The new administration, a coming change in leadership at the United Nations, and an emerging global consensus about the fragility challenge make this an opportune moment to recalibrate our approach. The United States cannot and should not try to “fix” every fragile state. Nor can we ignore this challenge; all fragility has the potential to affect U.S. interests to some extent, especially when left to fester. There is simply too much at stake for our interests, our partners, and the global order. A sound and realistic policy framework is urgently needed to help our policymakers determine where, when, and how to invest scarce resources and attention to maximum effect.

The report is the product of a nine-month study of Fragility Study Group led by William J. Burns of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michèle Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security and Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The report is accompanied by a series of policy briefs authored by institutional scholars that build on the chair report to discuss the implications of fragility on existing U.S. tools, strategic interests, and challenges. 

Executive Summary

At the very moment when challenges to the post-World War II U.S.-led international order are growing in number and complexity, Americans are asking hard questions about the type of global leadership role they want their country to play. After a decade and a half of unceasing war and sustained economic unease in the wake of the worst financial crisis in a generation, Americans—and their elected representatives—are increasingly looking homeward. The temptation to hunker down and wait for this moment of disorder to pass is understandable, but shortsighted. We simply do not have that luxury. There is too much at stake—for American interests, for the interests of our allies and partners, and for global peace and security.

The simultaneity of proliferating challenges and constrained appetite and resources to address them will require the incoming administration to demonstrate remarkable discipline and imagination in where and how it chooses to deploy American leadership.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in the U.S. response to the challenge of state fragility. Given the inbox awaiting the next administration, fragile states may seem like a distant and abstract concern. They are not. They are at the center of much of today’s regional disorder and global upheaval. And the driver is the absence—or breakdown—of a social compact between people and their government. The challenge is only likely to become more acute over time as states struggle to keep pace with rising citizen demands.

The United States and its international partners have made notable progress in coming to grips with the fragility challenge. There is a more nuanced understanding of the problem and a growing convergence around the essential elements of sound policy. The hard truth, however, is that for all the progress and hard-won experience of the past two decades, our performance is falling short of the mark, handicapped by bureaucratic politics; the pursuit of maximalist objectives on unrealistic timelines; the failure to balance short-term imperatives with long-term goals; the habit of lurching from one crisis to the next; missed opportunities to act preventively; and too much of a focus on how our bureaucracy looks, and not enough on how it works.

There is no simple prescription to address fragility. The United States cannot—and should not—try to fix every fragile state. We can—and should—articulate sound and realistic policy principles to determine where and how to invest scarce resources and attention to maximum effect. And we can—and should—play a leadership role in shaping the global response and strengthening the capacity of key institutions and partners to do their part.

As the chairs of the Fragility Study Group, the three of us come at this problem from different professional backgrounds and experiences, but we all agree that when the defense, development, and diplomacy communities talk past one another, U.S. policy suffers. With inputs from a distinguished and diverse Senior Advisory Group, we suggest four principles of engagement to guide a more disciplined approach to the challenge of fragile states. Taken together, we believe these principles will position the United States to make a more meaningful difference at lower cost and with manageable risk. We recommend the following Four “S” Framework.

Strategic

Concentrate efforts where America’s interests are greatest, paying special attention to states whose fragility could upend regional order. Work closely with international organizations and partners to strengthen their capacity to respond effectively where their immediate interests are at stake and where second- and third-order effects of fragility and instability increasingly have global repercussions. Prioritize prevention by addressing the festering root causes of fragility before they bubble over into conflict and instability. Invest in resilience, which will reduce demands on the United States by enhancing the ability of fragile states and societies to manage shocks locally and nonviolently. Be vigilant against short-term actions that may undermine long-term objectives and further exacerbate fragility.

Systemic

Tackle security, political, and capacity challenges in relationship to one another and not in isolation. It is one thing to bring the entire toolkit of statecraft to bear. It is another thing entirely to make sure that toolkit works in concert toward shared goals.

Selective

Focus on cases where U.S. interests and leverage are greatest, where goals are attainable, and where those goals also align with the interests and capacities of local partners. Empower international partners and institutions to lead where they have greater stakes and influence. When our interests are high, but our leverage is low, we should insist that, at minimum, our engagement does not make things more fragile, while exploring and refining available sticks and carrots to alter the incentives of elites and other key actors.

Sustained

Domestic political support is essential to achieving desired outcomes. It takes decades for a country to transition from fragility to health; policy frameworks must acknowledge this reality and invest patiently and flexibly over time. We cannot sustain the present pace of reactive and expensive crisis response. Nor can we dive headfirst into complex environments without a shared sense of what can be achieved and greater confidence that it will have the required political backing and budgetary resources. We must be straight with the American people and our partners about both the limits of our means, and the costs and consequences of inaction. Translating these principles into action will be a formidable test for the next administration. Mutual responsibility and accountability will be essential to reframing our engagement with fragile states and with international partners and, just as importantly, within our own government. Three priorities stand out:

  1. Getting our own house in order by ensuring greater coherence and alignment among executive branch agencies and between the executive and legislative branches;
  2. Building more effective partnerships among international partners and between them and fragile states; and
  3. Sharpening the tools to help fragile states more meaningfully strengthen state-society relationships.

We believe these recommendations would allow the administration to deliver a more disciplined, realistic, sound and ultimately effective approach. This paper will be accompanied over the coming months by a series of policy briefs to explore specific policy, political, and bureaucratic aspects of this challenge in greater depth.1

We have no illusions about the complexity of this challenge or about the limits of U.S. influence. But we are confident about the continued promise of principled American leadership to help states and societies write their own future.

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