign Service should include the completion of that training module and at least one assignment in a conflict zone.  Criteria for selection as deputy chief of mission in a conflict country or country director for a geographic area riven by political violence should include an assignment in a conflict country.

State should not be shy in requesting the necessary resource for training including the elusive “training float” of additional personnel that make rotations into training possible because they maintain enough personnel for performing day-to-day operations.  The military is given these resources because they know training and exercises are what make them effective.  Congress should insist on the same high levels of training for civilians on the front lines and not be penny wise and pound foolish when providing resources that will pay off in the long run in more chances for peace out of seemingly never-ending conflicts.

Ambassador Dane Smith’s analysis and recommendations on strengthening U.S. civilian expeditionary capacity are detailed in US Peacefare:  Organizing American Peace-Building Operations, just published by Praeger and sponsored by CSIS.

[1] That responsibility was formalized in National Security Presidential Directive 44 of December 2005and made permanent in PL 110-417, Title XVI, the Stabilization and Reconstruction Civilian Management Act of 2008.

[2] S. 2971 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011, Sec. 202:  The Secretary of State shall ensure that relevant officers of the Foreign Service deploying to areas under going significant conflict or considered to be at risk of significant conflict receive appropriate advanced training in conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution, including an understanding of—

(1) peace processes, negotiations, and decision making;

(2) patterns of escalation;

(3) country and region-specific issues, including resource allocation, as contributing factors to

peace or conflict; and

(4) how to function successfully when—

(A) public order has been undermined by  instability; or

(B) there is no civil authority that can effectively provide public safety.



1. Terry Mason - March 10, 2010

Thank you for outlining this imperative, and for highlighting the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. As you point out, the cost of conflict resolution training is very reasonable and the positive results vastly exceed the investment.

I submit that the same is true for domestic issues, and the same principle of providing conflict resolution and mediation skills to our local law enforcement and public service officers, as well as to the public at large starting with kids in school, will work to build and develop a nation of citizens with the skills to better handle the conflicts that result in violence in our society. With the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, and the Violence Against Women Act, and more, peace-building can and must become a cornerstone in our policy priorities, again, for far less than the cost of reacting to violence after it occurs.

We can save money and save lives with the passage of more legislation to guide this direction, such as the Youth PROMISE Act and the Department of Peace bill. Let’s do it.


2. Ted Nunn - April 15, 2010

It would be a significant step forward for the U.S. to elevate the importance of peacebuilding in the toolbox given to FSOs. The Foreign Assistance Act is currently under revision in the House of Representatives and is expected to include specific language around the importance of peacebuilding in international affairs. Take a look and H.R.2139 and write to your Representative to encourage them to make sure peacebuilding becomes a keystone component of this act.

While you’re at it, ask them to support H.R. 808, the Department of Peace act that Terry Mason mentions.

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