Rick Barton knows what the U.S. can do to resolve conflict in the world, and he believes there is often a better way to do it.
The man who started USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and was America’s ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in New York, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for refugees in Geneva and the first assistant secretary of state for Conflict and Stabilization Operations certainly has the credentials to express an informed opinion.
Barton has written a book, “Peace Works: America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World.”
“’Peace Works’ is an effort to show that we can be more successful both in preventing war and mitigating wars going on and then getting out of wars, which is really hard to do,” Barton told Alabama NewsCenter. “The United States can be among the creative leaders in the space. I try to do that through telling stories, setting up the history and giving people practical steps that we can take to be more effective.”
Barton worked for 25 years leading conflict management initiatives in 40 places of conflict and developed a sense for what worked and what didn’t.
“In particular, these longer occupations really show that it can be problematic for democracies to remain or even occupy other countries for too long,” he said. “The military wants to get out of them. The civilians want to get out of them. But we have to do that in a thoughtful way and that’s really what I try to present.”
Barton was recently in Alabama, speaking to students at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations. It was a natural progression given that Barton started up the Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and was deputy high commissioner of the UN’s refugee agency. He has worked in most, if not all, of the hot spots around the world.
“I felt that if the American public really wanted to see improvement, they would have to know how to do it,” he said. “I thought the best way to get their attention was to start with ‘Once upon a time.’ As long as you tell a story, Americans want to hear the end, especially if you suggest that we can live happily ever after.”
Given that Barton spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, Haiti and Rwanda, he has a keen understanding in what works and what doesn’t. Much of the book shows ways it’s been done effectively using local media and other means without doing everything militarily to achieve goals.
“The United States is in an incredibly advantageous position,” Barton said. “We are the country that a lot of other countries invite into the room. But that doesn’t mean we can abuse that privilege, and we have to perform. A good way to do it is with American creativity, American ingenuity, bringing new ideas to old problems rather than thinking that just the same old way is going to serve this time.”
Barton said he found the Alabama audiences receptive to his ideas.
“I’ve enjoyed the meetings here in Alabama,” he said. “People find the book readable because they’re learning at the same time that they’re solving tough riddles and I think Americans like to be on the solution side of things.”