In the new security environment, ‘capacity-building’ should give way to ‘legitimacy-building’

Working Paper

■ The first months of 2009 will find the United States with a new president facing a global financial crisis, a resurgent Russia, an ascendant China, questions about Iran’s intentions and Pakistan’s stability, major military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the concomitant questions about how to allocate U.S. troops between the two. These problems alone will consume most of President Barack Obama’s immediate attention. But his administration will not long have the luxury of ignoring unpleasant realities that underlie some of these problems and will probably give rise to similar ones in the future, realities that not only made the 9/11 terrorist attacks possible seven years ago, but have continued to evolve in many parts of the world since then — and have yet to be addressed in any comprehensive way by the U.S. government.

The realities I am talking about are security threats with strange labels such as “irregular,” “asymmetric,” or “open-source,” threats that increasingly emerge from “failing” (“fragile,” “lawless,” “hollow,” “paper”) states, “ungoverned” areas, “feral” cities, and other “complex” security environments, where dangerous “illicit actors” — gangs, insurgents, terrorists, vandals, criminal enterprises, and those who traffic in humans, arms, drugs, or money — operate with impunity and threaten the security of local, regional, and sometimes distant peoples.[i] Some of the most important threats to the security of American citizens and institutions today emerge from places and populations that are governed in a way that creates victims rather than protects civilians, and creates tensions rather than resolves conflicts. The current National Defense Strategy warns that, in such places, “Insurgent groups and other nonstate actors frequently exploit geographical, political, or social conditions to establish safe havens from which they can operate with impunity.”[ii] The foreword to the Army’s new Stability Operations field manual further warns that “emerging drivers of conflict and instability are combining with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to further complicate our understanding of the global security environment.”[iii] Given the trajectory of these trends, the Obama Administration will have no choice but to face these realities from the start.

If the bad news is that we have a long way to go in retooling our foreign assistance system for the new security environment, the good news is that we need not start from scratch. A lot of smart people in governments, think tanks, universities, and the private sector have been thinking about how globalization and new technologies affect the way people view themselves, each other, and their governments, and about how these evolving forms of social relations affect everything from economies and politics to war and the possibility of peace.[iv] Strategic guidance documents, military doctrines, and scholarly research have grappled with the growing complexity of a security environment in which nonstate, substate, and trans-state actors play an increasingly important — sometimes beneficial, sometimes dangerous — but still uncertain role in the way many places are governed today.[v] Rather than commissioning yet another government study to add to the hundreds that already are being ignored, therefore, the new administration should draw on this existing work so it can get started early to develop a more relevant approach to the way the United States provides foreign assistance.

What can be discerned from much of this recent work is that many of the core challenges of this new security environment derive ultimately from problems of legitimate governance. In this essay, therefore, I advocate and explain an approach to U.S. foreign assistance that would shift the focus of assistance programs from the current “capacity-building” model to a more relevant “legitimacy-building” model that uses existing capacity-building tools as its basis but modifies the ends toward which they are employed.

Under the current foreign assistance system, the core challenges of the current security environment are treated largely as problems of state capacity rather than of government legitimacy. When faced with threats emerging from illicit havens and fragile states, for example, the default U.S. approach is to help build the capacity of the central government of a state to control and effectively govern all the territory and all the people under its nominal jurisdiction. In too many cases, however, this approach does not work; in some of the most important cases, it cannot work. When a state does not control part of its territory, it is seldom because it merely lacks the capacity to do so; more often, it is because of some social or political dispute between the state elites on the one hand and the local populations or power structures in the so-called “ungoverned” territory on the other. The capacity-building model prioritizes extending the state’s reach into such places, an approach that essentially ignores — and thereby risks exacerbating — the underlying jurisdictional disputes between the state government and the local (substate) governing structures, potentially triggering local resistance and even insurgency. We have seen this very result in our policy of “integrating” the Pashtun tribal areas into the Pakistan and Afghanistan states as part of our efforts to counter the Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens there.[vi] In such situations, state capacity-building is at best a wasteful and at worst a counterproductive model for U.S. foreign assistance.

This is not to denigrate capacity-building. On the contrary, training, education, equipment, infrastructure improvements, budget support, technical assistance, and other such programs are essential to helping some U.S. partners do more effectively, do more of, or simply do the things that effective and legitimate governments are supposed to do: provide protection, justice, and opportunities to enable the people who reside in their territories to live, to live well, and to live according to their own views of the right and the good. As such, capacity-building is essential to improving foreign internal defense and development, to countering illicit actors and irregular threats, and indeed to building legitimacy. Many U.S. foreign assistance programs can contribute toward this end, and I do not wish to advocate ending or short-changing them.

