For the U.S. foreign policy community focused on violent conflict and state fragility around the world, the current moment presents both an urgent challenge and an opportunity to address it. The challenge: even before the coronavirus pandemic, such conflicts were swelling in number, and they were increasingly protracted and complex. Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation in many places, compounding economic, health, and conflict-related weaknesses, and straining many institutions to the breaking point.

As for the opportunity, it rests in the potential for a strong U.S. response. As part of its larger reinvigoration of U.S. engagement globally, the Biden administration is moving to implement the 2019 Global Fragility Act (GFA), in which Congress committed to investing significant resources in conflict prevention and stabilization and pledged support for data-driven and innovative approaches to mitigating state fragility. Yet this opportunity risks slipping away if old silos within the U.S. policy universe remain in place.

For too long, the U.S. foreign policy community has approached the challenge of fragile or conflict-affected states as a parallel effort distinct from other aspects of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. For the “conflict hands” within the U.S. government and beyond, the eye-popping human toll of global conflict provides its own self-standing rationale for U.S. investment. The GFA is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of this approach: it calls for the U.S. “to seek to stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence and fragility globally” as a concentrated, yet discrete, line of effort, focused on strengthening state-society relations within specific places – a set of five test locations for starters.

Meanwhile, many others in the foreign policy community, disillusioned by the costly and ineffective nation-building exercises of recent decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, believe it is high time to pivot from a focus on the seemingly intractable internal dysfunction of fragile states. The goal of reducing conflict globally—by “addressing the long-term causes of fragility and violence,” as the GFA says—also seems too vast to prompt a concrete, realistic policy response. In addition, the more than 2 million deaths globally caused by Covid-19 have highlighted how conflict is hardly the only cause of mass suffering. For these foreign policy hands, it is imperative that the U.S. refocus on addressing urgent geostrategic challenges: those posed by rival powers, climate change, technological contestation, democratic backsliding, and economic competition.

To meet the moment, it is time to bridge these divides. Conflict specialists should seek to remove the silo walls around their work and instead push hard to ensure the rest of the foreign policy community understands the crucial connections between conflict issues and two big priorities the Biden administration has articulated: reinforcing democracy globally, and managing the “geopolitical test” posed by major rival powers such as China. Conversely, those who primarily focus on geostrategy and democracy’s competition with authoritarianism should embrace the Global Fragility Act as a valuable tool in advancing the broader U.S. strategic agenda.

Connecting to Biden’s Democracy Drive 

The Biden administration has placed reinforcing global democracy near the top of its foreign policy agenda. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted this month that “Strong democracies are more stable, more open, better partners to us, more committed to human rights, less prone to conflict, and more dependable markets for our goods and services.” Blinken’s comments help underscore the democracy-conflict link: governments that are insufficiently inclusive or accountable can pave the way towards violent conflict. Covid-19 has only amplified these connections, as it has exacerbated the legitimacy and effectiveness woes of many governing authorities. And fragile states from Africa to Latin America to Eastern Europe are particularly vulnerable to a key concern of the Biden administration’s democracy agenda: rising authoritarianism.

To be sure, the relationship between democracy and conflict is not straightforward—the process of democratization itself can spur conflict. But these two issues certainly are deeply intertwined.

Yet the U.S. government (as many others) typically approaches supporting democracy as a distinct challenge from mitigating conflict. Separate bureaus within the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have authority for these two domains. Programs are labeled either “democracy and governance” or “stabilization and conflict prevention,” as if there is a clear delineation between the two—even though in practice, there is often large overlap in activities conducted under these headings, all aiming to increase participatory, accountable, and inclusive processes and institutions. And although policy documents often rhetorically commit to linking the two areas, in practice, bureaucratic separation drives the reality that the fragility and democracy communities of interest operate in parallel. Early indications suggest the Biden administration is following this pattern: even as it has accelerated its preparations for a Summit for Democracy and launched implementation of the Global Fragility Act, links between these two initiatives have been limited.

The Biden administration should overcome this divide in both its strategy and concrete processes. It can start by weaving drivers of conflict much more robustly into its high-profile agenda on standing up for democracy under threat. It also can make conflict-affected and fragile states central considerations of its forthcoming democracy and human rights strategy. Its democracy summit planned for later this year can be clearly planned to include the challenges of fragile democracies, not just stable ones.

And because form often drives function in government, the administration should look closely at two bureaucratic, yet impactful, decisions. It can rethink the nascent USAID reorganization begun under the previous administration, an arrangement that exacerbates the separation between democracy actors and the conflict bureau. Within the State Department, Blinken could consider elevating ownership of the Global Fragility Act portfolio to the Deputy Secretary or Undersecretary level to ensure connections with the democracy bureau are deep. 

Links to Geopolitical Competition

A strong link also exists between conflict issues and another major area of the Biden administration’s focus: fragile states are increasingly a theater for contestation between the United States and rival powers. Blinken recently called managing the relationship with China the U.S.’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” so it is notable that Africa, in particular, has been a region in which Chinese presence and influence have expanded exponentially over the last decade. After longstanding political engagement on the continent, China’s economic presence has become increasingly hefty and diverse in recent decades, and especially since the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. Through that program, the Chinese government has pursued resources-for-infrastructure deals across the continent, with state-owned enterprises and financing from Beijing-backed “policy banks” playing a major role. China’s increasingly multidimensional presence now also includes thousands of private and smaller firms across Africa, expanded cultural and diplomatic activity, its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and more recently, an array of Covid-related assistance.

