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Prevention Should Be at Heart of Clinton's Reforms

Just before the snow started falling in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the foreign policy community "a little holiday reading": the long-awaited report of the first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review -- the QDDR. After much hype, many delays, and endless speculation, we can finally begin assessing whether the results matched the investment in this two-year review process.

Among the most important aspects of the report is its emphasis on preventing and responding to conflicts in fragile states. The report makes a persuasive case that "the interconnected nature of today's world makes instability and conflict, even in distant corners of the world, a much greater threat to the United States." When infectious disease, youth radicalization, transnational crime, and mass refugee flows affect American security, the United States cannot afford to neglect destabilizing conflicts wherever they occur. The QDDR, thus, pronounces preventing and responding to conflicts in fragile states a core mission of the State Department and Agency for International Development.

The report here mixes two big ideas. The first is about the priority the United States should place on the stability of fragile stages. While it is significant to embrace this as a "core civilian mission," the idea that fragile states have become increasingly important to the United States is not new. For example, President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy declared, "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." In this domain, the QDDR seeks to bring the structure and practice of the civilian foreign policy bureaucracy along with what has become near-conventional wisdom among experts.

The second idea -- not new either, but perhaps more elusive -- is that American diplomacy and development should be oriented to preventing crises and conflicts, not just responding after the fact. The argument for greater focus on prevention is simple yet powerful: U.S. influence can be more effective, less costly, and more humane when applied before violent conflicts begin. This approach should be all the more appealing at a time of shrinking budgets.

The QDDR's most tangible organizational reform designed to advance these two ideas is the creation at the State Department of a Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. The new bureau will coordinate conflict prevention efforts and deployment of civilians in response to crises and will serve as a hub of expertise on conflict prevention and response issues. The new bureau represents important progress. However, unless there are specific measures to protect the new bureau's pre-crisis prevention work, experience suggests that virtually all of its resources will get drawn into responding to the crisis of the day.

As Clinton acknowledged, making the kind of changes described in the QDDR requires more than new boxes on an organizational chart. "A lot of it is attitude and mindset," she said at the report's launch event.

These intangibles are nowhere more important than in advancing conflict prevention. To succeed in fostering a "culture of prevention," Clinton and her team must overcome deeply ingrained mindsets. One view common among America's diplomats and development experts is that conflict prevention is "what we already do every day" -- a line heard as frequently as any official talking point. Another view is that managing today's urgent crises will always crowd out attention to the potential future problem. With Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea at the top of the diplomatic agenda, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, and the global economic crisis, any increase in attention to tomorrow's might-be problem would seem to come at a heavy cost.

These challenges did not escape the QDDR's drafters. But some of the responses they propose merit greater visibility. Two particularly important proposals are buried deep into the 200-plus page report.

One is to better link analyses of where conflicts are most likely to break out to "diplomatic planning and response required to prevent, mitigate, and respond to crises." Granting that we will never have perfect foresight, establishing a systematic process for studying assessments of risk and triggering a review of relevant U.S. policy would make early preventive action more likely. It would also help counteract the State Department's prevailing reactive culture.

Another is for the new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations to lend conflict prevention specialists to regional bureaus, which manage day-to-day relations with countries around the world. This should help inject both expertise and a preventive orientation into this important part of the bureaucracy. These promising proposals may not make headlines, but they should not be lost in the fog of implementation.

Secretary Clinton described the QDDR as "a program of reforms that will fundamentally change the way we do business." To meet this standard, the QDDR must not only succeed in instilling greater attention to fragile states, but also in shifting the dominant crisis-driven culture toward one that embraces prevention.