- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

In the last 60 years, the United States has had to adapt to three major transformative shocks to the international system – Pearl Harbor, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The United States responded with alacrity to the first two. Yet seven years after the third, America´s foreign affairs agencies continue without a clear vision.

The institutions that guided our country through the Cold War are struggling to deal with challenges that mid-century policymakers could not have anticipated. Failing states, ethnic- and religion-driven turmoil, non-state terrorism, natural resource competition and humanitarian crises were not on the table when Washington designed ‘modern´ departments of state and defense in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Adapting our foreign affairs institutions to these dynamics has been slow to start. It may take the better part of a decade to complete. Developing policies, political consensus, and trained talent to create effective responses will take time.

But time is a luxury we cannot afford. The United States must accelerate its journey toward a comprehensive foreign crisis response mechanism.

Today, at the corner of the National Mall in Washington, we mark a watershed moment in that acceleration. This morning, President Bush, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid will break ground on the permanent headquarters of the non-partisan United States Institute of Peace. The institute is an independent organization Congress created in the 1980s to develop effective options to curb international violence and manage international conflict. In recent years, it has found itself on the leading edge of responding to the changing global dynamic.

Today´s groundbreaking signifies more than the beginning of a construction project. It is the rarest of moments – a powerful intersection between global events and the evolution of an organization that is changing the paradigm.

The institute´s journey to this day has been an uncommon one. It was tiny in its initial years, and while it is still small today, its size and scope have grown significantly since the end of the Cold War. When America´s foreign affairs agencies began looking for a new path, the institute´s mandate had already acquired an unanticipated relevance. Since that time, its agility and independence from federal bureaucracy have helped it to develop extraordinary programs that have improved America´s ability to anticipate and respond to dynamic crises abroad.

In Iraq, the institute facilitated a peace negotiation between Shia and Sunni leaders in a violence-ridden area south of Baghdad – and in doing so, the institute established a process for stabilization efforts throughout the country.

Since the 1990s, institute specialists have developed effective legal frameworks for fragile states. They created Truth and Reconciliation processes, constitutional commissions and other mechanisms to develop civil society and governmental organizations. Their work has been essential to the stabilization of South Africa, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nepal.

The institute´s ability to convene disparate communities has helped organize coordinated responses to post-conflict stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has prepared U.S. military personnel, civilian police and African forces for peace operations.

The Institute of Peace is not designed to be a prime mover in foreign affairs – and it will never replace an existing agency. However. it is proving an essential agent of change in Washington´s approach to foreign policy.

Lying just north of the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial and across the street from the State Department, the new headquarters´ distinctive architecture will be a prominent reminder of America´s continuing commitment to stability in a dynamic world. It will bespeak the national search for more effective ways of dealing with the threats and opportunities that were identified at the end of the Cold War and that crystallized in an instant on September 11.

The United States Institute of Peace has been gifted to place its headquarters on some of America´s most hallowed ground. This gift bestows on the institute a great responsibility – as well as a great opportunity – to help our country finally transition to an era in international affairs that dawned seven years ago.

* J. Robinson West is chairman of the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace and and founder of PFC Energy. Richard H. Solomon, former president of the institute, is a former director of policy planning at the State Department.

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