What I do wish to advocate, however, is an important shift in the emphasis of these programs: the goal of capacity-building should be to build local legitimacy in the places that receive U.S. aid, and the beneficiaries of capacity-building should include more nonstate entities, including civil society, substate-level governments (e.g., local, provincial, autonomous, and tribal governing structures), inter- and non-governmental organizations (IGOs, NGOs), and regional security organizations, among others. We should not measure the progress of our foreign assistance programs by how much money, equipment, or training we have contributed, nor merely by how much those contributions have helped the recipient to develop or improve its capabilities to do certain tasks (that is, to increase its “capacity” to undertake those tasks). Instead we should measure progress by how much legitimacy our contributions have helped to build up between our aid recipients and the populations they are supposed to be governing or helping — or, in the worse case, by how much illegitimacy has been built up between those populations and the illicit actors who exploit their grievances or identities for support. From a strictly security perspective (and other perspectives are certainly relevant), such measures would be an indicator of how effectively and how sustainably we are separating the illicit actors we are concerned about from their base of support.

Under a legitimacy-building model, the core challenges of legitimate governance are addressed head-on: rather than ignoring the underlying jurisdictional disputes in the recipient society, legitimacy-building works to resolve them. In many cases, this will involve encouraging and assisting — directly or through trusted third-parties — the state government and the various substate governing structures to develop a set of mutually acceptable principles of subsidiarity: which level of government will have jurisdiction over which functions of government. In such cases, capacity-building assistance can be promised to the governing entities at all levels as an incentive to work toward mutual accommodation. In any case, however, the assistance itself will require better end-use oversight to ensure that recipients at all levels use it to govern in a way that is effective, legitimate according to local standards, and most importantly from a U.S. security perspective, inhospitable to illicit groups that threaten the security of the United States and its friends.

The Current Approach: Capacity-Building

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recently completed a cross-disciplinary project to study options for dealing with criminal, insurgent, and terrorist havens. The project’s mission, as defined during the Quadrennial Defense Review, was to figure out how to contribute to “building partnership capacity” by enabling “strategic partnerships to extend governance” to areas of the world used as safe havens.[vii] With input from more than a hundred permanent staff at around forty offices in DoD, the State Department, USAID, the intelligence community, and National Security Council committees, the project produced an unclassified framework describing “the geographical, political, civil, and resource factors that make safe havens possible” and offered recommendations to improve capabilities, doctrines, strategies, assessments, research, data collection, and interagency cooperation on the relevant challenges.[viii]

The project, however, had an unfortunate name: The Ungoverned Areas Project. The name is unfortunate because of the way the term ungoverned has been used historically by the powerful: As a prelude and justification for attempts to repress “ungoverned passion” (the “undisciplined” or “unbridled” sexuality of women); to “civilize” (or, more recently, “democratize”) an “ungoverned” (“uncivilized”) people; or to take over some “ungoverned” (“uncolonized” or “unclaimed”) territory to extract its resources.[ix] In short, ungoverned has historically been a prelude to oppression, imposition, or exploitation. I co-managed the Ungoverned Areas Project with and for some extremely capable people for two years; consulted more than a hundred people inside and outside the government; and broadly circulated each draft of the project’s final report, Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens (UGA/SH), for intensive review.[x] In all of that time, I encountered very few people who intended for ungoverned to be used in the manner of its past.[xi] The use of the term in the UGA/SH report, therefore, is explicitly a break with its history: as the report’s findings and recommendations should make clear, the term’s past connotations are simply not consistent with the current and long-term security interests of the United States.

The project’s name was unfortunate as well for a more practical reason; as the report puts it, “Few places in the world are truly ‘ungoverned.’”[xii] The name had reflected an earlier assumption that the problem of “under- or ungoverned areas” was an unwillingness or inability on the part of some states to govern all their territory, and that therefore the appropriate policy response was to encourage and enable them to fill those gaps in governance.[xiii] During the course of the project, however, it became clear that what actually makes some places suitable as illicit havens is not their lack of governance but their manner of governance: many states govern in ways that are dangerous to both insiders and outsiders, and many places not controlled by a state are not dangerous to either. One of the project’s main conclusions was that the United States has no security interest in places that are governed in a way that poses no threat to us or our friends; but that, if an area is governed in such a way that it be used as a hideout or a base of operations by an al Qaeda associate, a human-trafficking or money-laundering ring, a criminal gang, a group of insurgents, or some other illicit actor with the intention and capability to harm the security of the United States and its friends, then U.S. officials do have a responsibility to do something about that area.

If the United States has a responsibility to “do something” about these areas, what, exactly, should we “do”? The usual approach has been to encourage someone else to do something, usually the state where the problem originates. Successive U.S. administrations have imposed sanctions against (or toppled) the governments of states that had been deemed to be capable but unwilling to take care of the problem, or we have provided “capacity-building” assistance (sometimes called “institution-building” or “nation-building”) to those who have proven willing but unable.[xiv] Leaving aside questions about the effectiveness or wisdom of regime-change or sanctions policies against capable but unwilling states, the problem to be addressed in the U.S. foreign assistance system has to do with capacity-building for those willing but incapable states.

