REFLECTIVE PRACTICE: A THEORY OF WAR AS RELATIONSHIP
David J. Smith
10 December 2015
This semester, we focused much of our time and energy on experiential learning and drawing conclusions, inferences, and theories from those experiences. A great boon to our individual learning was being able to read about practitioner models and then practice them during role plays in class. As we reflected on these experiences, one theme that continued to materialize for me was the importance of relationship in conflict prevention and resolution.
Relationships kept popping up as avenues for either communication and conflict prevention or poor relationships kept showing themselves as the cause of a lack of communication and subsequent manifestation of a conflict. War itself is a relationship between parties. Relationships of trust and harmony can exist, but at times, they unnecessarily deteriorate into distrust, hostility, and war. I began to see each conflict as a relationship and developed a spectrum of relationship. The more trust in a relationship, the more frequent the communication. With higher communication, the tendency for a relationship to degrade into communicating with the force and violence of war seemed to reduce.
In this spectrum, I graphed the strength of a relationship in terms of trust. Trust is at the foundation of any relationship and forms the core of many international relations. In addition to trust, international actors also seem to need to have a need or interest to nurture a relationship with another party. High interest could produce more communication if the relationship was healthy and trust was high. However, if interest in the party was high, but trust was low, the chances for miscommunication and degradation of relationship grew. I created a Cartesian plane below where a relationship in terms of interest and trust could be graphed. I labeled the likely outcomes of relationships that were graphed in each quadrant.
If interest in a relationship increases from low to high, but trust remains low, miscommunication and conflict are far more likely to occur than if a relationship moves from an area of low interest to high in a hemisphere of trust. You can see an example of the former in cases like gun control laws in the United States. During times of relative calm in violence, interest in reforming gun laws is low and trust, because of past communication and poor relationship between sides, is also low. It remains in a quadrant of indifference or hostility. However, when another shooting happens and people are killed, interest in gun laws increases without an increase in trust. So the relationship among those invested in gun control rises to a quadrant of high interest and low trust, where cooperation is least likely and miscommunication, fear, and distrust make the conflict more likely to erupt into a manifest conflict. Conversely, a relationship such as that which existed between the UK and Australia before and during the First World War can show how moving in the trust hemisphere where relationships enjoy better communication and faculty can bring positive benefits. In comparison to its troubles in Europe, Australia was not high on the UK’s interests in foreign affairs. However, when war began, the UK’s interest in its former colony increased as its need for allies and resources increased. The relationship for the UK moved from one of low to high interest in a hemisphere of high trust. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that cooperation and active involvement in a relationship ensued.
If war is a state of relationship and relationships can be graphed on a plane of trust and interest, can we not actively nurture and improve relationships to move them toward the hemisphere of trust where conflict is more easily addressed and prevented? The answer is, of course! The more pressing questions are how do we improve relationships and what is the motivation to do so? The balance of the paper will focus on these two topics.
Motivation to Improve Relationships
In Donald Kagan’s book On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, he presents five case studies spanning 5,000 years of human history in which he examines the roots of war and the evolution into post-war relationships, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. He draws an incisive conclusion that war seems a part of the human condition, that peace is not maintained without significant labor, and that the burden of keeping the peace rests with the international actors who possess a preponderance of power (Kagan, 566-573).
In our international system, the United States possesses this preponderance of power needed to maintain the peace. However, is it in US interests to expend efforts, time, resources, and money to preserve peace throughout the world? The US does not have the resources or the political will to act as the world’s police force. Kagan responds by framing the question of maintaining peace not in military terms alone. Kagan asserts that a powerful nation will reject isolationism on grounds that pursuing isolationism in an interconnected world would allow international relations to devolve into a state that leaves the powerful nation at a disadvantage. He states in such a case that, “the only choices available to leaders of such a country is whether to seek to avoid the crisis by working to preserve the peace, to act realistically while there is time, or to avoid the responsibility until there is no choice but war” (Kagan, 573). He supports maintaining peace through positive, constructionist efforts. Not maintaining a peace eventually eliminates all options except war when the situation becomes dire. It is only when a nation does not engage to influence the peace using nonmilitary means that they have to engage as the world’s police force.
From Kagan, we learn lessons about what preservation of peace involves and the benefit it holds for the nations involved. US interest rests on maintaining or building a peace. That peace is built, in part, on peaceful and harmonious international relationships of high trust where communicating with words is practiced before communication through force.
How to Improve Relationships on an International Scale
As the leadership and political base of the United States develops an appreciation and commitment for acting in their interest by building peace, the question of how to accomplish this feat will necessarily arise. There are many things at all levels of society that can and should be done to move each international relationship closer to the High Trust end of our spectrum. We will discuss only the US government’s role in building peace.
