How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The combination of proliferating global challenges and constrained domestic appetite and resources to address them will pose a fundamental dilemma for the next administration. After 15 years of war and economic unease, the temptation to hunker down and wait for the global storm to pass is understandable, but deeply shortsighted. The United States can’t afford to wall itself off from the world.
This is precisely why the next administration will have to demonstrate significant discipline and imagination in how it deploys the precious resource of U.S. leadership. This is true across a complicated international landscape punctuated by China’s rise, Russian aggression, climate change, persistent terrorist threats, and other challenges to the U.S.-led global order. And it is especially true when it comes to how we contend with the enormously complex challenge of state fragility.
Fragile states lie at the root of much of today’s global disorder, from turmoil in the Arab world to the refugee crisis, and from pandemic diseases to economic malaise. When governments exclude citizens from political and economic life, they lose legitimacy, become brittle, and break.
Each of us approaches this challenge from different professional perspectives—diplomacy, defense, and development—but we share a conviction about its significance for U.S. interests and policy.
We have no illusions about the difficulty of the problem or the limits of U.S. influence. The United States cannot—and should not—try to fix every fragile state. But with discipline about where and how to invest scarce resources and attention, proactive leadership can make a meaningful difference.
Four principles should guide U.S. engagement in fragile states.
First, the United States must be strategic—concentrating its efforts where its interests are greatest, where the stakes for regional order are most profound, and where, together with its partners, it can invest in prevention and resilience so that festering tensions don’t bubble over into conflict and instability. A number of fragile states sit on major geopolitical fault-lines that bear on regional order and key U.S. concerns such as terrorism, mass displacement, and energy security. For example, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Ukraine all fit the bill, and all deserve priority attention. In today’s interconnected world, the local effects of fragility and instability have increasingly global repercussions. This is why a strategic response also requires strengthening the capacity of international partners to respond effectively in places where they have more to lose and more to give.
Second, the United States must be systemic—tackling security, political, and development challenges in relationship with one another and not in isolation. It is one thing to bring the full toolkit of statecraft to bear. It is another entirely to make sure that the tools in the toolkit work in concert.
Third, the United States must be selective; it must focus on a few countries where it has leverage and set realistic goals that align with key actors within fragile states. The Obama administration’s comprehensive Central American Regional Strategy is the kind of bet worth making to address the root causes of fragility. At the same time, the United States can’t ignore important fragile states, such as Egypt, with whom it has strong disagreements about the diagnosis and prescription for instability. What Washington can, and must, do is ensure that its actions do not exacerbate fragility, while it works to entice, isolate, or bypass obstinate partners, empower domestic sources of resilience, and make progress where it can.
Fourth, U.S. engagement must be sustained; it often takes years or even decades for a state to transcend fragility. Without strong domestic political support, the United States will never be able to make the kind of patient and flexible investments required for success.
Translating these principles into action will be a formidable test for the next administration. Addressing fragility has been a recurring National Security Strategy priority for the last three administrations, and the next will have the benefit of a decade plus of hard-earned lessons and scholarship to inform why, how, and when to engage fragile states. Yet despite all the good work within and outside government, there is still no shared understanding across U.S. government agencies about the best way to approach fragility.
The next administration will need to establish mutual responsibility and accountability among its own agencies as well as with international partners and with fragile states. Three priorities stand out: first, the United States needs to get its own house in order by ensuring greater coherence and alignment among executive branch agencies and between the executive and legislative branches; second, it must build more effective partnerships among international partners and between those partners and fragile states; and third, it should sharpen the tools to help fragile states more meaningfully strengthen state-society relationships.
Taken alone, any one of these priorities will be insufficient. But taken together, a process of coordinated horizon-scanning, prioritization, early warning, early action, and refined tools and strengthened partnerships can significantly improve U.S. engagement in fragile states.
At home, the next administration should build strategic foresight into the regular decision-making process at the National Security Council (NSC), and it should schedule regular senior-level discussions about fragility that elevate early warning systems and preventive action. Every NSC faces the challenge of balancing urgent crises with important long-term considerations. Early warning, more proactive, preventive action, and a shared understanding of each challenge is critical to identifying and addressing sources of fragility before they boil over into conflict and instability.
The most important early step will be getting the relationship with Congress off on the right foot. The administration should present a comprehensive strategy focused on a handful of priority fragile states, a commitment to building more effective international partnerships, and a plan to develop, sharpen, and coordinate critical policy tools across government. In return, Congress should authorize multi-year, flexible, whole-of-government funding to support those strategies and work with the administration to clarify funding authorities, remove injurious earmarks, and make the case to the public that investing in prevention is a wise use of taxpayer dollars.
This may sound like fantasy in a town that can be so paralyzed, partisan, and parochial. But Plan Colombia and more recent efforts in Burma (also called Myanmar) are reminders of what’s possible. The success of Plan Colombia can be attributed to sustained bipartisan support in Congress and across three administrations, with billions of dollars in uninterrupted financing. And in Burma, five years of steady American effort and aid have helped the country transition to democracy after decades of civil war and authoritarian rule. Even constructive partnerships such as these have their share of blemishes, from human rights abuses to ongoing narcotrafficking in Colombia to ongoing concerns about the Burmese military’s role in the country’s democratic future. The United States is hardly out of the woods, but courageous leadership in both countries combined with sound U.S. investments over many years made a meaningful difference.
The next administration should expand the partnership model pioneered by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. The New Deal, a landmark 2011 multilateral global policy agreement, encapsulates a sound approach to fragile states, emphasizing local ownership, coordinated international action, and mutual accountability with fragile states. A common criticism of the New Deal is that it has remained in the sole domain of finance and planning ministries, which has undoubtedly hampered its effectiveness to date.
Finally, to ensure that the United States has the right tools to address the right problem, the next administration should develop critical, under-resourced capabilities to address the needs of fragile states. Success in assisting these states with their transitions will require rethinking when and how these capabilities are applied: security sector engagement; anti-corruption; civil society support; public-private partnerships; leadership influence and coercion tools; elections; education and exchanges; learning and evaluation.
State fragility will remain a central feature of the international landscape for the foreseeable future. The United States’ response, however, can and must evolve. Washington must be straight with the American people and its partners about both the limits of our means and also about the costs and consequences of inaction. This is not a moment for fatalism or disengagement. It is a moment for the kind of strategic, systemic, selective, and sustained American leadership that remains critical to global peace and security.