US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power appeared before a packed audience at Yale Law School on Monday, speaking to students and high-profile figures including President Peter Salovey, Governor Howard Dean, and state Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. Ambassador Power emphasized that global responses to international crises must both address the problem at hand and tackle the broader, more pervasive issues that each crisis represents. She described this combination of short-term and long-term thinking as an “obvious” approach, but one that policymakers in the US often fail to take into account. Specifically, Ambassador Power applied this method to the Ebola crisis, ending sexual violence against women and girls worldwide, and containing instability emerging from terrorist threats like ISIL.

The short-term solutions to putting out international fires she offered make a lot of sense. Improving healthcare infrastructure in West Africa is necessary to stop a whole host of infectious diseases from ravaging the population. Improving access to education, while collecting evidence of physical and sexual abuse to prosecute perpetrators, can improve the livelihood of women and girls everywhere. And it is imperative to provide vital humanitarian aid to the victims of ISIL violence.

The long-term solutions reflected a deeper uncertainty about how to navigate the underlying sociological, structural, and cultural factors behind the crises, an uncertainty that Ambassador Power tried to paper over with specific reference to narrow pilot programs. For example, even with proper documentation of abuse, many women and girls will never see justice because of a broken judicial system in countries where atrocities occur. Power recognized this issue, urging that states like South Sudan work to make legal resources more available to women and take decisive action to root out judicial bribery and intimidation that impedes justice. That’s a daunting problem, and one that has no simple policy solution for foreign actors like the United States. Nonetheless, Power offered so-called “mobile justice units” going from community to community in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo to hand down sentences as a “long-term solution.” Such an approach effectively ignores the entrenched root causes behind the problem and ultimately offers nothing but short-term do-good vibes to Western countries.

While some supposed long-term solutions were disappointingly specific and narrow, others were far too broad. For example, Power said that a lack of human capital is one of the chief reasons for Ebola’s continued spread through West Africa. Specifically, she posited that fostering critical thinking among young leaders could provide a foundation for a better healthcare system. Currently, the US sponsors a six-week program that invites about five hundred distinguished leaders from Africa to visit American universities and build problem-solving skills. Six weeks of networking among young leaders who have already distinguished themselves will have a very limited effect on the deep-seeded regional deficiencies in terms of infrastructure and public health. The program looks like a long-term investment, and is probably a good thing to have, but reflects a sense of helplessness in the face of massive institutional challenges.

Programs with ill-defined purposes and limited scope create the perception that the United States is working to anticipate and prevent future crises, but in doing so crowd out a more honest approach to global challenges. The dichotomy between a long-term approach and a short-term approach implicitly defines any action that goes beyond putting out the current fire as one that will solve the underlying causes of a problem. However, as the examples Power gave illustrate, that is often not the case. A more helpful conceptualization would separate out actions to remedy short-term effects – that is, international catastrophes – and measures to fix root causes – the underlying factors that create the catastrophes in the first place.

The important difference is realizing that root causes are often imbedded within a complex web of social and historical context that Western countries will find difficult, or even impossible, to unravel using conventional foreign policy tools. Recognizing that any attempt to strike at those root causes will face often-insurmountable challenges should reorder America’s approach to international crises. The current approach, as conceptualized by Power, lends itself far too well to endless hand wringing and vague, piecemeal gestures towards the root causes at the exclusion of the substantive and concrete material solutions. Instead of placing the most emphasis on the long-term, as Power advises, the US should enact measures it knows are necessary to effect real change. Instead of “mobile justice units” to reform judicial practices, the US should fund mobile relief units to provide relief and care for victims of assault. Building human capital is important, but so is building hospitals. Even if the solutions do not strike at the heart of the problem, and are far from sufficient to fix everything, they are nonetheless necessary. And providing some of those necessary elements for solving global challenges might begin to strike at, or at least instructively interact with, some of the root causes that lay at the base of crises. In the meantime, before implementing long-term programs that create the false perception that problems are actually solved, the US should devote its resources to better understanding the root causes, so that when the basic necessary conditions for a solution are met, the American contribution can be as effective as possible.

Crises definitively proceed from root causes to visible effects, but America’s foreign policy approach should go in the opposite direction. Any attempt to do otherwise will only encourage the US to bite off more than it can chew, leading to squandered resources and many more fires to put out.

Note: the full text of the Ambassador’s speech can be found here.

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