Within the US government, there are several departments that can function as relationship-building entities that can build trust and do the work of maintaining peace. These agencies include the State Department, USAID, Defense, our Intelligence branches, and various other agencies.
The State Department is meant to build relationships and prevent conflict through diplomacy. Diplomacy is intended to build and nurture relationships, as well as communicate through words or other persuasive or cooptation means with counterparts to create a thriving, living peace. The US State Department has a Public Diplomacy Track. This group of diplomats is concerned with improving the relationship of the US with the public of other countries. Other Tracks in the State Department negotiate economic relations or observe and act in political relations. The efforts of the State Department can be enlisted with greater vision in working to maintain and preserve peace. If an understanding that peace and positive relationships take focus and effort and are a foreign policy priority of US leadership, this would be the US’s central organization in preserving peace.
The State Department bears a special responsibility in the burden of preserving and nurturing the peace. They should act as a guide for other agencies engaged in international relationships, in illustrating how the US could benefit from specific relationships built. They should also sponsor or advocate cultural sensitivity and language training for employees of all agencies or departments working with citizens of other countries. Finally, they are on the front lines to make inroads to countries or organizations that the US currently experiences low trust with, those countries that currently might be indifferent, hostile, or an enemy to the United States, who have few or no dealings or relationships with members of the US government. It is the responsibility of US diplomats to entreat these people and foster relationships in order to open the door to future relationships of trust, thereby increasing US influence in the system of international peace and conflict.
The United States Agency for International Development, as the US’s development arm, also plays a huge role in preserving and maintaining positive peace through relationships. USAID builds or can build relationships throughout the world and make significant contributions to moving relationships closer to the High Trust end of the spectrum. Assisting groups or countries in need goes a long way in building positive relationships and increasing US image internationally. This would assist US policy generally by increasing our influence in the international community. Additionally, the process USAID uses to assess and distribute aid can support goals of building positive relationships of trust. A process where local groups are involved, consulted, respected, and responded to will leave a positive impression of how the US deals with its partners, and more influence will result.
USAID can also use its activities to promote relationships on the ground. Even if aid is delivered slower in non critical situations or if programs do not produce as much in their first year because of focusing on a process of local relationship-building, the infrastructure and stability invested in with these relationships is worth the trade off in the long term. Building relationships through inclusive, consultative aid-giving is an important aspect to preserving peace, preventing conflict, and increasing US influence abroad.
The Department of Defense is also meant to contribute to preserving peace through improving relationships internationally. Defense protects from, deters, forcefully resolves, or stops the spread of conflict once it happens. They also partner with friendly militaries in practice maneuvers or war gaming to increase readiness and build cooperative relationships ready to respond to or form credible deterrence in times of manifest conflict. Like USAID, the ways in which Defense engages in these relationships can build positive peace and move partners closer to the High Trust end of the relationship spectrum.
Similar to the relationships and trust built through cooperation from the Defense Department, the US Intelligence agencies cooperate with other friendly agencies and help deepen relationships of trust in some spheres. Intelligence has become a necessity as other societies have built and resourced advanced intelligence arms as well. They are there to inform other organizations of what they should be paying attention to and can assist them in current campaigns. Intelligence acquired can be used to in an overall strategy of building trust if a vision and emphasis on international relationships exist.
A caveat should be noted here about the potential for adverse effects these organizations can have on building relationships of trust. All branches, departments, and agencies have the potential to cause grief and harm at every action, either by mistake, by necessity, because they are targeting another relationship and are sacrificing, knowingly or unknowingly, a relationship with a certain country. These effects should be anticipated and relationship repairs, apologies, or gifts should be devised and given in order to heal the relationship. An example of this would if USAID, working on a project in Haiti, through local collaboration decided to stop buying a certain product from sellers in the Dominican Republic and instead source from sellers farther afield. USAID might mend any hurt relationships with the Dominican Republic by hearing their complaints, validating their claims, and partnering with them to get their ideas on how the event can be rectified. It is impossible to please everyone all the time, but the simple act of listening and validating can go a long way in repairing a relationship.
Other agencies have a more lasting and even nefarious effect on relationships and may prove harder or even inherently poisonous to building trust. Sometimes actions by the military creates enemies. This is to be expected, especially in times of manifest conflict where lives are on the line and human error or collateral damage occurs. However, the Defense Department can do much to move relationships toward the trustworthy end, even in hot conflict. Through building local networks and collaborating with them, relationships can be built that facilitate processes where grievances can be heard, mistakes rectified, and engagements honored in a culturally sensitive way. These can build relationships with allies where trust, intelligence, and cooperation flow back to the military arm. Finally, intelligence agencies do much that reduces trust in relationships with target countries. The best thing that can be done as we spy on friendly nations is to also cooperate with them on intelligence endeavors, building relationships, and take care of groups or countries that the US deems important to maintaining the peace.
