'Peace starts at home': US elections and what it means for the future of peacebuilding

A volunteer holds a sticker to give to a voter on Election Day, 3 November 2020 (AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Just over 160 years ago, Abraham Lincoln, at the time a little-known American politician running for US senate, quoted the Bible, saying:  “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. 

As Americans head into election day, the nation is arguably more fragmented and divided than at any time since that period of the 1861 Civil War that Lincoln unwittingly foreshadowed in his speech three years earlier.

The country is once again “a house divided” by the pandemic, racial justice, health, growing income inequality to name a few of the issues, which is also reflected in what has been one of the most fiercely polarised presidential campaigns.

With the elections coinciding with Geneva Peace Week, we spoke to peacebuilders about what the outcome will mean for the future of peace and stability, not only in the US but also on the global stage.

Peace starts at home. Whoever ends up winning the election - whether President Donald Trump or Joe Biden - it’s clear they will need to prioritise uniting a divided nation. “Peace starts at home,” said Scott Weber, the president of Interpeace, an international peacebuilding organisation based in Geneva. “And you can’t promote it outside if you’re not actually at peace within.”

Many of these issues are legacies from the past that have not been properly confronted, like its history of racial inequality, added Weber, who is also an American citizen. “If the US doesn’t look at its past with more honesty, we’re going to be perpetuating a lot of these sources of internal tension and division.”

Uzra Zeya, President of the Alliance for PeaceBuilding, a nonpartisan network of 120-plus organisations based in the US, said: “Regardless of the outcome of the election, I think what's clear is that you will have a significant portion of the population who did not vote for the victor, with grievances that will need to be addressed.”

For peacebuilders, there’s a concern that this animosity over the presidential election will not end on election day. Cities are preparing for possible protests and civil unrest regardless of the election's outcome. “It's really an ongoing effort I would say to mitigate violent conflict and to advocate non-violence during and maybe most importantly, after the US election,” Zeya added.

A stronger US. America’s image overseas has plummeted around the world under the Trump administration. A recent 13-nation survey by the Pew Research Center shows its reputation has declined over the past year among many key allies and partners over its handling of the coronavirus.

The Trump administration’s assault on multilateralism and its retreat from the system - as seen with the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord - has further soured relations left a vacuum that is being filled by other countries keen to exert their influence, notably China.  But Weber argues that while many countries may criticise its recent actions, most would like to see the US return to the table: “Most countries want to see a US that is more involved, not less involved….the question is, does the US want to work with them?”

Obama 2.0.  The answer is “yes” according to Biden, who has promised during his campaign an expansion of some Obama-era polices , to work more closely with other countries in building international mechanisms, and to reverse Trump policy moves on things such as withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement.

“There would certainly be a change in temperature in the room in terms of multilateral affairs and in terms of investing in the resilience of other countries, which is something I think former vice president Biden really believes in: that every country should be able to stand on its own two feet,” Weber said. Although not a central policy, he does anticipate a more deliberate investment in peace-building and a more collaborative foreign policy.

On the other hand, a Trump second-term has sparked fears of an inevitable further deterioration of multilateral relations. “What we have seen under Trump is that he appears to have a very uncomfortable empathy with authoritarianism. If he wins again, that will feed into a continued polarisation in the way international relations operates,” Jonathan Cohen, executive director of London-based Conciliation Resources, told Geneva Solutions.

“With an absence of multilateralism, it makes it much harder to sustain a cooperative approach to resolving conflict, and peacebuilding is all about cooperative collaborative approaches. So the space for creative peacebuilding is squeezed by those processes.”

Securitisation of peace. During Trump’s presidency, there has been further investment in the securitisation of peace that began under George W.Bush. “The idea that you solve world problems through force has dominated approaches towards resolving global issues much more than non-military solutions,” Weber said.

“You had some really bright spots over the last five years in terms of thinking about how that’s a flawed concept,” he added. “For example, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a congressionally-mandated report, which was about trying to understand what were the results of the stabilisation mission in Afghanistan. It is a scathing report, which points to lessons that should guide militarised efforts towards building peace.”

The military and security institutions have, in fact, been among the most active in re-examining their own approaches, he argues, and could be the best solution for influencing the policy sphere in Washington when it comes to peacebuilding.

Trump’s record on peacebuilding. There have been some positive developments in peace-building under Trump. For example, the bipartisan Global Fragility Act signed in December last year outlined a new approach to the prevention of conflict in fragile states, drawing on lessons from several decades of failed US foreign interventions.

“There have been encouraging signs despite the challenges of the preceding year,” Zeya said. “At this moment of really heightened political partisanship, you had 46 members of congress, senators and members of the House of Representatives who co-sponsored this legislation, which really seeks to reorient the US approach to fragile states towards upstream prevention.”

Peace is a non-partisan issue.  Win or lose, whatever the election outcome, bringing peace and stability both in the US and across the world in the face of the pandemic, a global recession and heightened geopolitical tensions will always require a coordinated and collaborative approach, says Weber: “When that trust is missing, when those bridges between countries and institutions are weakened, it makes us less equipped to handle what’s coming.”

Zeya adds: “I think the degree to which we can align ongoing international efforts, and really connect the dots between them - whether it's the Global Fragility Act, or the Sustaining Peace agenda coming out of the UN, or Pathways to Peace from the World Bank, or the OECD fragility frameworks.   This is how, collectively, governments, civil society, and hopefully the private sector and other stakeholders as well, can really start to move the needle in more lasting ways to anchor new and alternative approaches to building peace.”