Democratic Transitions Freedom and Prosperity Political Reform
Issue Brief September 19, 2023

Less freedom, weaker states, more conflict: can that cycle be broken?

By Patrick W. Quirk and Owen L. Myers

State fragility threatens US security and economic interests. Ungoverned territory provides space for violent extremist organizations to organize and train. Fragile states are often vulnerable to adversaries like China and Russia, providing them with an opening to advance geopolitical interests that undermine US objectives and harm local populaces. People suffer as corrupt elites seize state institutions and resources to advance their own interests rather than deliver the goods and services expected from the government.

State fragility is often characterized by a breakdown in the government’s legitimacy and an inability to provide public services and security, among other key challenges. Given that democratic deficits often underlie state fragility, sustainably reducing fragility requires strengthening democratic institutions that fulfill the social contract, ensuring citizens have avenues to freely express their political views, and enabling robust political parties to translate citizens’ views into policy and address associated concerns.

The United States and like-minded allies have made important strides in addressing challenges from fragile states and appropriately prioritizing democracy and governance as a part of the solution. This includes, most recently, the United States creating its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS), as mandated by the 2019 Global Fragility Act (GFA). In it, the United States argues for the importance of democracy and governance to addressing fragility: “Our efforts through the Global Fragility Act will advance the President’s call to action … to demonstrate that democratic governance and respect for human rights deliver for all people; that this approach is the best way to reduce fragility, advance sustainable development, and mitigate risks of violent conflict and instability. … We will therefore work with partner governments and communities to foster legitimate, inclusive, transparent, and accountable political systems that reduce fragility.”

In line with this focus, the strategy’s country plans for Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and Coastal West Africa (Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo) rightly reference strengthening democracy and government accountability as a mechanism for promoting stability. The strategy and plans also improve on prior US efforts by mandating that the country plans are on a ten-year (as opposed to shorter) time horizon and requiring rigorous monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

To complement these US efforts, we look at why and how advancing freedom (political, economic, and judicial components) is the surest way to advance sustainable stability and associated prosperity and offer recommendations to achieve this aim.

Patrick W. Quirk is vice president for strategy, innovation, and impact at the International Republican Institute and a nonresident senior fellow with both the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center and the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Owen L. Myers is an intelligence officer in the US Army and a graduate of Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance graduate program. 

Related Experts: Patrick Quirk

Image: Election officials count ballots after the closing of the local government elections, at a farm in Alewynspoort, outside Johannesburg, South Africa, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko