The United States Institute of Peace: A “Think and Do” Tank

A Guest Blog Post by Colonel Greg Hermsmeyer, USAF (ret.)

Former Director, Partnership Policy and Strategy, Office of the Secretary of Defense

As Congress inches towards agreement on a FY 2011 budget this week, the U.S. House of Representatives should correct the mistake it made by eliminating funding for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).  The bipartisan amendment that would cut USIP appears to have been passed under the mistaken understanding that the Institute is simply another “think tank” and that private funding can make up for lost congressional funding.  When Congress established USIP, it prohibited the organization by law from receiving non-federally appropriated funds for its program activities.  Congress wisely recognized that USIP was a national security actor whose mission and credibility should not be compromised by private interests.  This prohibition means that without an appropriation by Congress, there will be no Institute.

I have worked on the defense and civilian sides of international affairs and know from firsthand experience that USIP is not just another “think tank.”  The Institute and its cadre of dedicated peace-builders provide a critical bridge between the military—where I served for 21 years—and the non-military sectors and is a vital national security resource.  The Department of Defense, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations routinely leverage USIP’s unrivaled convening power and facilitation skills.  USIP is uniquely positioned to help disparate government and non-governmental stakeholders develop solutions to thorny challenges such as those posed by failed and fragile states.  USIP is better viewed as a “think and do tank.”

When the Department of Defense and U.S.-based Humanitarian NGOs represented by InterAction needed help addressing critical differences arising from encounters in the field, USIP provided its good offices and facilitated a two-year process culminating in the “Guidelines for Relations Between U.S. Armed Forces and NGHOs in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments.”  These “Guidelines” for the first time provided “rules of the road” for situations when U.S. military forces and humanitarians find themselves sharing the same space.  USIP continues to provide a venue for addressing issues arising from civilian-military interaction in the field under its congressional mandate.  No think tank can play this role.

Last year, the Secretary of Defense identified a critical gap in DoD’s capabilities to build the institutional capacity and human capital of foreign security sectors and “Helping Others Defend Themselves.”  Secretary Gates recognized that partners with sustainable security capacity are better able to defend themselves without the need to put the lives of U.S. service men and women at risk.  His Department turned to USIP for help in developing new U.S. Government programs and capabilities and in implementing programs in fragile states.  The Institute responded to this national security need by developing a Center for Security Sector Governance that supports U.S. efforts to help partners build the institutions and governance they need to provide for the safety, security, and justice of their own populations.  Many think tanks contribute to thinking in this area, but USIP translate ideas into action by sending experts to the field to support U.S. Government stakeholders and their international partners.

I can think of no other organization with an impact on our national security that is so out of proportion to its budget.  USIP is truly irreplaceable, and its peacebuilding mission should be fully funded as long as peace remains to be built around the world.  Congress should ensure that any budget that is sent to the President for signature restores America’s “Think and Do Tank.”

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