Fragile States and the Next President

What Washington Should Do

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011. Baz Ratner / Reuters

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

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