New U.S. Global Fragility Strategy Recognizes Environmental Issues as Key to Stability

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This article by Lauren Herzer Risi originally appeared on New Security Beat

We are cross-posting this article from our colleagues at New Security Beat to highlight a key opportunity for the U.S. Department of State and other national security agencies to implement provisions in the Biden Administration’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad which directs all national security agencies to integrate climate change into their country and regional strategies. The implementation of the Global Fragility Act is a key pathway for doing just that. 

A new Global Fragility Strategy, released late last year by the U.S. Department of State, signals a growing awareness of the role that environmental issues play in fragility, conflict, and peace. According to the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, in the last five years alone, “the U.S. government has spent $30 billion in 15 of the most fragile countries in the world.” These “large-scale U.S. stabilization efforts after 9/11 have cost billions of dollars but failed to produce intended results,” writes Devex’s Teresa Welsh. As a result, Congress passed into law in 2019 the Global Fragility Act, legislation that directed the Department of State to lead the development of a new 10-year Global Fragility Strategy that sets out a new U.S approach to conflict prevention and stabilization in fragile contexts.

Developed by an interagency team led by the State Department, the strategy begins with an overview of the strategic challenge posed by fragile countries and regions. Marked by “a combination of ineffective and unaccountable governance, weak social cohesion, and/or corrupt institutions or leaders who lack respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” says the strategy, fragile countries are vulnerable to violent conflict and instability, and unable to manage shocks.

The document lays out 4 goals—prevention, stabilization, partnership, and management—to guide U.S. engagement in a minimum of five priority countries; sets out the various agency roles and responsibilities; outlines how the strategy’s success will be tracked and measured; and details how the strategy integrates existing tools and policy initiatives—like the Women, Peace, and Security Strategy, the Stabilization Assistance Review framework, and Atrocity Early Warning Task Force.

The Global Fragility Strategy is a welcome step in promoting whole of government responses to fragility, conflict, and violence, and recognizing the need for integrated responses that, as outlined by the document, are inclusive of local communities, youth, and women. And importantly, the strategy carves out space to pay better attention to the environmental dimensions of fragility and violent conflict by recognizing environmental exploitation, crime, and degradation as contributors to fragility, environmental sustainability, and effective natural resource management as critical to stability and peace.

Issues related to the environment directly shape the drivers of fragility. While some of these issues are often nominally included via the conflict risk indicators used in indices like the Fragile States Index (see, for example, the description of demographic pressure and refugees and IPDs indicators), natural resource management and environmental governance issues are often overlooked or misdiagnosed in analyses of state fragility, leading to missed opportunities when designing effective responses. Effective management of natural resources, such as water, land, and the environment, is essential to public health, state legitimacy, livelihood security, and economic prosperity—all necessary components to countering fragility and fostering stability. Cooperation over environmental issues can also facilitate broader trust, strengthen social cohesion, and provide an entry point for engagement between conflict parties. The strategy’s inclusion of environmental issues as both a contributor to fragility and potentially critical to effective responses lays the groundwork for more explicit inclusion of environmental issues in the U.S. government approach to fragility and conflict.

While the environment garners important mentions, the proverbial elephant in the room—climate change as a driver that may exacerbate these challenges—is completely absent. Given the strategy’s development and approval under the Trump Administration, which has consistently denied the science behind climate change, this is not surprising. The fact remains, however, that climate change is increasingly recognized as an incredibly destabilizing force that will compound existing fragility, weaken social cohesion, and confound well-intentioned attempts to break cycles of fragility and conflict. Recognizing climate change’s connection to conflict and stability is important not just in terms of the environment and natural resource management, but in the broader context of fragility and peace.

Already, President-Elect Biden has indicated through his policy plans and key staff appointments a recognition that climate change is a top item on his agenda, and one that will extend across U.S. government agencies. As government agencies and departments move forward on the implementation of the Global Fragility Strategy, the Biden Administration’s focus on climate change and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate (slim though it may be), will undoubtedly serve to strengthen the integration of environmental and climate issues into these efforts.

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