Getting Out of the Failed-State Repair Business

To Prevent and Resolve Violent Conflict, “We Need a Ground Game”
James Rupert

United States Institute of Peace
ebruary 13, 2015

This is an in-house softball interview with the incoming president of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Nancy Lindborg. For those who do not live inside the Beltway (either literally or virtually,) Lindborg spent five years with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and 14 years at international relief NGO Mercy Corps.

The article is a capstone, to be sure, and Lindborg points in some good directions. Clearly, she wants to get us out of the habit of addressing failed states by sending in airpower, special forces, and aid workers.

We need to think about fragility [of states and their institutions], and the flip side is greater resilience. So that when conflicts do happen, from the community level up, and from the government level down, conflicts can be managed and not become violent.

Absolutely right. Our foreign policy establishment on both sides of the aisle and both inside government and outside remain focused on state building as a means of peacekeeping. Unfortunately, our record of state building in is abysmal, and we still have no clue how to go about turning failed states with poor or non-existent institutions into stable countries.

Lindborg’s statement of principle is a good start, but it lacks substance. Yes, fortifying locally-created institutions seems to be a lot better than imposing our own. But we are offered no case studies, no roadmap, no clue at how to do all of that, and especially to do it in places where the institutions are essentially the machinery of kleptocracies, or where there are no institutions at all.

Allowing chaos to fester in failed states does the world little good. But if we are going to do much more than simply try to contain that chaos, we are going to need to come up with a new playbook. In the meantime we have to stop playing frontier marshall and end our habit of writing blank checks in American blood and treasure in the vain belief that we make things better just by being there.

One thought on “Getting Out of the Failed-State Repair Business

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  1. I couldn’t agree more. We have a history over 200 years of meddling, and it must stop. Almost all of it is counterproductive. I think we should get out of the business and devote a lot of effort to convincing governments in the region (i.e., the Middle East right now) to get their own territory under control.

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