America’s foreign interests, including its security, increasingly are challenged by the world’s “fragile” states—those in which “governments are weak, ineffective or disconnected from their people,” according to Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Across the world, it is in such fragile states that poverty and violent conflict are becoming concentrated, Lindborg said in speeches this month in Texas.

Nancy Lindborg speaking

Such fragile states increasingly are where the threats to U.S. and international security originate, Lindborg told an audience at Texas A&M University in College Station.

“Fragility is … at the center of the new surges of violent extremism — in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and the Central African Republic — where movements such as ISIS or al-Shabab  have extended their recruiting into our own country and our European allies,” Lindborg said, speaking at the university’s Bush School of Government and Public  Service.

To an audience in Dallas, Lindborg noted that, from 1990 to 2010, a United Nations-led anti-poverty campaign “cut in half, by 700 million people, the population of our world that lives in the most extreme poverty. It has made impressive gains in the health of these poorest of us.  Hunger was cut in half; deaths from childbirth were cut in half.”

 “But the flashing amber caution light on this achievement is that absolute poverty is concentrating in the fragile, violent corners of the world,” she added. “Just 50 fragile states and economies identified by the OECD [the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] are home to 1.2 billion people and 43 percent of the world’s extremely impoverished people (those living on less than $1.25 a day). And this is where the conflict is also concentrated.”

In Dallas, which struggled in 2014 with several cases of Ebola virus that had spread from the outbreak in West Africa, Lindborg noted that the disease had erupted in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia—all fragile states that had suffered from ineffective governments, civil wars or both.

The fragility of states, and the need to counter it by building greater “resiliency” within them, are concepts discussed increasingly by international development specialists in the past decade, notably at institutions including the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  Lindborg, a former USAID assistant administrator, has argued for shifting this idea more to the center of U.S. policymaking.

The following is the text of Lindborg’s April 2 address at Texas A&M, as prepared.  She spoke to students and faculty of the Bush School in an address hosted by the school’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.


Confronting the Threat of Fragile States

(Address to the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University—April 2, 2015)

By Nancy Lindborg

I’m delighted to be here at the Brent Scowcroft Institute, and with Andrew Natsios, a friend and colleague for almost 20 years.  Andrew is actually responsible for bringing me here – and by that, I mean not only inviting me to be with you today, but also as an inspiration and fellow traveler on the peace and conflict pathway.

“In an America whose news cycles and election cycles whirl nonstop, it’s hard to sell the idea that good solutions take time.  It’s much easier to sell the notion of a quick fix that cuts through the complexity and quickly declare the problem solved.” –Nancy Lindborg, president, USIP

I first met Andrew in 1996, when we were responding to that year’s horrific famine in North Korea. Andrew kept quoting the economist, philosopher and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.  So I was inspired to write to Professor Sen, who indeed wrote me back, underscoring that famines are entirely human-made these days—not a failure of production as much as a failure of distribution—and hence governance -- and that famines don't happen in democracies. 

In recent generations, we indeed have seen famines only in countries with repressive or utterly failed governments:  the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao, Ethiopia under Mengistu; Somalia in the grip of al-Shabab in 2011.  Andrew wrote a book about this as a fellow at USIP.  And we see the danger of yet another famine in South Sudan as its leaders fight for power while ignoring the needs of the people they claim to represent. I mention Dr. Sen’s point—that failed governance is much at the root of even what we call “natural” disaster, because it’s critical to the mission I now pursue, and which I want to highlight this evening.

Andrew, like Dr. Sen, saw clearly that humanitarian crises are most devastating in countries where governments are weak, ineffective or disconnected from their people.  So as the administrator of USAID, Andrew created a “Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance,” which I later ran for just over four years. This bureau’s very title connects the dots of a theory for confronting the crises that pose some of our biggest national security challenges. The theory is this: A country with an accountable, inclusive, effective government is able to manage conflict, stay resilient in the face of crisis and ultimately become a global partner in peace and commerce.

U.S. Institute of Peace: Who We Are

Two months ago I had the great honor of being sworn in as the fifth President of the United States Institute of Peace. USIP is an independent, non-partisan, congressionally funded institute that dares to envision a world without violent conflict. It was mandated by Congress 30 years ago to build America’s national capability to prevent, mitigate and resolve violent conflict. We support peacemakers at community, national and regional levels, with education, research, training. We convene key thinkers to examine critical policy options.   And we connect theory with practice, with teams and partners in tough conflict zones around the world.

Note that USIP does not seek to end conflict—for conflict is a state of nature, in every community, every nation, every day. With effective systems of government, even bitter conflict can be managed and channeled into a vital transformation —whether it’s independence for India, civil rights in the United States, or an end to apartheid in South Africa.  

