Agricultural roots of conflict

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — Enormous advances in food security have been made, former U.S. ambassador William Burns said, but a lot of those advances are threatened and perhaps lay the seeds of conflict.

Burns was a member of a panel with other former U.S. ambassadors Wendy Chamberlin and Ryan Crocker at the World Food Prize.

The former U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East nations described how climate change, urbanization and unstable governments threaten food security at the “Conflict, stability and achieving global food security” panel.

The panelists recognized that this is a global challenge and that the U.S. will play a part in solving it. Conflict worldwide, including the crisis in Syria, can be traced to farmers’ struggles, they said.

The Syrian drought in the early 2000s devastated agrarian communities and forced rural families into urban areas. The influx of hungry and homeless people stressed resources in the cities, which resulted in tension and hostility. Radicals weaponized food, Chamberlin said, and laid siege to cities. The weakened state has caused continuing crisis.


Former U.S. ambassadors Kenneth Quinn, William Burns, Wendy Chamberlin and Ryan Crocker discuss food insecurity in times of crisis and conflict. (Photo by Katy Cawdrey)

There are millions of people who are stateless or displaced, said Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. An estimated 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, according to the Migration Policy Centre in Florence, Italy.

Chamberlin says the U.S. needs to take action toward the Syrian extremists and address the refugee crisis. She is a former ambassador to Laos and Pakistan and is currently the president of the Middle East Institute.

“The Middle East is a tragedy right now,” she said, but she believes in taking steps to resolve issues.

She has traveled the region and watched children grow into successful innovators and entrepreneurs. She said that the Middle East wants change, but there are hindrances to growth, such as unstable governments and limited health, food and educational resources.

Chamberlin also said the current conflict in Syria strains U.S. relationships with allies in Europe, particularly with how to manage the influx of immigrants and refugees.

“We can’t weaken that alliance,” Chamberlin said.


Former U.S. ambassador Wendy Chamberlin addresses conference attendees. (Photo by Katy Cawdrey)

U.S. moral obligation to combat world terrorism also came into discussion when Crocker questioned America’s proper role in the world.

Burns, former ambassador to Russia and Jordan and current president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that global American leadership is important and the nation’s spirit of optimism makes difficult problems easier to solve.

American ingenuity is demonstrated through how the nation addresses food security, climate change and systems of global alliances, Burns said. This trait leads the U.S. to assist other nations that have similar problems. However, he said, the U.S. must balance intervention and the monitoring of international conflicts.

“Finding that balance is the real challenge,” Burns said. “I remain an optimist for what’s possible with the United States.”

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