IRI Expert Examines Strategies to Stabilize Fragile States for Brookings

Creating a political strategy for stabilizing fragile states
Patrick W. Quirk and Jeffrey W. Meiser 
The recently concluded Berlin Conference on the continuing civil war in Libya illustrates the drawback of current approaches to stabilization. At the conference, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for rival Libyan factions to “stop this jockeying for position” and work for the good of all Libyans. Ideally this would be the case, but it is profoundly unrealistic. Jockeying for position is the essence of politics and cannot be eliminated, it can only be channeled into a productive direction. Recent U.S. legislation and policy openings provide an opportunity to establish a more realistic and effective American approach to stabilization. 
On December 20, 2019, President Trump signed the Global Fragility Act (GFA), which requires the U.S. to develop its first ever “global fragility strategy” for stabilizing priority countries and regions or preventing conflict therein. It authorizes $1.15 billion in foreign assistance for this purpose. The GFA comes on the heels of the U.S.Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), which outlines a framework for maximizing the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to stabilize conflict-affected areas.

As the U.S. government develops the GFA global strategy, it will be applying the SAR framework to develop political strategies for selected countries. In practice, though, what does stabilization “success” look like as conceptualized by the SAR approach? How is “strategy” defined and what should it consist of? The U.S. government does not have guidance on these issues.

Here, we argue that the best political strategy to help stabilize fragile states is one of “strategic empowerment.” This means supporting local actors with the legitimacy required to govern as well as the interests and values that align with ours.

Defining Strategy, Politics, and Stabilization

Developing a “political strategy” suggests a shift away from resource-intensive responses such as counterinsurgency and nation-building. But what does it really mean to have a political strategy?

We define strategy as a theory of success. A theory is an explanation of how and why proposed actions will cause desired outcomes. Therefore, a strategy must include a clear statement of goals (what you want to cause), the specific proposed actions to achieve those goals, and the causal logic that connects actions to outcomes. Politics is the competition for power. Some countries have highly institutionalized, stable, and peaceful systems of competition for power; other countries are characterized by chaotic, violent competition. The path to stabilization involves shifting the incentives toward nonviolent competition and, in the near term, empowering actors who can peaceably manage conflict. 

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