Today we face a global humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Almost 66 million people are refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced, or stateless. Conflicts rage from Yemen to Syria to South Sudan. Over the past 15 years, 3.3 billion people—almost half of the world’s population—have been exposed to political violence. And still darker clouds loom on the horizon. By 2050, a total of 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change, while 40 percent of the world’s population could suffer from water shortages. Inequality, population growth, and corruption add to the complexity, with the poorest of the poor increasingly left behind.
The United States has a long bipartisan history of global humanitarian leadership, stewarded by once-shared values. Yet this tradition is under threat. Even during the vaunted days of the Obama administration, the US government denied families their right to asylum and supplied weapons that helped to fuel conflicts overseas. Now the Trump administration is dragging the country even further from our humanitarian values—separating parents from their children at our southern border, boycotting meetings on the global refugee crisis, and requesting multibillion-dollar cuts to foreign aid.
The United States cannot turn its back on its global humanitarian commitments, and the American people must push back against efforts to do so. This is a moral imperative, but it is also a practical one: Our humanitarian leadership serves vital US interests, not only protecting our own people from the dangers of pandemics or the disruptions of mass refugee movements, but also advancing the United States’ moral authority in the world.
Rather than continue along our current path of retreat, we need to embrace a new humanitarian grand strategy—one that reasserts our global moral leadership and refocuses multiple foreign-policy tools on anticipating the humanitarian crises in decades to come. This new strategy should focus on three ideas.
First, we need a proactive policy for peace. Ten years ago, 80 percent of international humanitarian assistance went to the survivors of natural disasters—floods, droughts, and hurricanes. Today, violent conflict is the primary driver of humanitarian need, with more than 90 percent of all global assistance going to crises fueled by this cause. Conflict is also draining the global economy (in 2014, the economic impact of violence on the global economy was estimated at $14.3 trillion), while stoking our nation’s immigration pressures.
Despite these trends, the United States has invested little in peace building and conflict prevention relative to its other overseas spending. As one example, Congress had to fight to preserve $39 billion for the State Department and the Agency for International Development in next year’s budget, while it is poised to authorize $716 billion for the military.
It is time to reverse these priorities and create an overarching strategy of violence reduction and conflict prevention. Such a strategy would begin with rebuilding our diplomatic corps and dedicating the full force of our global influence toward conflict resolution, de-escalation, and prevention. Today’s most destructive humanitarian crises are political—think Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo—and can only be resolved through politics and diplomacy. A seasoned staff of devoted diplomats working to negotiate cessations of conflict under a mandate to restore global stability is the only known solution for ending today’s major wars.