But violence leads to terrible consequences--families are torn apart, lives are lost.  The World Bank notes that recent civil wars typically have stripped away 30 years of economic growth from medium-sized developing countries.  The global impact of violence was measured last year at $9.8 trillion – more than 12 percent of the world economy.  We see this starkly in Syria, which after four years of war, is now at pre-World War II development levels.

And in the last two decades, the evidence is clear that violent conflict is highly correlated with fragility … that countries currently affected by conflict have systems of government that are either ineffective or illegitimate in the eyes of their citizens -- or often both. The resulting violence produces chronic threats to international stability and our national security.

Fragility’s Threat to U.S. Security

Consider last year’s perfect storm of four humanitarian disasters of the scale that U.N. relief agencies define as “level three”—essentially an international four-alarm fire that requires full-scale mobilization of people and resources. For governments and disaster-relief agencies, managing just one such crisis at a time is a major challenge. These four were all linked to fragility — Syria, the new nation of South Sudan, the neighboring Central African Republic, and three West African states that were the locus of the deadliest outbreak ever of the Ebola virus.

And when Ebola leapt straight from West Africa to Dallas, the point was hammered home again that oceans and geography cannot protect us.

Fragility is also at the center of the new surges of violent extremism — in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and the Central African Republic — where movements such as ISIS or al-Shabab have extended their recruiting into our own country and our European allies.

For many Americans, all this became very real with 9/11 and Afghanistan.  Over the past 14 years, Afghans and Americans have been intimately engaged in a costly war that has taken many lives and billions of dollars, with much debate currently about what to do next.

I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan a few weeks ago, where I met with senior officials, civil society, community and faith leaders.  And last week, USIP hosted Afghanistan’s President Ghani for a public address during his visit to Washington.  His election last year offers the United States an energetic new partner and offers Afghans, many of whom risked their lives to vote, the potential for a real peace-and-reform agenda.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: Cautious Optimism

The challenges are steep, but four key factors provide the basis for what I heard repeatedly in both capitals: a sense of cautious optimism. 

First is the aggressive regional diplomacy of President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, including a vitally important rapprochement with Pakistan

Secondly, the Peshawar school attack of December seems to have shocked the Pakistani military elite into understanding that extremists on their soil cannot be managed, but rather constitute a real threat, which has prompted them to work in concert with Ghani's government. 

Third, the Chinese are terrified of extremists entering their territory in force, which is prompting them to take an active, constructive role in pressuring both Pakistan and the Taliban to come to the table. 

Fourth, and importantly, Ghani understands he must deliver on reform for Afghanistan.  He well understands that without addressing justice, security and economic opportunity, without creating more inclusive and legitimate politics, high-level peace agreements on their own will not succeed. …

In Kabul, I met university students who are studying a curriculum developed with USIP that teaches the skills of negotiation, mediation and peacebuilding. (And by the way, these young men and women are the product of a U.S.-supported success—the revival of education in Afghanistan to a national student body 10 times greater than in 2001. And one in which the ratio of girls as students has risen from zero to nearly 40 percent.) In our meeting, a young law student named Roshan spoke eloquently about how violence permeates almost every aspect of life in a country that has been at war for 36 years.  She and her fellow students have started a peace club to work for an Afghanistan without violence, starting at the family and community level.

And the grass-roots energy working for peace is impressive. These are the efforts that rarely get covered by the media.

In one southern province, if you are an Afghan buying a mobile phone, the vendors will compete for your business by loading the phone with videos they think you might like to watch. Alarmingly, some of those videos meant to entertain you are actually recruiting videos for the Taliban,  who have a slick production capability, summoning you to join their version of a holy war.  One man, who I will call a peace entrepreneur, came to our USIP team for help.  He wanted to produce alternative videos, so he filmed local imams preaching about the peaceful messages of the Koran and he filmed local families talking about their loss and devastation from suicide bombs. This is one of many stories I heard of determined peace builders in Afghanistan. Their projects include putting messages of peace on auto-rickshaw taxis and compiling a “Peace in Islam” curriculum for madrassas. 

There is a sense of potential and optimism among many Afghans, at least for now. And there have been impressive gains in Afghanistan –not only in education but in health indicators such as life expectancy, and in economic indicators such as GDP.  But these gains are at risk unless the continuing conflict can be resolved.

So now is the time to double down on our long engagement with Afghanistan. President Ghani had a successful trip to Washington, and the U.S. government decisions last week to slow down its troop withdrawal and provide a multi-year development assistance package are important steps that will support Afghanistan during this window of opportunity.

Complexity: America’s Real Divide on Foreign Policy

In an America whose news cycles and election cycles whirl nonstop, it’s hard to sell the idea that good solutions take time.  It’s much easier to sell the notion of a quick fix that cuts through the complexity and quickly declare the problem solved. (A trenchant critique of our Afghan engagement is that it has not been a 14-year project. Rather, because of U.S. government constraints, it has worked like a series of 14 one-year projects.)  