This multifaceted presence in Africa reflects a more broad-based Chinese activism globally. Indeed, Beijing has leveraged the tools of economic statecraft, including direct investment, policy lending, aid, and trade, over the past decade in fragile (and stable) states across the world, from Latin America to the Middle East to Asia.  As just a few examples, Beijing is a hugely important oil consumer for Iraq and Libya, consumer of gas from Turkmenistan, and investor in Myanmar.  The Red Sea arena, straddling parts of both the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, is an especially contested region in which China and the United States—in addition to others—increasingly seek to advance geopolitical agendas. Chinese influence has brought much-needed investments to the area, but less positive effects on human rights and governance standards.

Meanwhile, Russia is also involved in fragile states. Although it is not a major strategic player in Africa, its signing of military dealsno-questions-asked arms sales, and symbolic gestures such as the 2019 Russia-Africa summit show its determination to project enough clout on the continent to disconcert the West. In Syria, Russia plays a disproportionate role on both the battlefield and around the negotiating table, even as it acts as a major player in talks over Afghanistan’s future. Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries are active in places ranging from the Central African Republic to Mozambique to Libya, albeit with mixed results. Russia has also maintained close security ties with Myanmar armed forces even as they have carried out a coup and violent crackdown on civilians.

Yet too often, the United States has pursued policy discussions on fragile states on a separate, parallel track from deliberations on managing a rising China and a revanchist Russia. The Trump administration framed its readiness to compete with China as all-encompassing, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo circling the globe warning darkly that ties to China would bring nothing but pain and vulnerability. But tough talk, trade wars, and enhanced military capabilities did little to roll back China’s rapidly expanding presence in the Global South. And the administration telegraphed its disinterest in Africa, in particular, by downsizing the troop presence and shrinking high-level attention and diplomacy, even as China deepened its engagement.

Indeed, on the occasions in which the United States has incorporated fragile states into policy deliberations on geopolitical competition, the conversation has largely focused on the presence of military and logistics hubs. Discussion has too rarely encompassed the more subtle, but meaningful, ways that Chinese and Russian influence can both exacerbate weak governance and prey upon it.

The Biden administration appears ready to take a more nuanced approach to interactions with geostrategic rivals: Blinken noted that, regarding China, the relationship will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” The new administration is deeply attuned to the “gray zone” competition occurring globally. But for an effective, strategic response, the administration must fully integrate consideration of how U.S. engagement in fragile states affects, and is affected by, broader geopolitical interests.

Bridging the Divide 

The Biden administration’s major policy priorities of reinforcing democracy globally and countering the challenge posed by rival powers aren’t abstract concepts. They are actively tested in multiple places in the world every day. In large part, those places are fragile states, whether in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, or Asia. Fragile states are not a niche subject, and they should not have a niche constituency.

But in recent years, the U.S. fragility community’s emphasis on the need to engage in fragile states for the sake of global violence reduction, as a first-order objective, has increasingly risked preaching to the converted. For those likely to read (or write) articles on the Global Fragility Act, the case is compelling. But for other policymakers who are consumed with balancing myriad grand strategy concerns and now also Covid’s vast human toll, and who equate fragile state engagement with “forever wars,” it is a harder sell.  And for those unfamiliar with the terrain, “addressing the long-term drivers of global fragility” seems too immense and abstract a problem to lend itself to a meaningful policy process.

The fragility and conflict community needs to reorient its framing to reflect this changed landscape. It must make clear how the Biden administration’s top-level strategic agendas of reinforcing global democracy and managing rival powers are served by principled, smart investments in stabilizing or preventing conflict in particular fragile states—and then select focus countries for GFA engagement accordingly. The conflict community has long incorporated these connections to democracy and geopolitical competition into their deliberations on GFA implementation. But the act itself makes no reference to democracy, China, Russia, or rival power competition, and the Trump-era Global Fragility Strategy includes only very scant mentions. The elevator pitch needs to shift.

At the same time, others in the foreign policy community not yet focused on fragility or the GFA should reorient their thinking, too. For grand strategists, there is a tendency to view any engagement in fragile states as a costly fool’s errand of the now-stale post-2001 era— “another Iraq” or “another Afghanistan.” It need not be so—to the contrary, in many fragile states, a small investment can have outsize impact if implemented effectively.

And just as it was an overcorrection to divert the bulk of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus toward counterinsurgency in internally riven states 15 years ago, it would be an error to divest of the tools, programs, and policies needed—and the lessons learned—to engage in conflict-affected states today. The U.S.’s ability to project influence on a global scale often depends on the aggregation of the impacts of its smaller, more low-profile engagements. The Global Fragility Act is a valuable tool in service of that goal.

For both sides, this will require a reassertion of the first principles of U.S. foreign policy. What are the vital national interests and values of the United States? What will it take to achieve them? For the U.S. objectives of reinforcing global democracy and competing with rival powers, conflict prevention and stabilization of key fragile states can serve as a vital means to these ends. The dialogue across the gulf within U.S. foreign policy and national security circles needs to go both directions. As of now, the two sides are barely hearing each other.

IMAGE: A person on a motorbike drives next to the construction site of a new road built by the Chinese company China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Oct. 20, 2018.  (Photo RIJASOLO/AFP via Getty Images)