Three former high-ranking officials in the State Department, the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) urged the next presidential administration to commit more attention and resources to preventing the kinds of violent conflicts that are roiling the Middle East and other regions today and spilling over into neighboring countries, Europe and the United States. Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and USAID Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg said it would take discipline, focus and coordination to address the problem of “fragile states” before they erupt into further crises that take countless lives and cost exponentially more to resolve.

David Ignatius, William J. Burns, Michèle Flournoy, Nancy Lindborg

The three former officials today unveiled a joint report that outlines policy approaches and priority actions to address fragility, which they say lies “at the root of today’s global disorder, from chaos in the Arab world to the refugee crisis and from pandemic diseases to economic malaise.” More than 1 billion people and nearly half of the world’s poor live in fragile states such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, according to data from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Burns currently serves as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Flournoy is co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and Lindborg is president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. They chaired the “Fragility Study Group,” which was based at USIP and included a 23-member senior advisory group including figures such as Retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen and Diana Farrell, a former deputy assistant to the president for economic policy.

Fragility is “closely related to the problem of terrorism that thrust itself on the national consciousness so dramatically after 9/11,” said USIP Chairman of the Board and former National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, who opened the discussion of the report at USIP and led the audience in a moment of silence to commemorate yesterday’s 15th anniversary of the terror attacks. The report notes that three successive U.S. presidential administrations have sought to address fragility and have fallen short.

The Global Terrorism Index 2015, produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace, cites figures showing that 88 percent of all terror attacks in 2015 occurred in countries experiencing or involved in armed conflicts.

“If we do not develop the planning, relationships and resources we need to address the fragility problem, we will not escape the current cycle of recurring crises, we will not defeat terrorism and we will deploy our military over and over again, with all the cost in blood and treasure that that entails,” Hadley said. He also served on the study’s senior advisory group.

The study group defines fragility as “the absence or breakdown of a social contract between people and their government,” often because official institutions are ineffective or illegitimate or both. The consequences “increase the risk of instability and violent conflict and sap the state of its resilience to disruptive shocks.”

Five Lines of Effort

Lindborg outlined five principal lines of effort needed to address fragility: sustained attention over time, locally-driven and tailored solutions, a focus on justice and security, accountable and inclusive governance, and equitable economic growth.

“These are the building blocks of how fragility can be best overcome and how countries can emerge from what are often cycles of conflict,” she said.

Efforts to address fragility must be strategic, systemic, selective and sustained, according to the group. Not every budding crisis may have the most extreme ramifications, and the U.S. will have to select cases where its interests and influence are greatest. And each situation must be tackled comprehensively and in a way that can be sustained over time.

Despite the complexity of many of today’s upheavals and the low appetite of Americans for foreign intervention, there are places where a focused approach can work, Burns said, citing states emerging from the revolutions that have rocked the globe in the past five to six years or countries trying to reform to head off such an eventuality.

Tunisia, for example, may not seem hugely significant strategically but can set an important example in the broader Middle East and North Africa, because its government has shown “a capacity for compromise that’s worth investing in,” Burns said. He called for sustained attention to that case not only from the U.S. but also from the European Union and possibly the Arab world.

Flournoy also cited Ukraine, Nigeria and Jordan as places where the U.S. and its allies could do more to stave off a deterioration of conditions on the ground and reduce the potential need for significant American military involvement in the case of a wider crisis.

“The only tool in our toolbox that we fund to be expeditionary at scale is the United States military,” Flournoy said. “So when we get in a pinch and need to reach for something, the only thing that’s fully funded and ready to go is the military, even when that may not be the appropriate tool or the best tool or a tool that, by itself, can have the desired effect.”

Iraq Plan Undermined

She cited the example of Iraq. At one point, U.S. government agencies had crafted a comprehensive plan to stabilize Iraq that included elements such as sustained diplomatic engagement, development initiatives, police training and extensive security assistance. But it hinged on a significant State Department presence on the ground.

Yet when the administration sent the proposal to Congress, it was chopped into pieces for consideration by relevant committees, and, while the Defense Department received 100 percent of its requested funding, the U.S. Agency for International Development received only about 70 percent or 80 percent of its request and the State Department less than half.