And this is where we find America’s most important divide on foreign policy.  It’s not between the left and the right. It’s not between the Republicans and the Democrats, nor the hawks and the doves. Our real division in America is between those who buy the fallacy of simple quick fixes – and those who understand it takes time and a nuanced understanding to make progress.  

The U.S. Institute of Peace works at the intersection of U.S. tools for resolving conflict —development, diplomacy, and defense—doing the research and practice to strengthen each of them. That means getting ourselves dirty in the field, as we are doing in Afghanistan and 20 other countries, trying the experimental solutions that will yield next year’s best practices.   

USIP has been from its conception an enterprise beyond political party: first explored and defined by a commission appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and brought into concrete existence with the signature of Republican President Ronald Reagan. We are governed by a thoroughly bipartisan board of directors. And while we are independent of government, both executive and legislative, we hold a privileged position close to it. With this, we serve as a central convener of Americans from across our polity—from government and from civil society, from business and from non-profits, from academia, the military, faith communities and the broad public.

Defending Our Interests and Values

I’ve spoken tonight of our work — the strengthening of responsive, effective governments abroad, and the abatement of violent conflict — as a national security imperative. Indeed it is that. But as important, this work of peacebuilding reflects as well who we are as Americans. It embodies the values of humanity, of pragmatic compromise, of an inclusive respect for all people.

American leaders from the time of our revolution have known that this marriage of our values and our actions is no small thing. Samuel Adams wrote a few days after our declaration of independence that “We may look up to Armies for our Defence. But Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State should long remain free, where Virtue is not supremely honored.”

So let me leave you with three key thoughts:

First, more than ever, we need Americans to be globally engaged.   We need young Americans like you to have the benefit of what Texas A&M and the Bush School offer with your campuses in Jordan, Qatar and Costa Rica –  the chance to have a global view and to engage with thoughtful, experienced leaders like Andrew, Ryan Crocker and others.  

Part of what we do at USIP is to partner with American institutions — universities, educational foundations and others — in the research and training that helps our country understand foreign problems, crises and threats to our national security. We have been lucky to find (and are eager to find more) partners in Texas:

  • Last year, a USIP grant helped Texas Woman’s University advance a new “Global Connections Initiative” that is much smaller, but quite similar to the A&M’s extraordinary Jordan Institute, letting students learn on campus, and through study abroad, about international issues.
  • Some years back, one of our grants helped train Salvadorans, including former combatants from their country’s civil war, to mediate local conflicts of the kind that can easily uproot populations and help drive undocumented immigrants into our own country.
  • The year before last, we had our own staff go to work at Fort Sam Houston to train members of the Army’s 321st Civil Affairs Brigade in mediation skills that they could be called upon to apply in Latin America.

Secondly:  it is imperative to ensure we have space in the U.S. for careful, nonpartisan thinking on global challenges that threaten our security. USIP just concluded a two-day workshop with top Afghan and U.S. leaders, both civilian and military, all with deep engagement over the last decade, to draw out lessons and develop policy recommendations for the way forward — some of which are important for Iraq as well. 

And third:  we know that inclusive politics, access to justice, reconciliation and economic foundations are essential for helping a country escape cycles of conflict.  Our engagement requires an ability to understand how to deploy diplomacy, development and defense against a common goal and shared understanding of the situation.

USIP has a beautiful building with a soaring roof on the Mall in our nation's capital.  During spring break especially, the mall is swarming with eighth graders from all across the country.  And teachers are usually very grateful to have an opportunity to bring their classes not only to the war memorials but also to a building that symbolizes our country's commitment to peace and a world without violent conflict.  It's a big dream, but USIP is where idealists and realists come together.

We—not just we at USIP, but we all as Americans—need the engagement on foreign affairs and on peace-building that you, in this room, and your communities demonstrate. We need the extraordinary energy of Texas Aggies, and the way that this university infuses its education of hundreds of thousands of Americans each decade with a greater awareness of international affairs — whether that is here on campus or abroad through the Jordan Institute, as I mentioned, or through study at A&M’s centers in Qatar or Costa Rica, or elsewhere.

We need the professionalism of the Bush School of Government and Public Service — and its commitment to both halves of its name, to public service as the essence of what government should be. We need the focused development of foreign-policy professionals provided by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.

And we need all of you to remind us, by work and example, that protecting our national interest — and keeping them firmly joined, as Samuel Adams bids us, with our values as Americans — is the work not just of a government in Washington, but of communities in College Station and in Bryan. Your work here reminds us that this is the work of every community of Americans, who carry in our hearts the reminder of Dr. King, that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I am so grateful tonight for the vision that you sustain, for the work that you do, and for your invitation to have me share in it. Thank you!

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