Opinion: Congress leads the way in rebalancing US foreign policy toward prevention

A view of the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Architect of the Capitol

From Venezuela to the Persian Gulf, Washington is struggling to keep pace amid cascading foreign policy crises. As a life-long diplomat, I understand the cadence. U.S. foreign policy is nothing if not a constant balancing act — balancing crises with opportunities, interests with objectives, and grand strategy with rapid response.

In a moment of heightened domestic polarization and geopolitical uncertainty, we must demand bipartisan cooperation in solving our most vexing U.S. foreign policy challenges. Last week, the House of Representatives answered the call with the sweeping bipartisan passage of the Global Fragility Act.

More than two years in the making, the GFA is the most focused, high-level U.S. policy initiative this century to tackle violence and instability in the world’s toughest places. By favoring peaceful prevention action over costly, military intervention, this bipartisan legislation would support low-cost, high-reward investments in peacebuilding, anti-corruption, community safety, and human rights in a targeted group of countries where current U.S. policy and aid are failing.

To bolster conflict prevention, US House passes Global Fragility Act

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill laying out a new 10-year strategy that unites the State Department, USAID, and Defense Department around a new approach to preventing extremism and stabilizing fragile states.

A recent landmark report by the U.S. Institute for Peace found that terrorist attacks globally increased five-fold since 9/11, despite the $5.9 trillion spent by American taxpayers and more than 6,000 American servicemembers killed in U.S. military engagements over the past 18 years. Led by a powerhouse bipartisan team of the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Eliot Engel and Mike McCaul, the bill seeks to put into practice years of learning from what’s gone wrong in fragile contexts.

By 2030, it is expected that 80% of people living in extreme poverty will be in just 31 countries. These are fragile states where corruption, poor economic conditions, and violent conflict prevail. At the same time, fragility is a main indicator of recurrent conflict. Weak governance and rule of law create conditions conducive to human rights violations, corruption, conflict, and human suffering.

To advance longstanding U.S. foreign policy priorities of ending extreme poverty and promoting international peace and security, the U.S. must improve its approaches, tools, and capacities for breaking through the pernicious cycle of fragility.

At the same time, while fragility is primarily a development and diplomacy problem, the U.S. too often seeks to stabilize fragile states with military might. We’ve seen this play out time and time again. The U.S. Africa Command has 7,000 personnel deployed across Africa, with a new strategic focus on state fragility, and continually is asked by partner governments to support military escalations where they have no congressionally authorized military mandate. The U.S. Central Command is also over-extended in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The White House has declared victory in defeating ISIS, yet local authorities and international civilians can’t get in to establish order and conduct recovery activities fast enough, so U.S. troops are asked to stay. And the list goes on.

The GFA seeks to fix both these problems. To ensure the U.S. government makes good on the principle of military action as a tool of last resort and limited duration, the bill authorizes $1.15 billion in civilian funding over five years to tackle fragility. While this billion-plus figure may seem high at first glance, by way of perspective, the Council on Foreign Relations reports China has spent over $200 billion on its Belt and Road Initiative, and may spend $1.3 trillion by 2027.

The GFA bill also provides for the State Department and USAID to resume their rightful roles as U.S. governmental leads on diplomacy and development. In line with recommendations from the U.S. administration-led Stabilization Assistance Review, the State Department will lead in establishing U.S. foreign policy and political issues, USAID will act as lead implementer, and, where appropriate, the Department of Defense and other agencies will play a supporting role.

The GFA has attracted a wide array of supporters. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, USAID Administrator Mark Green, and State Department Conflict and Stabilization Operations Assistant Secretary Denise Natali have all agreed to advance it. A coalition of more than 55 development, humanitarian, faith, and peacebuilding organizations have endorsed the legislation, led by the Alliance for Peacebuilding, the network organization that I now lead. Civil society will be an essential partner for the development and implementation of the GFA, and frontline organizations are eager to work on this generation-defining challenge.

Over the course of my 27-year diplomatic career that began at the cusp of the Cold War’s end, nothing compared to the scale of global humanitarian and geopolitical crises we are witnessing right now.

I urge the Senate to take up the GFA’s likely companion, S. 3368, led by Sens. Chris Coons, Marco Rubio, Jeff Merkley, Todd Young, and Lindsey Graham, as quickly as possible.

Much work is needed to bridge partisan divides and build a more peaceful world that provides greater security and prosperity to Americans for generations. Passing the Global Fragility Act as quickly as possible is an important first place to start.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Uzra Zeya

    Uzra Zeya is the CEO and president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, the leading global network for organizations working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. She served previously as acting assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor and charge d’affaires at U.S. Embassy Paris.