Other agencies, like Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, contribute to peace through relationships as well. Each of these arms sends employees overseas and works with other nations on issues of mutual interest. In these issues, members of each of these agencies have opportunities to go out of their way to purposefully build trust, and thereby influence, in these relationships. The better the US’s relationships with others, the more likely conflicts can be prevented or worked out through negotiations before they manifest into coercion and violence. If these agencies understood the vital roles they play in preventing conflict and actively preserving the peace, they might approach their duties, processes, and products with a vision that would advance US foreign policy, influence, and the system of international peace even more.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses in this approach are awareness and understanding of the importance of relationships and relationship-building to international influence and peace and conflict resolution. What is also missing is a vision on how each department or agency fits into that concert of relationship-building and the vital contribution they make to preserving peace and US influence and dominance in that system. The question is how do we get conflict resolution and prevention through relationship-building in training materials and on the agendas of these different organizations? How can we show that the extra effort in investing in relationships in peacetime will have a greater impact on their agency’s success in both peacetime and especially on the nation’s success in wartime? I believe there is no one answer. Focused leadership from the Executive Branch, along with a critical mass of research and writing on the subject, with pilot projects throughout the American bureaucracy, may assist in getting the ball rolling initially. However, this focus, like most other relationships, will come over time and have an opportunity to grow and eventually help the US to take greater responsibility in preserving and crafting a peace in the international system through building relationships of trust between its many departments with departments of other countries.
Summary and Conclusion
In summary, this class was very useful in helping us build our own relationships with practice and theory. We had the opportunity to practice and then think about our experiences. This pondering led to identifying themes in a way that created knowledge. From these experiences and reflections, we created theories. The theory presented here states that it is in US interest to nurture and preserve a state of international peace through actively building relationships of trust with other countries and organizations. When all conflict is viewed through a lens of relationship, we see that war is a relationship state as much as peace. If war or conflict is a relationship between two parties, what can be done to improve that relationship to either prevent or mitigate unnecessary conflict?
We started with understanding international relationships as functions of both trust and interest. Different relationships can be evaluated and graphed on this grid where likely states of relationship can be predicted. As these dynamic relationships change, it is possible to engage in initiatives to cultivate and build greater trust in each one. Motivation was discussed as to why the US might be interested in expending efforts to influence and take more responsibility for the present system of international peace. It is in our interest to expend efforts and resources to actively preserve peace because if we have influence and communication channels open with parties whose relationship might devolve into war, we have a better chance of influencing and preventing that manifest conflict, which thereby keeps the system more peaceful and more stable.
Finally, we discussed how the US government could orchestrate building and deepening relationships of trust with other countries. Any agency that has a relationship with other nations has an opportunity and responsibility to build relationships that increase trust in the US and move relationships toward healthier areas. Diplomats of the State Department bear the greatest burden in this responsibility by breaking ground on new relationships, persuading and coaxing partners in a low trust relationship that the US is trustworthy, even while other agencies may be reducing their trust with us, and leading interagency prerogatives in identifying relationships to work on, relationships to repair, and the grand strategy behind each effort.
In short this theory that relationships, as defined by trust and interest, foster communication and influence which allows a state to better manage a relationship before it goes into manifest conflict has wide applications in more than just the international sphere. There is also has a lot of work to be done in order to better define more specific methods of how this theory can be applied. Paradigm shifts in the ways US organizations run and measure the effectiveness of their efforts will have to be made and courageous and informed leadership will also need to lead out in supporting these endeavors.
It will help advance this theory if success is measurable. Measurements have to start with baselining relationships on the grid of trust and interest. A set of questions about the relationship, as well as statistics, such as frequency of contact, receptiveness to contact, quality of collaboration, and other indicators can be used to assess the strength of the relationship and identify areas of relationship weakness where improvement can be made. Additionally, principle-based criteria that can be adapted to many relationships should be developed and used to measure the growth of relationships. This may include a questionnaire, observations, third parties offering opinions, or be measured in terms of commitment for future endeavors. As these assessment tools are made, it will be a good, but also at times painful mirror for US policy makers to hold up to their own actions to determine their own trustworthiness. In short, this theory would benefit US influence and policy objectives and also better keep the peace by preventing relationships from devolving into manifest conflicts. US officials will be able to use it as a honed tool when more measurements are applied to it.
Kagan, D. (1995). On the origins of war and the preservation of peace. New York: Doubleday.