December 1, 2010  

The nation-states we have

Yemen and other troubled countries require a new diplomatic model

Ever since the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, the nation-state has played a central role in the conduct of international relations. Each country’s sovereignty is delineated by a system of rights and responsibilities between countries as well as for their own populations. It took centuries for this system to spread around the world and for its members to generally agree upon its structure and mores. As relations between states became more formalized, ministries and departments were created to focus on foreign affairs and to regularize interactions.

The use of treaties increasingly became the norm and diplomatic routines were the vehicle through which states resolved disputes. However well-articulated relations have become between nation-states, the other side of the equation, how a state treats its population, has always been more problematic. It has become common for a state to assert the right of nonintervention by another nation-state or even by an international body while not being held to account for its responsibility to its population. While the full spectrum of how poorly a state can treat its people can be quite extensive before triggering concern, let alone action by another country, some forms of abuse or neglect assume a more central position of importance when they facilitate transnational threats. While some of these threats may be dealt with through covert military means, encouraging the host government to confront the challenge, or through outside military intervention, many of these threats don’t meet the threshold for these solutions or are difficult to implement because of challenging operating conditions and the host government’s reluctance or inability to act. What is required is a new approach to helping indigenous governments confront security challenges that may not be important to them but are of central importance to us.

The traditional levers of influence that states use to shape the behavior of other nation-states are power, persuasion and politics. Governments use military power to force governments to do what they want, diplomacy to persuade a host government that it must do something, or some combination of both to leverage internal political power centers to influence the government or supplant it. These interventions most often deal with threats, encourage trade and facilitate transit. Many of our approaches to conducting diplomatic and military-to-military relations are organized to facilitate these goals and reinforce the nation-state system. Most of our efforts are capital-centric, biased toward formal government institutions and narrowly focused on those things that most concern another nation-state, such as the political disposition of the indigenous government, its conventional military capabilities and economic opportunities. Our bureaucratic processes, personnel procedures, frameworks and standard operating procedures reinforce these tendencies.

Additionally, because the bureaucratic muscle of the U.S. military is highly developed, many of our approaches tend to be more robust in the defense realm simply because it is more capable than our civilian overseas agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The practical effect of all of these efforts is that we tend to focus on short-term influence strategies, have little knowledge about nonstate leaders (e.g. tribal leaders), have a reduced awareness about events and people outside the capital, lack a long-term perspective, and are unwilling to seriously challenge host governments because of our need to work by, with, and through them to achieve other goals.


While this general model works decently and broadly addresses U.S. needs, it has great difficulty working in countries where insurgency and civil war are taking place and where the host government is incapable or unwilling to address security threats important to the U.S. The business-as-usual bureaucratic approach we adopt for these countries greatly complicates our practical ability to influence these conflicts. Countries where national security threats to the U.S. exist within their borders but our approach is still largely conventional include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. What is required is a new model that allows us to “opt out” those countries that require a tailored strategy to solving problems rather than letting bureaucratic repertoires play themselves out. It should be for the long term and seek to use practical politics to extend the reach of the host government to ungoverned or under-governed areas, engage the government with an eye toward enhancing its legitimacy, capacity, and efficacy, and holistic in its approach.

To leverage personal relationships to exercise influence within the country, government personnel should be allowed to stay in the country and the region for an extended period of time, perhaps even for a career. To limit the problem of “going native,” the personnel should be given a clear mandate of what is expected of them. It should be straightforward and concise and focus on eliminating the insurgent or terrorist threat through a holistic strategy blending governance, political, security, intelligence and development approaches.

But longer tours are insufficient without changing the recruitment and training of people for these assignments as well as adjusting how the U.S. Embassy is organized. The right kinds of people to undertake these missions exist in our foreign and defense bureaucracies but are frequently on the margins of the central bureaucratic cultures of State, United States Agency for International Development, and the U.S. military. They need to be less dogmatic thinkers who are highly motivated and comfortable in an unstructured environment, able to blend various policy approaches together, and able to focus on eliminating the security threat in a holistic manner.

