The Global Fragility Act and the Irregular Warfare Center: A Path for Diplomacy, Defense, and Development

The Global Fragility Act and the Irregular Warfare Center: A Path for Diplomacy, Defense, and Development

Kevin D. Stringer, PH.D. – Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired
Madison Urban – IWC Analyst

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Wicked problems litter the security environment. They are opaque challenges, caused by multiple factors, and constantly evolving. These problems can be conceptualized through a myriad of lenses, each of which produces different possible solutions, and any intervention to address the range of solutions becomes part of the ecosystem itself and any negative impact cannot be undone, only mitigated. Such problems can take years to understand and take decades of effort to bring about progress. In an effort to undermine the United States and the current international order, strategic competitors are leveraging statecraft and irregular conflict methods to capitalize on the wicked problems of state fragility and increase their influence, resource access, and bargaining power.

Seeing the enormity of the diverse challenges posed by state fragility and the structural barriers that exist within the U.S. government that can inhibit progress, Congress passed the Global Fragility Act (GFA). The stated strategic priorities of the GFA and the intent to increase coordination with interagency, international, and non-governmental partners intersect directly with the Irregular Warfare Center’s (IWC) mandate to build the Department of Defense’s (DoD) capacity to counter irregular threats in collaboration with key allies and partners. With the recent announcement of Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and Coastal West Africa (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Togo) as the pilot countries/region, the opportunity to begin developing creative solutions to wicked problems has arrived.

Overview of the Global Fragility Act and Global Fragility Strategy

The GFA passed in December 2019 with strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate. The GFA directs the president, Department of State (DoS), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and DoD to jointly “establish a comprehensive, integrated, ten-year strategy…focus[ed] on addressing long-term causes of fragility and violence” and select at least five priority countries/regions as pilots for initial operationalization. Prevention, not stabilization, must be the priority for at least two of the five countries/regions. Congress authorized $200 million annually from 2020-2024 to fund the effort and an additional $30 million annually for a Complex Crisis Fund that USAID oversees to support prevention or responses to emerging or unforeseen events.

The execution of the GFA is based on interagency, international, and non-governmental cooperation. The GFA implementation report explicitly outlines the roles of DoS, USAID, and DoD. The State Department, in particular the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the Director of the Office of Foreign Assistance, leads the GFA effort, develops the strategy, and oversees its implementation. The Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization at USAID is in charge of implementing non-security prevention and stabilization efforts. The DoD, led by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)), plays a supporting role.

Released in 2020, the 10-year overarching strategy, known as the Global Fragility Strategy (GFS), outlines the DoD’s role as such:

The Department of Defense (DoD) serves in a supporting role to manage and prevent conflict and address global fragility through specialized activities including Civil Affairs, psychological operations, information operations engagements, institutional capacity-building, and security cooperation. DoD utilizes the defense support to stabilization (DSS) process to identify defense stabilization objectives in concert with other United States departments and agencies; convey them through strategic documents; organize to achieve them; and prioritize requisite defense resources.

Beyond defining the roles of the three primary U.S. government implementation partners, the GFS explicitly distinguishes between externally driven nation-building and the GFA’s goal of supporting and uplifting locally-driven political solutions. The goal is partnership and buy-in from governments serious about “target[ing] the political factors that drive fragility.”

GFA and IWC Mission Alignment

The GFA and the IWC align in mission and in spirit. Co-developing knowledge, building global networks of practitioners, and facilitating efforts to address current and future threats with partners are central to the IWC’s mission. The IWC’s “big tent” approach aims to develop partnerships with a wide variety of stakeholders including DoD offices, interagency members, international partners, regional centers, and civilian universities. These priorities mirror the GFA’s requirement that implementation plans are developed in conjunction with a range of relevant U.S. government entities, international partners, and non-governmental organizations.

Previously, the IWC advocated for the development of long-term strategies akin to the one the GFA promulgates. This legislation constitutes an important congressional acknowledgment of the need for and willingness to create extended timelines to address a diverse panoply of wicked problems. A decade is significantly longer than most government planning efforts and sets up a strategy that will outlive the administration it was created under. Too often, strategies—predominantly at the national level—shift when administrations change, or even within an administration’s tenure, leading to inconsistent efforts that struggle to build or sustain momentum and success. In the context of strategic competition, where adversaries are content to use time and patience to erode or outwait U.S. will and exertions, dedicated long-term efforts aimed at stabilization and mitigation of violent and violence-enabling activities are crucial. The GFA sets an important precedent for emphasizing longer time horizons and offers an interagency foundation and framework that could apply to a wider array of countries and issue sets. In a sense, the GFA could be a model for campaigning across the wider interagency and international community.

