The United States has arguably been embroiled in wars and conflict at home and abroad since its founding. Its early history is marked by a genocidal conquest of the First Peoples of North America and an early economy built on slavery, the Revolutionary War for independence from Britain, and a bloody civil war between North and South. At the same time, the US has also been celebrated as the first modern democracy and the birthplace of movements for the abolition of slavery, labor, women’s, civil, and gay rights. Internationally, the US continues to play a major role in matters of war and peace around the world. It leads the world in humanitarian assistance to conflict zones, and has contributed significantly as a leader in the development of the peacebuilding and conflict resolution field. On the other hand, the U.S. has launched more wars and intervened militarily around the globe more than any country in history, and struggles to address long legacies of racism and violence at home that have not been addressed.
In 2017, the US ranked 114 out of 163 countries on the Global Peace Index, placing it between Rwanda and El Salvador and far below most European allies for peacefulness. Within its own borders, historic legacies of systemic violence, racism, sexism, and cultural division are increasingly apparent and spark new waves of political and social conflict. Economic inequality, which has grown drastically over recent decades, increases divisions further. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 sparked new waves of civil, political, and social unrest and division. Some have described the current situation as a constitutional and governance crisis. The United States is the only G7 country that still imposes the death penalty, and issues of racialized police violence and mass incarceration are root drivers of conflict. Mass shootings and terrorist attacks against civilians occur at alarming rates.
Internationally, the U.S. continues to pursue an endless, boundless war on terror that includes the deployment of thousands of military troops, escalating drone strikes, and the use of secret forces and assassination. It is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and under President Trump has pulled back from global climate commitments. Long a critical mediator in Middle East peace negotiations and more recently a major driver of the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. is now taking more radical stands internationally and seen as undermining global diplomacy. The future of violent conflicts for the US at home and abroad is uncertain.
The United States was founded and expanded across North America through wars and ethnic cleansing against Native Peoples. Treaties with First Peoples Nations have been repeatedly violated by the US government, and today Native American communities face the lowest rates of economic, health, and education in the country. Conflicts over native lands, including the intrusion of sacred sites and environmental threats to Native communities from US government-backed oil and gas pipelines, continue today. Native leadership and protests like Standing Rock have been at the forefront of peace and justice movements in the US today.
From its colonial days, economic dependence on the slave labor of African people created political, social, and cultural systems of white privilege and legacies of racialized violence that persist today. Since the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, a young African-American teenager killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, the blinders of The United States have been removed to showcase a deep racial divided country. Historical distrust between African Americans and police surrounding police brutality, and mass incarceration has led to ongoing nationwide protests. Police officers killed 1079 people in the US in 2017 alone; 26% of those killed were African-Americans, despite being only 13% of the population. Since 2015, 99% of those police officers involved have still not resulted in being convicted of a crime. This has resulted in numerous protests and riots to bring attention to the injustices and grievances the African American community.
In June of 2017, Neo-Nazi and other hate groups protested the removal of confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, instigating violence that led to the death of a young woman by the name of Heather Heyer. In the words of the Alliance for Peacebuilding at the time, “We recognize in the Charlottesville tragedy the same kind of “Us versus Them” violence that emerges in divided societies around the world. The United States is waking up to the fact that they are not an exception”.
Racialized violence is entrenched within the US prison system through the mass incarceration of people of color. The United States makes up only 5% of the world’s population but 25 % of its prison population. African-Americans and Latinos constitute 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
Despite being a country of immigrants by its very nature, anti-immigration sentiment has marked US history over the centuries, with different groups targeted over time. From discrimination against Irish and Italian immigrants in the 1800s to the internment of Japanese communities during World War II, violence against Mexican immigrants and attacks on Muslim communities, conflict between established groups and newcomers, sadly, remains a persistent part of US conflict dynamics. Today, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment is fueled by political rhetoric and policy decisions from Washington, affecting communities across the country and undermining the other side of US history as a place of refuge for those in need.
The US experiences one of the highest rates of gun violence outside a recognized war zone. In 2017, the United States, suffered the deadliest mass shooting it had seen in decades when a gun man used high-powered weapons to shoot into a concert crowd in Las Vegas, killing 49 people and injuring hundreds. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) defines a mass public shooting as, “An incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, in at least one or more public locations, such as workplace, school or house of worship”. According to the nonprofit organization Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in the U.S., this is the 307th mass shooting between Jan 1 and November 5th, 2017.
The United States is also the world's largest weapons exporter, with over $40 billion in arms sales in 2015. Many of these weapons end up in conflict zones, fueling wars and violence around the world. At home, the US is the most heavily armed population on earth, with over 40% of the population owning one or more firearms. Conflict over the right to bear arms coupled with high levels of gun violence in the US is one of the many ongoing political divisions in the country.
Economic inequality serves as another conflict driver in the US. In 2015, the average incomes of the top 1 percent rose twice as fast as the incomes of the remaining 99 percent of households, according to a study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Feelings of economic marginalization and being left behind by changing economies and society in the US have been identified as an underlying source of conflict that fueled the election divisions of 2016 and contribute to anti-immigrant sentiments. The growing income inequality is also felt acutely by today’s young people, who are the first generation in the US in decades to face the likelihood of doing worse economically than their parents. While some claim that education is the road forward for working class youth to escape a life of economic deprivation, student loan debt has reached a record high of $1.35 trillion. Many of these students are unable to repay college loans due to low work wages and limited employment options. Without more equitable opportunity for youth in America and more attention to addressing root drivers of conflict in the country, tensions and division may well grow in the years to come.
Last updated: January 2018