Good morning, and thank you, Dan, for inviting me to join you all. As many of you know the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department serves as the Secretary’s internal think tank. Given our role in providing high-level analysis to Secretary Pompeo, it’s imperative that my colleagues and I engage with experts like you. We appreciate the opportunity to do so today.
Earlier this year, Secretary Pompeo traveled to Colombia to meet with President Duque during a swing through South America. Colombia is one our best allies in the hemisphere and a major free-trade partner. And actually, it’s a great place to begin our talk on fragile states.
Experiences there over the past couple decades prove that major U.S. partnerships with countries can make a tangible difference when it comes to promoting stability and security. But the “when,” “why,” and “how” are the tricky parts – and that’s what I’d like to focus on.
As you all are well aware, Colombia faced a series of challenges when the 21st century began. They stemmed from violent guerrilla insurgencies led by groups like the FARC and E-L-N that were involved in the drug trade. The weakness of institutions, and the resulting weak rule of law, exacerbated social divisions and led to violence between state actors, paramilitary groups, and drug traffickers.
But remarkably the picture has changed – and largely for the better.
A watershed in institution building came in 1991 with the new Colombian constitution, which paved the way for eventual peace negotiations decades later. The new constitution also embedded indigenous, Afro, and women’s rights within the institutional mechanisms of the state. This greater inclusiveness helped heighten the government’s legitimacy and made the state more resilient to internal stresses.
Once Colombian political officials demonstrated their resolve, the United States became involved – primarily through its assistance program known as Plan Colombia. By aiding military and counter-narcotics operations, the United States supported the Government of Colombia’s efforts to bring the FARC to the negotiating table – thereby promoting peace and reducing violence.
And by delivering additional non-military aid to rural, weakly-governed areas, we helped Colombia focus on development, strengthen the rule of law, and breed greater social cohesion.
Critics would love to point out that Plan Colombia elicited controversy among some quarters. They fail to mention how widely hailed it was for its successes. The Weekly Standard referred to the “Colombian Miracle” as a, quote, “turnaround . . . so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable.” Senator Marco Rubio wrote that the Colombian story, quote, “gives hope to other countries that they, too, can turn the tide in their fight against” instability and violence.
Our collaboration with the Colombian government is an example of what the Trump Administration would like to continue – namely, working with committed partners, strategically investing our resources, and sharing the burden. We have been happy to help Colombia, but it’s just as important to acknowledge that Colombia has done a lot of the hard work itself. Today, Colombia continues to demonstrate its leadership in the region. It’s working with partners to stem the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and ensure a peaceful transition of power.
Here in the Western Hemisphere and across the world writ large, what President Trump and Secretary Pompeo are insisting upon is more discipline when it comes to allocating American resources, and more accountability once aid is distributed.
Their rationale reflects political reality: In the U.S., there is declining public appetite for, and a general wariness to fund, large-scale, open-ended reconstruction efforts.
At the same time, the upward trajectory of intra-state conflict shows no signs of abating: 2015 was by some measures the most violent year since 1945, and, in 2016, 31 countries experienced internal armed conflict – more than at any other time in the last 25 years.
State fragility is at the center of these trends. Now, what do I mean by “fragility”?
I mean situations that arise from dysfunctional relationships between states and their societies. They’re characterized by ineffective governance, social fragmentation, and lack of perceived political legitimacy.
Fragile states are unable to protect their citizens from violence, predatory corruption, and political subversion by external actors like Russia, China, and Iran. Sometimes their fragility even leads to complete economic collapse.
Americans see stories of these places on their TV screens and iPhones every day. And, when they do, they want to know what can be done to establish stability and protect people’s basic rights. People also wonder how much – and if – our own efforts are really paying off. When situations of conflict and fragility are complex, widespread, and often protracted, citizens and policymakers alike understand the need to prioritize. It’s only natural for them to say look, we will gladly work “here” and “there,” but not “everywhere”!
The Trump Administration unapologetically agrees. We need to focus on advancing America’s core interests and leveraging our competitive advantages.
We simply cannot work in all fragile states – not only because it’s not in America’s interest to spread itself thin, but also because past inefficacy counsels in favor of a more realistic, and more humble, approach. When it comes to fragile states, we cannot be blinded by good intentions and tricked by our moral vanity into supposing we have all the answers, all the time. That’s a recipe for profligacy and waste – a fantasy that hinders a more efficient, and effective, allocation of limited resources.
The questions we need to answer, therefore, are twofold:
When, under the Trump Administration, is it in America’s interest to engage in fragile and conflict-affected states? And what form should that strategic – as opposed to indiscriminate – engagement take?
I think five criteria guide the first question. Based on our national security interests, we should work to address fragility and conflict in places where:
- One, they represent safe havens for terrorists,
- Two, their instability threatens U.S. economic prosperity,
- Three, the out-migration of their citizens threatens U.S. domestic tranquility or strains the resources of key partners,
- Four, the spread of global pandemics and diseases must be contained, and/or,
- Five, geopolitical competitors like China, Iran, and Russia are exploiting institutional weaknesses for their own agendas, and at America’s expense.
As for the second question – what form our assistance should take under this Administration – clearly different countries have different needs. There is no single, universally-applicable toolkit. Our engagement should always be tailored to localized parameters and take into account the politics of these places—since conflict, at its core, is political; as well as particular social circumstances, histories, and cultures. This is key.
The United States is out of the nation-building business, and we must be more flexible in how societies choose to organize themselves.
As we tailor our engagement, we need principles to guide us. One is making sure that the United States is using diplomacy and foreign aid to mitigate and prevent conflict. Both are essential. We can no longer simply wait to respond to international 9-1-1 calls.
Conflict prevention is an equally, if not more, viable approach.
A 2018 study, for example, demonstrated that for each $1 donor countries invested in prevention-related activities, they would save somewhere on the order of 2 and 4 times that over the long run. Getting ahead of problems makes sense.
Second, we must work with priority states to address their political, security, and development challenges together and not in isolation. As you all know, fragmented, siloed strategies result in poor outcomes.
And third, we should support these select partners to build their capacity to be more resilient—to internal stresses, and to attempts from external aggressors like China and Russia to undermine their institutions.
That, in a nutshell, is our approach—strategic engagement in the places that matter; sharing the burden with our allies; always coupling prevention with mitigation; and ensuring we bolster partners against internal and external challenges. But now I’d like to address what steps we’ve already taken.
Do not believe the voices in the media claiming that what we’re doing equates to across-the-board withdrawal.
In actuality, the Trump Administration is maximizing U.S. impact in fragile states that remain strategically-important.
Within the U.S. federal government, we have begun streamlining the foreign assistance bureaucracy, by formalizing roles across and within cabinet departments to improve our engagements in fragile states.
The Stabilization Assistance Review or SAR outlined a series of recommendations, which we’re now working to implement. The State Department has overall lead, and we are working closely with USAID and DoD to ensure that evidence-based and outcome-oriented strategies guide our stabilization efforts. We’re also in the middle of a review of all aspects of our foreign assistance.
That’s the internal side of the equation. But we’re also maximizing impact externally by changing how we improve outcomes in fragile states.
First, we’re putting evidence at the heart of everything we do. Talented teams within State, like those in our Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, are using statistical analysis, mapping technologies, and other tools to better understand trends, risks, and opportunities for engagement. The Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources is identifying where our assistance has reinforced peace and stability in fragile states, where it has not, and why.
Second, we are formalizing and expanding ways to deploy diplomats to at-risk areas. As Secretary Pompeo has said, we need our diplomats in “every corner of the globe.”
Third, we are finding ways to better deliver assistance in fragile states.
This includes prioritizing agility, diversifying our implementation partners, establishing more flexible procurement mechanisms, and maintaining our focus on learning and accountability.
Fourth, to maximize impact inside fragile states, we are publicly recognizing that stabilization is inherently political and transitional in nature. It is not meant to last indefinitely. We will do what is necessary to support the local host government for a finite period of time, but our local partners must then take ownership over their country’s future.
The United States is not alone in its efforts to stem conflict in fragile states. In some cases, international organizations and agreements can be a force for good.
The World Bank, for example, has reoriented considerable resources toward addressing fragile states. The U.N. also plays a prominent role through its Security Council resolutions, rapporteurs, peacekeeping and political mandates, and development assistance. The Trump Administration welcomes these efforts – so long as the entities remain accountable, aren’t captured by special interests, and don’t engage in ideological colonization.
In many instances, supranational organizations, however, are less important than our support for locally-legitimate authorities.
Local authorities must be at the forefront of solving their own problems. Historical experience shows that they do not embrace top-down solutions and structures that are hoisted on them, without consultation, from superpowers. As my predecessor the great George Kennan once wrote, “[E]ven benevolence, when addressed to a foreign people, represents a form of intervention into their internal affairs, and always receives, at best, a divided reception.”
That’s part of the reason why we need to be thoughtful about how we support fragile states.
After all, they’re called that for a reason – they require a delicate touch that calls for more than mailing foreign governments blank checks or implementing standard solutions.
Sometimes our approach might require establishing development “anchors” in subnational areas, outside major capital cities, like in Lagos, Nigeria.
Other times, it might mean helping nations establish a stronger national identity – which can tie together disparate ethnic or religious groups into a more cohesive whole – through the use of neutral languages, common projects, or strong new narratives like Nelson Mandela used in South Africa.
Only by developing a strategy to systematically counter the fragmentation that affects these places can their problems be overcome.
The need for a strong national identity is the perfect note to end on, because it’s often neglected or misunderstood in the present day and age.
A widely-felt allegiance to something greater than one’s family, tribe, political party, or ethnic group is in many ways a precondition for development.
And along with a strong national identity, of course, comes the corresponding notion of sovereignty.
The Trump Administration supports not only our own sovereignty here in the United States, but also the sovereignty of countries who wish to break their path dependency and stand on their own.
You’ve heard the President’s tagline “America First” – but you should note that, “America First” is not the same as saying “America Only” or “America at the Expense of Others.”
When it comes to fragile states, “America First” does not mean we will shirk tough work in tough environments. It simply means we will dispense with an overly-romanticized view of foreign relations. When we choose to act, our actions will be based on a resolute, and unapologetic, focus on our own national interests.
And even though we may do so on a more limited basis, when we do act, we will marshal nothing less than the full extent of our resources to help priority countries become more equipped to handle internal stresses and external aggressors – China and Russia chief among them. Then, when our work is done, we will shake hands and move forward.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is the President’s vision – the one that Secretary Pompeo and my office are charged with carrying out every day. It’s one we’re very proud of.
Allow me to close by saying thank you. Many of you here in this room are scholar-practitioners, who help devise approaches to fragile states. Others among you are aid workers on the front-lines. The work you do is critical in furthering the safety and prosperity of the American people. Thank you again. Now I’d be happy to answer a few of your questions.