GFA and IWC Topical Alignment

Beyond the alignment in mission, there is an overlap between stabilization and irregular conflict with strategic competitors. The GFS connects the two by stating that fragility “provides fertile ground for violent extremists and criminal organizations,” “erodes international peace,” and “can enable authoritarianism, external exploitation, and increase the influence of the United States’ competitors in both physical and digital realms.” All of this interplay culminates in a situation where states “struggle to assure basic security, territorial sovereignty, and the rule of law, lacking a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” In the overtly violent activities, the IWC has the most obvious point of intersection, although a broader range of irregular conflict-enabling activities is also of relevance.

The five pilot countries/region present a wide range of multi-dimensional challenges: social, economic, governance, security, and more. Russia, China, Iran, and violent non-state actors continue to compete for influence in the GFA countries through competitive statecraft and irregular conflict. Most of the GFA pilot countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China to create economic investment opportunities as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. While the economic investment itself might not be violent, the expansion of Chinese influence and aid could enable future military expansion. For instance, Beijing is reportedly looking to build military bases and ports in West Africa. Chinese investment in Papua New Guinea has sparked similar fears in the South Pacific. Russian private military companies have been active previously in Mozambique and remain active in Libya. Furthermore, many GFA countries are also targets of Russian disinformation campaigns. Iranian economic investment and international development projects further attest to an intense struggle for influence across the continent. Thwarted terrorist plots in multiple African states, including Ghana, by individuals connected to the Iranian Quds Force evidences the potential for terrorist violence to spread as well. Finally, violent non-state actors continue to expand and conduct attacks in the GFA countries, particularly those on the African continent. The influence of these state and non-state actors could profoundly impact stability and pose current and future irregular threats.

Opportunities for Collaboration

Given the alignment, opportunities for the IWC to support GFS implementation should be explored. The structure for collaboration is already established: ASD(SO/LIC), the designated DoD lead for the GFA, provides oversight for the IWC. Furthermore, the IWC has the expertise and means to advance a deeper understanding of a range of current and future threats. The IWC is ready and willing to provide tailored design-thinking workshops, contextual research, and educational opportunities to facilitate the development of comprehensive local solutions with the host nations, DoS, and USAID.

Depending on the timelines and structure of the GFS, the IWC could support GFS implementation by facilitating tailored design-thinking workshops. Design methodology is particularly relevant in understanding the complexities of wicked problems as it uses both creative and critical thinking methodologies to understand the environment and utilizes systems thinking concepts to craft solutions to advance toward an acceptable future condition. Design-thinking workshops could help GFA countries and U.S. agencies examine the local challenges, understand the complexities of the situation, identify the problem or problems needing to be addressed. Building on that, the workshops can then develop a range of acceptable future outcomes and plans the U.S. would be willing to help them achieve, and then craft the plans and find the broad variety of international and local resources needed to address those problems. Workshops such as these are a proven way to engage the variety of contributors and stakeholders to develop and sustain local solutions.

The IWC could also generate research and tailor educational opportunities for each of the GFA countries related to strategic competition, competitive statecraft, and irregular conflict concerns that cut across political, social, economic, and security issues. The IWC is also the only center within the DoD with the charter to amplify the efforts of other DoD regional centers related to irregular threats. The IWC’s position could be instrumental in connecting and coordinating efforts with the Asia Pacific Center, Africa Center, and the Perry Center for Western Hemispheric Defense Studies to produce and distribute research on ongoing irregular threats and activities that could enable future irregular warfare campaigns in the GFA pilot countries. Such endeavors could also include connections with international and U.S. universities that focus on irregular conflict studies or tapping into a broader network of scholar-practitioners. Beyond supporting efforts to more deeply understand the complexities and drivers of fragility and its intersection with irregular threats, the IWC also can develop educational opportunities to translate information into knowledge. Such opportunities could take the form of interactive tabletop exercises, simulations, and war gaming. Concretely, an adept combination of design-thinking methodology, selected subject matter experts, and simulations/gaming could catalyze GFA implementation.


By mandating a long-term strategy and multi-stakeholder approach, the structure and passage of the GFA indicates some level of recognition of the pitfalls inherent to effective strategy development. The GFA provides the nation an opportunity to overcome traditional and understandable “silos” that exist between DoS, USAID, and DoD. The relationships, procedures, and learning that will occur through the GFS process will surely be invaluable as the U.S. looks to create effective solutions to a number of complex problems. Similarly, the newly established IWC has the authority, resources, and talent to support the comprehensive, multiagency effort needed for success by creating bridges between the departments and the GFA nations, thus facilitating increased collaboration, partnerships, and harmonization.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Defense, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or the Center for Irregular Warfare.

About the Author(s):

Kevin D. Stringer, Ph.D., is the Chair of Education for the Irregular Warfare Center.
Madison Urban is an analyst at the Irregular Warfare Center.