There is a spate of recent articles lamenting over the lack of influence the US appears to have in the realm of Foreign Policy and the US is facing the reality that military action does not lead to preeminent power over another country. The authors of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends observed that, “A growing number of diverse and dissimilar state, subnational and nonstate actors will play important governance roles in an increasingly multipolar world.” The governance gaps and the role that nonstate actors might play in the face of local, regional, or national power vacuums gives US foreign policy an opportunity to influence and strengthen our position in regions the US finds challenging: sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Middle East and North Africa.
Whether it is al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Africa, there are countless organizations looking to take advantage of weak central, regional, or local governments…or weaken them in ways that allow the violent non-state actors some degree of local control. Al-Qaida in Iraq took advantage of the power vacuum after the dissolution of the Iraqi Army following the US invasion in 2003. As a nonstate actor al-Qaida recognized they could influence a simmering tension between Sunnis and Shiites after the fall of Saddam. In short, Iraq became a failed state by virtue of US policy; as longtime Middle East watcher Anthony Cordesman said during an interview with PBS, de-Baathification “…created an almost hopeless problem, because it removed the secular core from the government of Iraq, and it crippled it economically.”
This quest for power is not limited to ideologically-driven organizations: the ongoing struggle for power between drug cartels and the government of Mexico and recent violence in the favelas of Brazil are emblematic of the same problem.
By supporting the right NGOs, and businesses the US can develop influence in areas otherwise unreachable by central government influence. Take, for example, the systematic method of building a counter-insurgency strategy around political, economic, and social programs using the military. Based on the rising influence of nonstate actors, a possible approach to counter insurgency would utilize nonstate actors who can identify the governance gaps and insurgent groups could exploit. This type of soft power currently resonates in the work of Joseph Nye and Robert DuBois who both advocate for smart power-the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy.
The question for policy-making bodies such as the Department of State and the National Security Council should be “How might we engage (to support or parry) these nascent and rising nonstate actors as they become more influential so that we can pursue our foreign policy objectives regardless of who controls a country?” For example, Muhammad Yunus identified the basic rights of society–food, shelter, health, education–and recognized governments are unable to reach everyone so why not empower the individual to help themselves? Yunus developed Grameen Bank to provide a financial service in the form of microcredit to the 2/3 of the worlds population that doesn’t have access to financial services.
In order for US Foreign Policy to assist nonstate actors, a significant shift is required from being a seed generator with US-imposed ideals to that of a convener that cultivates partnerships which align with local cultures to provide tangible support at a micro level. The nonstate actors are largely influential because they are part of the informal networks that humans have always fallen back on. We expect locals to replace – usually wholesale – whatever existing networks and power structures that exist with a secular democracy. Saddam’s Baath party was not only a political party, but also an extended network through which resources flowed. It’s about understanding how a jeffersonian democracy can work within and maybe help shape an existing complex dynamic network in ways that suit our national interests. Nonstate actors and their networks succeed in targeting weak regimes because they can offer solutions people care about in these places.
Carnegie Endowment’s study on ‘Revitalizing Democracy Assistance’ pointed out one of USAID’s biggest failings is that as an organization it ‘habitually seeks to exert substantial control over defining what the projects will do and how they will do it.’ The US as a coordinating body is to likely to have greater influence by increasing local ownership.
US imposed solutions, such as those applied in Iraq, are destined to fail and possible leave the US with less influence than before. Rather the US support to nonstate actors must be regionally and culturally aligned with US Foreign Policy and their abilities. The US also must understand why they are influential to avoid pitfalls of supporting a group that will later turn out to oppose to a US strategy in the long-run or become an adversary. For example, arming the Syrian rebels to take down President Assad’s regime would prevent a US military engagement, but at the same time the US runs the risk of inadvertently supplying arms to al-Qaida as the newly designated terrorist organization Jabbhat al-Nusra expands it’s influence among the rebels.
The big challenge for the US government is can we act less like a hegemon imposing solutions and picking winners, to thinking of ourselves as part of a complex network that can ultimately provide for better futures than the alternatives? Ultimately, this is a better part of global governance work, and both more sustainable and ultimately effective than kinetic-dominated strategies. Successfully navigating the the rise of nonstate actors requires a significant shift in our collective thinking and what success looks like there, and investing in soft power over the long term.