Interpreting the Global Fragility Act: A Potentially Efficacious Approach to Promoting Stability Abroad 

Teuta Zeneli | March 2021

Rohingya children in Aceh, a semi-autonomous province in Indonesia (2015)

T

he bipartisan Global Fragility Act was signed by both chambers of Congress in late 2019 during the Trump presidency. It was backed by over 70 organizations, and is meant to act under the direction of USAID and the State Department.

The bill is ambitious, pledging $1.15 billion for the next five years to peacekeeping operations in politically unstable environments around the globe. In its essence, the Act is intended to “stabilize conflict areas and prevent violence globally.” The countries receiving aid would be helped through the financing of local revitalization efforts to combat extremism and the fortification of local governance over the course of ten years, with biennial progress reports to Congress.

 

The text of the bill itself is inoffensive and high-aiming, pledging a dedication to foreign policy the likes of which the US has not upheld in recent memory. This operation has been lauded by peacekeeping NGOs and policy buffs as a triumph for American foreign policy because of its emphasis on rooting out indicators for instability and fortifying weak economies and governments. This peaceful approach stands in contrast with engaging in frontal military attacks against extremist groups and leaving the fractured societies to fend for themselves after immediate violent threats have been neutralized, activity which loosely describes our engagement in Iraq throughout the 2000s. 

The State Department created a strategy to put the plan into action, called the Global Fragility Strategy (GFS), which was released in December of 2020. The strategy sketches out general plans for the prevention of future instability, stabilization of current conflict, partnerships with various local organizations and entities in the public and private sector to promote long-term economic growth, as well as management to maximize the efficacy of all peacebuilding efforts. There are accountability measures with local governments and multilateral groups and the support of private investors to ensure that recipients of aid are invested in the success of the plan. The strategy does not indicate the countries that will be chosen to receive aid, though it has been implied that, should a global crisis occur during the strategy’s execution, peacekeeping resources may be allocated to any specified partner country. 

A Question of Intent

Despite the act’s relatively straightforward objectives, we should ask ourselves the following questions. Who is this serving? Who is this for? There are current genocides that still have yet to be addressed on a serious institutional level, and because of that may never be addressed. When conflict is too controversial, or being perpetrated by a country that is powerful, then there is a noteworthy reluctance to act. 

The genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the ethnic cleansing and torture of the Uighur population in China come to the forefront of the list of potential recipients. Will the United States intervene in these countries? Are there some political instabilities that are more appealing to address than others? Perhaps if the project was directed towards pre- and post-conflict societies, it would avoid the imperative to dismantle genocidal and mass atrocities in the moment and leave the active violent states to be dealt with by other actors (like NATO or the United Nations) or other arms of the Department of Defense. In focusing on pre- and post-conflict settings, we can place more effort and resources on conflict prevention and the fortification of local governance and economies so that partner countries can benefit more substantially, rather than merely addressing extremism and conflict as they unfold and placing other, more constructive activities on the back burner. 

The Efficacy of the Global Fragility Strategy

Peacekeeping is a noble effort, though the real strength within the GFS lies within its aims to develop partnerships with “civil society, the private sector, regional partners, and bilateral and multilateral contributors who can provide expertise and share the financial burden” to build towards self sufficiency. Peacekeeping alone is an insufficient use of resources. 

Peacekeeping efforts themselves have failed so miserably in the past that, when we think of the most recent examples, our memories are instead soured by failures. The United Nations in particular has had ethical scandals in this domain, such as handing over victims of ethnic cleansing to hostile paramilitary groups in Bosnia, as well as an extensive history with sexual abuse scandals. Oftentimes, peacekeeping involves neutralizing active threats with military and diplomatic power, but the efficacy of doing so is difficult to ascertain when the environment is so chaotic. The amount invested in constructive activities, as well as keeping the peace, is seldom the main focus of aid legislation. However, the strategy’s pledge to send military personnel in combination with environmental and diplomatic experts to attack instability in all facets is a promising rebuttal to the pitfalls of peacekeeping. 

Does any of this actually  help “stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally?” After the Holocaust, the United Nations was created to hold countries accountable for war crimes, and after the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the mid 1990s, Responsibility to Protect was created in that same organization. Did the genocide and the mass atrocities and the global instability stop? Absolutely not. Horrifying things happen and somewhere along the way peacekeepers get involved and we say “never again,” but the same horrific circumstances emerge  again and again. Atrocities happen in other countries, and we are left to wonder how this occurs despite our constant involvement, playing damage control and consistently sending peacekeepers wherever the new atrocity is. Oftentimes the seeming futility of peacekeeping inspires a wave of critique that searches for any fault in a promise. Those that have been expressed are hypotheticals. For example, certain semantics in the bill’s language might make it sound as though legislators are more concerned with extremist groups than the root issues with governance and strained resources that cause extremism, though the actual strategy released by the State Department disputes this. There is also the preemptive concern about which countries will receive the attention and what might happen if, five years in, another crisis happens that requires more finances and military presence.

It is also interesting to predict which areas of the world the US will prioritize. No countries have been decided as aid recipients thus far; as aforementioned, there are some suggestions that if new conflicts emerge resources can be allocated to be sent to new countries, but it seems that awarding the full ten years of assistance to finite, predetermined locations will be more effective than anything else. 

Keeping US Interests in Mind

Perhaps we should also contend with the thought that the US cannot possibly be responsible for every crisis—that a ten-year plan for select countries would be a good way to test a new strategy for aid at a small scale before disseminating it throughout the world. The goals of this bill are ambitious, and will require a culturally immersive and focused approach in every recipient country. One cannot help but think it would be better if the list of recipient countries is shorter, so that resources could be more focused and plentiful. Bad practices in any kind of international development and humanitarian work are attributed to insufficient resources and brevity of projects, so a focused, intensive ten-year program in few countries involving with new partners could have a greater and longer term effect than spreading the program too thinly over many at-risk countries and having minimal effect. The United States has a vested interest in maintaining an efficient program for unstable partner countries whose instability poses a national security risk for global citizens. It is thus in our best interest to ensure the success of the GFS, so that American foreign policy, national security, and international peace may flourish. 

How this plan will be enacted and when under the Biden administration is yet to be determined, though optimism abounds. The strategy itself is a comprehensive and forward-looking plan, and is an exciting advancement in international development and world peace. To have such a comprehensive marriage between peacekeeping and community development with ten years of precommitted dedication has the potential to not only stabilize a region, but to give the resources and time necessary to allow partner countries to prosper independently. Time will tell how this strategy will perform, but based on the plan’s comprehensiveness and focus on local partnership, it could be a landmark improvement in how the United States approaches foreign policy and global conflict in general.

Teuta Zeneli is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies and French. Interested in foreign policy and human rights, she focuses on researching post-conflict societies and the national security implications of political insecurities within them. Outside of MC, she likes to write poetry, embroider, and cook Balkan cuisine.