“The whole thing fell apart,” Flournoy said. “It was like trying to sit on a stool with different leg lengths.”

Successive secretaries of defense also have urged Congress to increase funding for the State Department and USAID to reverse the trend of military units handling key development and outreach activities on the ground simply because they are the only entities that have the money to do so. Among the Fragility Study Group’s recommendations is to form a “strategic foresight cell” within the National Security Council to identify priority fragile states and routinely address their issues. The NSC also must examine more frequently the potential long-term costs in various short-term approaches being considered for countries in crisis or on the brink, Lindborg said.

Even today in Iraq, a forward-looking approach is needed to plan more comprehensively for the aftermath of the planned Iraqi and coalition operation to recapture Mosul, the second-largest city, from the ISIS extremist group, Lindborg said. That means addressing underlying political issues and paving the way for reconciliation to recover from the effect of the atrocities that have torn the social fabric.

Where ISIS Might Go Next

The U.S. also should look more closely at where ISIS might emerge next and work to head off that trend, “not through military intervention, but through shoring up the capabilities of those states to deal with the problem locally,” Flournoy said.

“My favorite local example is Southeast Asia, where I’ve had at least two ministers from the region come and say, `Here’s what I’m seeing. We can get after this, we can prevent it if we coordinate our law enforcement [and by] increasing economic development efforts,’” Flournoy said. “But we’ve got to get there before ISIS shows up in force. It’s a more preventative effort.”

For the absence of legitimate and effective government in fragile states, elections are by no means the only requirement and in some cases can end up becoming a focal point for violence themselves. Instead, democratic development is a longer-term proposition that requires institutions to be accountable to the public and to include broad representation. In the aftermath of violence, genuine peace and stability also require reconciliation.

The priority actions recommended in the study group’s report are organizing the administrative apparatus to coordinate more effectively internally as well as with Congress; better synchronize with international partners to address the issues; and refine and dedicate more resources to the mechanisms needed to support fragile states, such as ways to tackle corruption, reform security services and support emerging civil society.

Security, Civil Society

The report will be followed over the coming weeks by a series of policy briefs exploring more specific topics that affect work on and in fragile states, such as gender, security assistance and corruption. Three of the authors of the briefs spoke at the USIP event today.

Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior associate at Carnegie who is working on a brief concerning fragility and the security sector, said reform of those institutions doesn’t work in the absence of stronger relations between the state and society more broadly. She likened the tendency to focus on security sector reform to polishing a jewel and placing it in a corroded setting.

She also addressed the potential costs of foreign assistance. Many receiving states have resources that can be—and are—applied alongside international aid. She cited Colombia, saying U.S. spending on the Plan Colombia military and civilian aid package made up only 3 percent of the total spent on improvements there. The rest came from Colombia.

Maria Stephan, a senior policy fellow at USIP who specializes in non-violent citizen action, said local grassroots organizations in fragile states are often in the best position to advance change, with the right kind of support. That doesn’t necessarily mean direct financial backing, which could undermine the legitimacy of civic organizations or make them targets of authoritarian regimes seeking to restrict their work. Aid could be in the form of mechanisms to help groups learn from each other across countries and regions or developing their skills in effective, non-violent advocacy.

But donor countries usually aren’t comfortable dealing with fluid, decentralized campaigns and movements, she said. Stephan cited a 2015 study that found that local civil society organizations received just 0.2 percent of official development assistance.
“That’s unacceptable if your goal is to strengthen the resilience and resolve of local actors,” Stephan said. Democracy and governance aid also “should not be cut in an era of authoritarian resurgence and shrinking civic space around the world.”

Within the U.S., a more complete public discussion is needed about what the government is doing in terms of foreign assistance, said Loren Schulman, deputy director of studies at CNAS and a former senior advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Schulman is writing a policy brief on implementation planning, transparency and decision-making across agencies in the first 100 days of a new administration.

“Having a more transparent conversation, not through leaks but through deliberate engagement, about what is it we’re doing, why we’re doing it, whether it’s effective and how long it’s going to take is something I see as absolutely critical,” she said.

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