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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, March 23, 2017 10:00 pm

Budget proposal offers little hope for keeping peace

David Van Gilder

What fuels peace? What are the conditions, relationships and actions that lead to peaceful resolution of conflicts? By conflicts I mean disagreement between individuals, groups within society and especially among nations. We all know you cannot begin to have peaceful relations with others unless you talk to them – preferably face to face – and at least try to understand their perspective. You make an effort to comprehend their life circumstances, cultural values, and daily challenges and joys.

Likewise, we have many ways to allow individuals and groups to be represented in public forums to express views, make reasonable arguments and work toward solving disputes and making policy decisions in a civil way. These mechanisms work best when there is widespread participation; that is, when many people get involved on many levels. In the same way, relations between nations can benefit from person-to-person contact, sharing cultural values and sincere attempts to understand the perspective that drives national actions. Individuals living and working alongside one another on a shared task are the building blocks for international cooperation and peace.

When we invest in the conditions that support these personal interactions, we are fueling peace. To the extent we fail to support these conditions, we are contributing to dysfunction, disagreement, conflict and possibly war. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said, "If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then you need to buy more ammunition."

A budget plan reveals much about our values and plans. The president released his proposed budget March 16, and it immediately stirred up controversy on a variety of issues. Let’s focus on only one of those: How much money will we choose to spend on peace rather than on ammunition?

The president wants to increase military funding by 10 percent and decrease funding for domestic programs, including the Department of State. Specifically, his budget cuts 29 percent from the International Affairs program within that department. Included are the Peace Corps, direct foreign aid, food security projects and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. This budget reflects a profound emphasis away from fueling peace.

The Peace Corps has existed as a vital, funded program for international relations since 1961. On a shoestring budget of $410 million, in 2016 it accepted 3,800 volunteers, many fewer than the 24,000 who applied. Indiana alone has sent nearly 3,400 volunteers overseas; 115 are currently serving.

My wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers, teaching in middle schools from 1986 to 1988 in Botswana, Africa; we have volunteered with and supported nonprofit organizations ever since. We have convened other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in northeast Indiana, and have advocated for continued budget support to our congressional representatives in their local offices and on Capitol Hill.

The active group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who I know are involved in a remarkable variety of civic affairs, and they all contribute to peace even decades after returning from their countries of service. Janine became a nurse after serving in Ecuador and continues to provide direct care to her patients. Dane, whose service in Jamaica was cut short by a serious injury, now helps economically challenged college students complete their education. Terry, who served in Afghanistan, has sponsored dozens of Afghan students in the U.S. and has helped build schools for girls in Afghanistan. Jeff, a lifelong educator, sends baseball equipment to his host country of Honduras, where he and fellow volunteers first introduced that sport.

America’s diplomatic, development and international business ranks are filled with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who provide high-quality policy input and firsthand knowledge to tackle complex problems and develop innovative solutions. The Peace Corps has this long-lasting effect while spending less than 0.02 percent of the country’s budget. Volunteers help train communities in critical areas of need, becoming fluent in languages, culturally agile and trusted by the local communities. They are often the only Americans known to the host community and therefore are truly grassroots diplomats.

It is this personal, cultural and economic diplomacy that fuels peace. I believe we should invest in that.