The peacetime bureaucratic structures of the U.S. will also need to be revised to reflect the unique nature of the challenges it is charged with addressing. While traditional diplomatic and military business will still need to be done, other institutional adaptations will be required. A unified structure empowering the ambassador with more authority to direct nondiplomatic entities in country is required. Additionally, a robust military, intelligence, diplomatic and development entity must be created that focuses on operating in unstable regions. This will require a revision of force protection rules. Furthermore, a robust training program must also be undertaken for not only the host country’s military but also for its cabinet members, ministries, legislative bodies, and provincial and local officials. This should be long term and lasting. And finally, small teams of interagency members should be allowed to work outside of the capital in order to facilitate situational awareness, identify opportunities for positive influence and broaden the scope of interaction beyond central government officials within the host country.


The Yemeni government faces a number of security threats within its borders. In addition to the challenge of al-Qaida, it is confronting problems with two indigenous insurgencies from the Huthi rebellion in the north to secessionists in the south. But the ability of Yemen to deal with these problems is significantly limited by resource constraints and the fact that many of the areas the insurgents operate in have had no central government presence whatsoever. Although the government has recently demonstrated a willingness to partner with the U.S. to go against al-Qaida, historically speaking, the record is uneven in this regard as the government has struggled to balance competing demands on its resources and shifting political priorities.

While recent increases in military aid will greatly improve Yemen’s ability to deal with these problems from a security perspective, other assistance that seeks to address the underlying political, development, economic and tribal grievances of the population has been incomplete. Al-Qaida has sought to tap into these grievances as a means of leveraging opposition groups for more influence within Yemen. Because of our robust military aid, Yemen’s military actions often put the U.S. on the side of a regime that is deeply unpopular in certain areas of the country, encouraging anti-American sentiment and quite possibly support for al-Qaida.

Much of our approach to Yemen has been consistent with the business-as-usual bureaucratic rhythm of our government. The last seven U.S. ambassadors to Yemen, for example, have each served a three-year term, development assistance to the country has been uneven, and much of our focus has been on improving the security services of the country versus building government legitimacy, capacity and efficacy. Additionally, civilian and military efforts are not well-coordinated, indicating a peacetime and traditional separation of civil/military functions. Furthermore, much of our knowledge of events, people, government institutions, and tribal histories outside of the capital is limited and filtered through the central government’s lens.

We must fundamentally recognize that the security, governance, development and economic challenges within Yemen will take a long time to solve. Reflecting this, we must first commit ourselves to removing the staffing of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. military from the normal rotations of the bureaucracies and build a country team that is there for the long term, focused on defeating al-Qaida and addressing the population’s grievances while retaining the support of the host government.

Second, we should normalize the funding of development and good governance programs and ensure they are implemented by balancing the needs of the central government with those of the countryside. Third, we should revise how the embassy is organized so that a robust effort can be made to operate outside of the capital by, with and through nongovernment power centers such as tribes. Fourth, we should do as much as we can to build the host government’s legitimacy, capacity and efficacy while engaging in a robust outreach effort to political opposition groups. Fifth, we should focus our intelligence efforts on learning about the histories, personalities, demographic characteristics and concerns of the tribes outside of Yemen’s capital. It took us a long time to realize the importance of tribes in Iraq and Afghanistan and we should endeavor to make sure we don’t overlook this important institution in Yemeni society. The final initiative we should adopt is to significantly improve Yemen’s economy (with a particular focus on its oil sector and port facilities) and assist its efforts against corruption. We must ensure that Yemen has the resources it needs to meet the demands of the population while being able to support its own security and military forces.

A key component of any counterinsurgency and counterterrorist strategy is eliminating safe havens. This has often been interpreted as meaning the adoption of a military and intelligence strategy to physically eliminate insurgents and terrorists. However, these types of combatants conduct their activities in the service of a political cause, some aspects of which can be addressed through other, less kinetic strategies. While not all their grievances are consistent with U.S. policy goals, many have roots in situations that can be ameliorated by creative policy approaches. In countries with security threats within their borders that threaten U.S. interests, a tailored diplomatic, development, economic, military and intelligence approach should be crafted that is not limited by the usual churning of bureaucratic routines. While nation-states will continue to conduct their traditional affairs through ministries and departments, it is equally important that we build the capability to address the needs of countries in situations where traditional approaches may not work. It is imperative we fight these threats as they are and not as we would like for them to be and that our bureaucracies reflect this reality. AFJ

DAN GREEN is a visiting fellow at Aeneas Group International. He completed a tour in Afghanistan with the Navy as the International Security Assistance Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs.