November 28, 2018

Fragility to Stability: An Investment in Global Security

By Zach Wehrli

For every $1 we spend to prevent conflict and atrocities, we have the potential to save $16 in response costs, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. And this week, in an effort to solidify state fragility as a national security priority, the House passed the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act of 2018. Now, we turn to the Senate to reframe America’s national security agenda and combat the threats posed by global fragility.

Global Fragility and Violence Reduction

The legislation, introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and the Senate*, lays out a whole-of-government approach to address state fragility. If signed into law, it would require the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, to create a 10-year initiative to reduce violence and fragility in priority countries.

While the bills are largely identical, the Senate version grants co-leadership status to the Secretary of State and the USAID Administrator and uses stronger language to ensure an exemption from earmarks, guaranteeing funding flexibility and adaptability. Importantly, both versions include reforms to improve the U.S. government’s ability to evaluate progress and highlight the importance of adaptation and research and development.

The Dangers of State Fragility

This legislation is unprecedented in its efforts to substantively address state fragility, but this isn’t the first time the U.S. government has recognized the dangers posed by fragile states. A recent congressionally-mandated report by the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States at the United States Institute of Peace highlighted the threat posed by instability:

  • 60% of the world’s poor will be concentrated in fragile states by 2030, providing opportunities for extremist networks to cultivate new resources and recruits.
  • Since 2006, 30 countries across the Sahel, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa have become more fragile, while only 19 have seen their fragility reduced.
  • In total, almost every country in these regions is labeled as a “warning” or “alert” level of state fragility, according to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index.
  • Terrorist attacks have continued to increase globally since 9/11, and extremist groups have gained footholds in 19 countries across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East.

The bipartisan Task Force behind this new report, including former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, concluded that “Going forward, the priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states – to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies.”

In addition to extremism, instability can prove disastrous when it comes to infectious diseases. The flu pandemic of 1918, which killed as many as 100 million people, was exacerbated by the protracted conflict of World War I. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s most recent Ebola outbreak, violence has increased transmission rates and hindered effective response and prevention in the conflict-torn province of North Kivu; there’s no question that violence continues to have the power to amplify the lethality of infectious diseases.

Fragile states have also contributed to the dramatic rise in the number of displaced persons and refugees— now an unprecedented 68.5 million people. While conversations of state fragility and displacement traditionally focus on countries like Afghanistan and Syria, record levels of violence and hunger in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have also resulted in mass migration. In fact, studies have found that for every 10 additional murders in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, 6 additional children sought safety in the United States.

A Unique Opportunity in 2019

To date, the Administration has sent mixed signals on fragile states. Proposals to cut stabilization funding and the International Affairs Budget, along with a reorientation of both the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy toward revisionist powers like China and Russia, relegated terrorism and state fragility to a lower priority.

Yet earlier this year, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and USAID released the first-ever Stabilization Assistance Review, an interagency collaboration that defines U.S. strategy for leveraging diplomacy and foreign assistance to stabilize conflict zones and lay the foundation for long-term development. And last month, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis observed, “In most cases, the breeding ground for [extremism] is not something that can be addressed by the military. Our general view is that the State Department has the lead with USAID and we lead with ideas, we lead with the example of our own country and we work with likeminded nations in this regard.”

State fragility isn’t just a U.S. priority. It’s a global imperative. With this legislation, the Senate has a unique opportunity to contribute to global stability, strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy, and bolster U.S. national security in the process.

* The legislation was introduced by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Todd Young (R-IN), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in the Senate and Representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ted Poe (R-TX), Michael McCaul (T-TX), Adam Smith (D-WA), Bill Keating (D-MA), and Paul Cook (R-CA) in the House.