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"Memo to Obama" from Sharon Welch: On Enduring Security, Sustainable Peace

This essay was published in the online version of Tikkun as part of its January 2009, issue.

As you demonstrated throughout your campaign, you are well aware that we are at a fruitful moment politically, a time to fundamentally reconsider the nature of national and international security, and the best means to attain that security. We are in the midst of a momentous paradigm shift in making peace and waging war. While there is widespread international support for multilateral armed intervention to protect peoples from genocide and crimes against humanity, there is equally widespread dissatisfaction with the legitimacy, morality, and even efficacy of traditional military intervention.

Lest we think contemporary critiques of traditional military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are limited to “the anti-war Left,” ponder the implications of three of the nine “representative paradoxes of counterinsurgency” as described in the 2007 U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

  • “The more force is used, the less effective it is.”
  • “The best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot.”
  • “Tactical success guarantees nothing.”

The writers of the Field Manual pose a stark question of immense political and ethical importance: they ask us to re-evaluate the power of violence. They challenge us to take seriously the limits of force to either maintain security or insure compliance with cherished values, ideals, and institutions.

Given the limits of military force in establishing enduring security in either Iraq or Afghanistan, many governmental leaders and military officers are exploring the concepts of integrated power and global citizenship. Refugees fleeing civil war, people dying at the hands of repressive governmental forces compel us to act collectively. This collective action is most effective when it is multinational and multifaceted. We can respond to ongoing unrest with three interrelated initiatives:

  1. Peacekeeping—early intervention to stop genocide and prevent large-scale war.
  2. Peacemaking—bringing hostile parties to agreement, negotiating equitable and sustainable peace agreements that include attention to the pressing need for post-conflict restoration and reconciliation.
  3. Peacebuilding—the creation of long-term structures for redressing injustice and resolving ongoing conflict, as well as addressing the root causes of armed conflict, economic exploitation, and political marginalization.

These are ways of responding that allow us to act decisively to protect civilians from genocide and crimes against humanity but do not take us into the spiral of all-out war, with its devastating toll on civilians and military forces alike.

These alternative responses to violence recast the longstanding debate between advocates of just war and advocates of nonviolent struggle. All our efforts may now be

transformed and augmented by a third way: joint efforts to prevent war, stop genocide, and repair the damage caused by armed conflict.

It may be as startling to find advocates of nonviolence accepting the use of armed force in cases like Darfur as it is to find substantial numbers of people within the military questioning the ability of military force to stop violence and establish civil order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does acceptance of the judicious use of force in the case of humanitarian intervention—and the need for establishing security systems in the wake of armed conflict—mean that criticism of violence (and its grave cost to perpetrators and victims) is irrelevant or invalid? Not at all. In the case of the emerging global security system, while the use of some forms of force is accepted as necessary, this reliance on limited violence does not have the valence and power that it does in either holy war or even just war, where force is seen as the apotheosis of strength and power. In the case of multifaceted, strategic peacebuilding, while force may at times be necessary, it is never sufficient. The value of peacekeeping is not in resolving a conflict, but in providing the space in which enduring security and sustainable peace may be created through the long-term nonviolent work of obtaining comprehensive political assent and participation.

To find an effective third way between waging war and nonviolent resistance is not easy. There is no doubt that it requires the best of us—audacity, openness to new ideas and new coalitions, astute planning, and creative institution-building. The opportunities, however, are real, the partners diverse, and the challenges inescapable. May we have the courage to embrace this moment.

Dr. Sharon D. Welch is Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard Theological School (Unitarian Universalist), chair of the U.S. committee of Global Action to Prevent War, and the author of "Real Peace, Real Security: the Challenges of Global Citizenship" (Fortress Press, 2008).

International Peace and Conflict

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Last updated on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

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