Rick Barton on reaching an agreement with North Korea: “The lead must be taken by the South Koreans. Their safety and futures are most at risk ... . Progress is possible if the South Korean body politic continues to back talks [with] North Korea to bring a permanent, non-nuclear peace to the peninsula.”
Egan Jimenez/Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Faculty Book: Rick Barton

During the quarter century that Rick Barton served as a diplomat and senior official for the United Nations and the United States, he worked on more than 40 conflicts around the world. In his new book, Peace Works: America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World (Rowman & Littlefield), the Woodrow Wilson School lecturer explains why America has stumbled so often in its efforts to make the world more peaceful. 

Barton analyzes U.S. interventions from the Balkan Wars to the conflict in Syria and finds that our record “suggests that we do not know how to help. This has been true for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations.” What Americans must do, he says, is engage with local people and organizations and provide backing for the projects and issues about which they are enthusiastic rather than imposing our ideas. “You don’t have to have a solution, but you do have to make sure you really hear people,” he says. “America should think of itself as a venture capitalist, not a pension manager: Provide seed funding and accept longer odds, with the possibility of greater rewards.” 

Peace Works brings together history, personal stories, and policy insights to analyze missed opportunities and advise on future strategies, drawing on Barton’s experiences at the U.N., where he worked on human rights, peace building, and development as deputy high commissioner of its refugee agency and U.S. ambassador to its economic and social council.

The U.S. is an indispensable player in addressing conflicts in other regions, and selective interventions also help our country, he says. “It’s clear our own well-being thrives when the world is at peace. And events like cyberwars confirm that it’s a much more intimate world than we would like to acknowledge.” If we fail to provide effective assistance, he writes, “we allow threats to grow and thus we become more vulnerable, to say nothing of the suffering we abet from the sidelines.” 

He begins and ends the book with an examination of Syria, where he spent time while he was assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations during the Obama administration. He believes the United States could have helped the opposition defeat the Assad regime not by taking out a dictator —“something that is always harder than it looks,” Barton writes — but by giving “the opposition a fighting chance to make it on their own.” But “the enormity of the conflict in Syria overmatched everything America and its allies were willing to do.” 

His career choice was inspired by his parents, lifelong diplomats, who raised their children while representing the United States in Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Spain, Uruguay, and Mexico. In Madrid, Barton attended an elementary school where he and his siblings were the only Americans. “Our Spanish friends admired our country and the role it played in the world,” says Barton, recalling how their attitude taught him to recognize that America’s importance “comes with an immense sense of humility.”