Biden needs a failed states strategy

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Much has been made of President-elect Biden’s plan to hold a “Summit of Democracy” early in his presidency to renew America’s commitment to spreading democracy abroad and our alliance with Western democracies. This is a very important initiative. Equally important, however, is for Biden to develop a strategy for dealing with countries on the very other end of the spectrum: failed states. 

This is so important right now because the pandemic has degraded civic and economic order in even the world’s most stable countries. For nations already on a downward slide toward failure because of the lack of a legitimate government, armed conflict, political discontent, mass human rights violations and humanitarian crisis, the pandemic is pushing them to the brink. 

When a country collapses it poses one of the greatest threats to our future security and prosperity for three reasons. First, failed states become a haven for terrorism. For instance, Al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks from caves in Afghanistan after it had plunged into darkness from years of civil war and a brutal takeover by the Taliban.

Second, failed states cause humanitarian and refugee crises that reach our shores and demand our attention, even if we try to ignore them. Migrants hoping to enter the U.S. at our border with Mexico are mainly from the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) and are fleeing gang violence, crime and a dearth of economic opportunity. They cross into our country at great personal risk because they believe the situation at home is much worse. 

Third, and perhaps most worrisome for America, is how failing states empower our adversaries. Examples abound in the Middle East and Africa. For instance, Iran uses its unstable neighbor, Iraq, as a battlefield with the U.S., creating and supporting Shia militias that fire rockets at our military bases and our embassy in Baghdad, engaging in illicit trade of oil and other commodities to circumvent U.S. sanctions and testing how to spread its model of theocratic rule. 

Russia also capitalizes on instability in the region. Because of the violent response to the peaceful uprising in Syria, President Obama’s decision not to take more leadership there, and the ultimate collapse of country, Russia intervened in 2015 to fill the void. Five years later, Russia now has a massive, and seemingly permanent, military and intelligence presence, and the Assad Regime is a client state beholden to Russia, which wants to replicate this symbiotic relationship in other countries, like Libya, a country that offers even greater strategic benefit to Russia because of its coastline on the Mediterranean, its position as a gateway to Africa and its valuable oil reserves.

China also benefits from collapsing countries, preying on African nations with despotic leaders because they are simple to buy off, desperate for loans and financial assistance to pump up their economies and easy to leverage into bad deals that line the pockets of Chinese state-owned companies.  

Given such clear threats to our interests, how are we doing in terms of preventing more failed states? The answer is not good. 

An annual report on fragile states that was based on data collected before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic found there are 24 countries at a “high warning” level, 22 at an “alert” level, five at “high alert,” and four at “very high.”  This means more than 30 per cent of the world’s nations are essentially failed states. 

The UN estimates 1.8 billion people currently live in fragile states and that this number will increase to 2.3 billion by 2030.

What should Biden’s plan for dealing with failed states look like? 

Most importantly, Biden needs to reengage the U.S. diplomatically if he wants to help prevent a further slide into failure by fragile states.

With Trump’s foreign policy, American leadership has been absent on many of the world’s most thorny crises. Yet Trump also dove headlong into other quagmires, like the well-publicized and ultimately unsuccessful summits with Kim Jong Un and his abrupt cancellation of the nuclear deal with Iran without an alternative plan to prevent it from nuclearizing.

“America First” was a jumbled and contradictory approach that amounts to less a coherent vision for American leadership and more an excuse not to do the hard work of diplomacy when there is no obvious or immediate payoff for Trump’s public persona. 

Biden needs to set a different tone of leadership and should, early on, carefully choose situations where a deepening crisis may be averted through the quiet application of pressure and diplomacy by the world’s only superpower. American leadership is deeply desired in Libya, for instance, where other countries have been meddling for years, but where there is a chance for peace. A tenuous ceasefire is in place between warring sides, but it hinges on the success of a political dialogue run by the UN.

Unfortunately, the dialogue in Libya is now mired in gridlock, with Libyan leaders entrenched, in part because they are backed by outside powers with conflicting interests, like Egypt and Turkey. The U.S. has the leverage to force both countries to engage more productively, in support of the UN process, to achieve a breakthrough.

There are other crises like this where greater U.S. diplomatic engagement and hard work could avert further disaster, such as Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, all of which are in various stages of peace talks and where the U.S. has leverage over the neighboring countries whose intransigence has stalled progress.  

While foreign aid and assistance is disfavored by Trump, Biden needs to rethink how to use it more effectively to promote stability in fragile states.

In the Northern Triangle countries, Biden wants to beef up the $750 million aid program that passed with bipartisan support at the end of the Obama administration to $4 billion over four years. This could be instrumental in addressing the crises there, but it needs to be implemented in a way to address the conditions causing people to leave.

The priority should be on using foreign aid to promote long term job growth. Also, the effectiveness of aid in all three countries is dependent upon preventing corruption, but in Guatemala and Honduras well-intended anti-corruption commissions misfired and lost legitimacy. All three countries will need financial watchdogs and strong anti-corruption programs geared toward building the capacity of prosecutorial authorities within the existing legal systems. 

A final consideration leads back to Biden’s idea for a democracy summit. America cannot — and should not — be expected to stem the tide of failed states on its own. However, helpful action authorized by the UN Security Council is increasingly difficult to obtain because of the veto power wielded by Russia and China. In the absence of UN action, collective action by like-minded democracies could be a substitute, but with Trump spurning multilateral aid efforts that require coordination with our allies, America has been the missing ingredient the last four years. 

Biden should make it one of the items on the agenda for his Summit of Democracy to figure out how first world countries can work to address the causes leading to failed states. This should include collective action to strengthen democratic institutions in developing countries across the globe and, when crisis hits a particular country, a better mechanism for the world’s democracies to respond, together.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer whose practice focuses on working in emerging democracies and who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, Fox News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

Tags American diplomacy American leadership Anti-terrorism efforts China Donald Trump Failed state Fragile state International relations Joe Biden Kim Jong Un libya man-made disasters Political positions of Joe Biden Russia Syria

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