The future of American hegemony in a peaceful global order depends on the country’s ability to focus its interventions abroad on sustainability. Sustainability is one of the hottest topics in the international development arena right now. Sustainable development policies aim to create lasting change in systems beyond the tenure of a given program. By focusing on long-term changes, the strategies use their limited financial, human, and political resources more effectively. The United States must apply these same principles to American military and humanitarian interventions in Syria and beyond by including local partners at the national and community level, putting more emphasis on reaching refugee populations closer to their homes, and building coalitions for the provision of economic aid.
The trend towards sustainability stems from decades of development programs that landed on foreign shores, spent years and countless dollars on projects, and left again, with little lasting change in the communities they were meant to benefit. From Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Peru and Ecuador, many communities were left worse off because of the inefficient and ineffective use of resources and the warping of economic incentives. For example, some programs promoted the planting of cash crops in unfit agricultural environments. Others donated huge quantities of supplies to villages, resulting in local producers and sellers of those goods being put out of their jobs. U.S. interventionist policies since the end of World War II have borne similar results.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate how high the costs of unsustainable solutions can rise. Coalition forces spent years fighting local insurgents only to see the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Billions of dollars and untold labor hours spent training Iraqi and Afghan military forces have yielded those forces a string of defeats. Corruption and absenteeism are rampant. Equipment worth billions of dollars has been abandoned by retreating Iraqi forces and appropriated by ISIS militants for their own use. A third, more limited intervention in Libya drives the point home: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes supporting insurgent forces, which can cost millions of dollars apiece, succeeded in bringing an end to Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, but the expected rise of a democratic or at least friendlier governing force has not materialized.
Democracy and governance development has been just as prominent a failure in addressing sustainably, and nearly as expensive. After more than a decade of NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, the first post-Karzai election required extensive international mediation to form a government. Vast sections of that country are still under Taliban rule, and international forces have resigned themselves to a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban as the best hope for long-term peace. For all the coalition money and struggle towards bringing together sectarian groups in Iraq, the Shi’ite-dominated administration has made little effort to incorporate the Sunnis and Kurds into the government. The latter has been autonomous since 1991 and has been given no incentive to politically regress, while the former’s political alienation and repression opened the door for ISIS’s incredible expansion. Libya remains in a bloody, protracted, sectarian civil conflict and NATO countries have no solution to the problems their intervention created in the country. The human and financial costs are impossible to quantify.
In Syria, the Obama administration has done its best to avoid another intervention, but the result has been a catastrophic civil conflict that threatens regional neighbors. American values deem there should be action to mitigate the human crises in Syria, which has caused millions of refugees to flee their homes and spread to friendly Middle Eastern neighbors and Europe. Airstrikes against ISIS are important, but are a bare minimum activity.
A commendable step in the right direction was taken in February of this year: world leaders gathered in London and pledged $10 billion in aid through 2020 to support local nations such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in aiding Syrian refugee populations. The money is dedicated to programs in the areas of education, infrastructure, and international trade. By pumping money into these economies and offering various trade incentives, donors will boost refugees’ ability to get jobs and attend school, and hopefully prevent the emergence of a ‘lost generation’ of Syrians, ripe for recruitment to criminal and terrorist organizations. Without sustained support, the consequences of the Syrian war and the Syrians’ displacement will haunt the world for decades to come. Billions of dollars in aid now will pale in comparison to the trillions that will be spent fighting future wars if these refugees are left to suffer while the world whistles past their graveyard.
This is only a beginning step, though. In conjunction with the United Nations-orchestrated ceasefire, which so far seems to be holding, the United States should be leading on four fronts to make this effort sustainable and cost effective:
• First, the containment of ISIS with a coalition of military actors should continue. ISIS will play spoiler to any peace effort if not driven back.
• Second, a sustainable political solution needs to be developed. To be successful it must incorporate local actors (i.e. the rebel forces and the government) as well as regional actors who are responsible for driving the conflict, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia.
• Third, a coordinated strategy of relief is needed for the refugees that have spread to Syria’s neighbors and for internally displaced persons, so that they can eventually return to their homes and undertake the arduous task of rebuilding their countries.
• Fourth, a commitment of long-term economic development aid for Syria and its people is necessary for reconstruction following the end of the conflict. Five years of civil war have destroyed cities, communities, and an immense amount of infrastructure. Rebuilding it all will take decades, and it will not be possible without extended and committed economic aid.
While it may sound expensive, every dollar put in now will save hundreds that will be spent in the future to fight and refight this conflict if no action is taken now.
The United States plays an important role as a convener of international coalitions for military and humanitarian efforts. Planners of international conflict interventions must learn from the international development sector; they cannot be solely dependent on military action. For a real and sustainable solution to be achieved in Syria, inclusive political agreements must be reached with regional partners, and local communities need economic and technical support for post-conflict development. In the long run, these strategies will be more cost-effective and more importantly, keep the world safe.
Adam Yefet is a second year in the MAIA program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, concentrating on sustainability and development.