printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preventing and Responding to Crises and Conflicts

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
November 24, 2009


I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Preventive Action for hosting today’s event and for inviting me to participate. I am pleased to be with you today for the launch of the Council on Foreign Relations report “Enhancing U.S. Preventive Action” and to have the opportunity to speak briefly about how the U.S. and the international community can work to prevent future crises.

Preventing and effectively responding to future crises is a foreign policy priority for the Obama Administration. As you know, as part of Secretary of State Clinton’s major long-term strategic planning process, she is conducting a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). I am co-chairing a Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Crises and Conflicts with my USAID colleague Susan Reichle, senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of AID’s Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. Through the QDDR process, State and USAID are reviewing challenges, discussing desired impacts, and working to define the capabilities that we will need to create effective crisis prevention and crisis response mechanisms.

The QDDR process has just begun, and I look forward to hearing perspectives and observations from you all during the question and answer session. Before commenting on the recommendations of your important report, let me offer a bit of background on the process in which we at State and USAID find ourselves engaged.

As I mentioned, our group’s focus is preventing and responding to conflicts and crises, and, thus, our writ is exceptionally broad: how can the United States build capacity on a wide range of issues, from humanitarian assistance; to the civilian dimension of peacekeeping or stability operations -- which help to develop electoral, judicial and law enforcement systems, as well as quick impact economic revitalization projects -- to counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics initiatives, to preventing and responding to pandemics?

This is the area of foreign and national security policy where we are seeking to have the most direct and immediate impact on unfolding events over the broadest range of situations. It is exceptionally challenging: while crisis responses are often designed to meet short term imperatives, they will only serve our policy objectives if they are structured with other actions that have longer term results. For example, I’ve just returned from Iraq, where the Iraqi government needs quickly to develop capacity in a range of areas, from economic rehabilitation for returnees to security sector strengthening and reform. But in those areas and in others, short-term fixes that do not include capacity enhancement over time will result in policy failure.

These sorts of capacities – whether they involve deployment of disaster relief workers, police trainers or experts at demobilization -- are the ones in which the tightest integration of assistance, on the one hand, and diplomacy and security, on the other, is most critical. These capacities are also those that our political leadership in Washington and U.S. Ambassadors at post need to access easily and quickly, as they work to mitigate emerging crises and threats or tailor our humanitarian response to conflicts in ways that prevent further destabilization in a region. And from our discussions with Ambassadors, it’s clear they do not feel they currently have sufficient capacities, making it difficult to respond from the field to requests for information and action from Washington.

Let me identify some initial observations that seem to be emerging from our process, but also emphasize that these are my preliminary and personal impressions – and I am not prejudging any findings from the QDDR process. Most of these observations are not surprising and largely track with a great deal of analytical work that has been done over the past decade.

First, on prevention, our capacity to gather information on slow onset and impending crises isn’t bad; in fact it’s pretty good, but it far outstrips our ability to develop policy responses and to execute them in the field. And while there may be value to new or strengthened institutions dedicated to prevention, we also must work to ensure that prevention is among the core functions of existing institutions. That means building specific capabilities, knowledge and skill sets of diplomats and development and humanitarian assistance professionals.

Second, we need to enhance our capacity to deploy expertise quickly and effectively over a broad range of areas, as reflected in the current efforts of State S/CRS, along with USAID and other US government agencies, to develop deployable specialists who can genuinely add value.

Third, both in Washington and at posts overseas, responsibilities for managing a host of interrelated issues involving crisis response needs to be better defined, to avoid uncoordinated efforts. The Democratic Republic of Congo, from which I returned some weeks ago, is a good example of this challenge. In the DRC, the character of the MONUC peacekeeping operation and both its military and protection mandate, the work of a range of UN organizations, and our own direct efforts -- from security sector reform to addressing gender-based violence -- are all interrelated. Yet it has been a genuine challenge to develop a clear and overarching structure of U.S. government management that brings together all of these issues. Ensuring effective integration of all these efforts is a key to long-term success.

Fourth, there are widespread concerns – from Ambassadors and from AID mission directors and others – that the proliferation of reporting requirements – largely focused on demonstrating short-term results -- has impacted the ability of committed U.S. professionals to engage in risk taking, and that this has hobbled our ability to effect changes we seek around the world. Whether that means sending USAID officers or officers from our bureau, or our implementing partners, to engage with local populations in areas where militants are also present in places like Afghanistan, or using venture capital to support untested yet very promising partners, our inability to engage in responsible risk taking has very high costs.

And fifth, the U.S. government and U.S. policy would greatly benefit from greater flexibility in the use of resources – both in terms of moving funds between accounts very quickly, and in terms of having contingency accounts in the field. There is also an evolving consensus on the need for far greater resources in the area of civilian capacity, on which I’ll comment in a moment.

So how do these observations stack up against the recommendations of the CFR report on prevention? Rather than provide “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” reactions to the recommendations, allow me to offer some questions and observations on each.
In terms of strategy, planning and programming, the CFR report calls for strengthening institutions within the National Security Council – including the strategic planning directorate at the NSC and what was described as the “moribund” interagency National Security Policy Planning Committee established under the Bush Administration. It also suggests reasonable guidelines to frame prevention priorities, and calls for new or strengthened NSC offices dealing with development and governance, and prevention, reconstruction and stabilization.

I do believe that there are obvious and distinct advantages to dedicated planning and prevention processes as described in the CFR report, and the NSC is indeed the place that brings together the many parts of the government that are engaged in national security decision-making. But this kind of process is likely to have the greatest chance for success when it has consistent and high level attention from the most senior policy makers. And that is most likely to occur when it is clearly linked to comparable agency processes, and also linked to a serious ability to access resources when prevention fails. Having worked at the NSC for nearly a decade, I witnessed planning processes that did not meet these requirements and, thus, did not have the intended effects.
In addition, one of the lessons captured in the QDDR process is the importance of devolving decision-making and finding the right balance between policy and strategy guidance in Washington and operational flexibility in the field. Any structures established in Washington should reflect this lesson.

I share the general view of the report that we need to better utilize early-warning capabilities, and that policy makers need to make better and more timely use of intelligence information. I’m not certain, however, that three specific recommendations in the report –the Annual Threat Assessment, Special Warning Notices, and the consolidation of various instability watch lists— would by themselves ensure our getting important warning information synthesized and teed up for decisions by policymakers.
Finally, I read with great interest your resource recommendations – from shifting authorities and funding back from DOD to State to enhancing the capacity and resources of State S/CRS. There is a growing consensus that increases in resources will be a critical element in enhanced capacity in these crucial areas, though this needs to be understood within the context of a greater balance between the U.S. civilian and military agencies in resources.

Most importantly, and most obviously, the key to resource recommendations, and to the QDDR process in general, will be to make the case that we need capabilities that we do not now have. That means identifying the international environment we anticipate in the decade to come, assessing how threats will impact our critical national interests, and determining what we must have in place to adequately respond.  Again, that may be our most critical and challenging task as we move through this QDDR process, and I’d be eager to hear your views on these and other issues in the time we have today.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.