One of the most important findings of the Ungoverned Areas Project was that, when our foreign-assistance programs have been ineffective, or when their positive effects have been unsustainable, it has often been precisely because those programs have helped to build recipient states’ capabilities without paying adequate attention to how those states were using them. Using one tool when the problem calls for another can have disastrous results, like using shears to extract a splinter from your finger. “Strategies focusing on military victory, law enforcement, and intelligence capacity, at the expense of the soft-power tools that win over or placate skeptical populations, often tend to exacerbate existing grievances or generate new ones that some illicit actors can exploit to facilitate their own freedom of action and impede efforts at intelligence collection.”[xv] Malicious use of an otherwise effective tool can be equally disastrous:

There is a risk to building a state’s security, intelligence, and law-enforcement capacity, and in building a nonstate actor’s military capacity: once they have successfully used that capacity against the illicit actors we wanted them to target, whom will they use it against afterwards? Will they use it against civilians instead of solely against terrorists, insurgents, or criminals? Might they use it against us at some point in the future? These long-term risks have to be weighed against the short-term benefits of getting help in targeting the illicit actors of current concern.[xvi]

When a state does not control some part of its territory, it is often due to the nature of the political relationships between the social elites who control the institutions of the central government on the one hand, and the local populations and substate governing structures that actually govern on the other. In fact, a social, political, or jurisdictional dispute between the nominal central government of a state and some local, provincial, tribal, or autonomous governing structure is often precisely the factor that enables certain illicit actors to operate with impunity in such places, hiding between gaps in governance and legitimacy. When that is the case, state capacity-building amounts to substate regime-change: displacing substate governing structures (however fragmented or illegitimate) in favor of state governing structures. As with state-level regime-change attempts, substate-level regime-change attempts can foreseeably trigger resistance and insurgency, exacerbating the dispute that had made the state fragile and the illicit haven possible in the first place.

Consider the current U.S. approach toward the mostly Pashtun tribal areas that span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and fighters are using as a safe haven and base of operations for insurgency. The U.S. approach is based on a flawed diagnosis that these areas are “ungoverned” and on a prescription to “extend the reach” of the states into these tribal areas, by force if necessary. The tribal areas are not “ungoverned” and never have been. The fiercely independent-minded Pashtun populations living there have governed themselves for centuries, despite repeated attempts by outsiders to take over. They may not do it well or fairly — poverty and illiteracy are widespread — and certainly the way it is currently governed is far too hospitable to terrorist and insurgent groups. But as Johnson and Mason point out, the “prescription of extending the reach of the central government is, in fact, precisely the wrong answer to apply to a highly developed culture in which ‘central government’ is anathema and reaction to it is insurgency: the fact that the insurgency in Afghanistan has grown steadily in intensity, lethality, and amount of territory under Taliban control every year since this policy was enshrined is not a coincidence.”[xvii] U.S. capacity-building assistance would perhaps be welcomed by many in the tribal areas — if the tribes could believe that they themselves were to be the ultimate beneficiaries. As long as they believe our assistance in the region represents an effort to impose outside control, the Pashtuns will fight to the death to retain their autonomy.

In short, when U.S. foreign assistance efforts work to build the capacity of state, but fail to build legitimacy between the state and the local populations it supposedly governs, those efforts usually end up being ineffective — and sometimes counterproductive — in meeting U.S. security goals. That is why the UGA/SH report emphasized that, when addressing the complex transnational challenges that arise from problems of governance and legitimacy, it is “critical to ensure that [U.S.-sponsored] capacity-building efforts are undertaken in a manner that ensures the [recipient government] will not use its capacity in a way that would exacerbate … grievances and undermine its own legitimacy.”[xviii] The report reflected a sense among many in the aid and defense communities that, while capacity-building is crucial to building legitimacy, legitimacy-building should be the key component of the U.S. foreign assistance system as we move into a new era.

A New Approach: Legitimacy-Building

During the main period of the Ungoverned Areas Project (2005–2007), a rough consensus was emerging among many U.S. scholars, defense strategists, and development professionals about the general approach the times require. Irregular security challenges — civil wars, insurgencies, terrorism, illicit trafficking, gang warfare, etc. — often end up being contests over the loyalty, support, or acquiescence of a particular population: whichever side the local population ends up considering more legitimate (or, to be more realistic, less illegitimate) tends to win the contest locally.[xix] Many such contests have implications for the security of outsiders (for example, when one of the armed participants is explicitly hostile to the outsider’s security), and in such cases those outsiders inevitably claim a right and a responsibility to intervene on behalf of whichever of the contestants they consider friendly. But while we outsiders sometimes have had the resources to provide material support for a contest of arms, we rarely have had the insight or the relationships we would need to effectively and sustainably affect the outcome of what is essentially a contest of opinions. The rough consensus was that a high capacity for violence is not a sufficient condition for sustainable victory in such contests: legitimacy is necessary, and the contestant whose identity or strategy best accords with local opinions and interests tends to be the winner.

The problem with this approach is that few people can say with confidence that they know how legitimation actually works in such environments. Most existing scholarship focuses on the legitimacy of the state, operates at the level of general theory, or seeks mainly to develop ways to measure legitimacy, providing scant guidance on how to actually influence local populations who live where no state governs or where the state has to compete with complex networks of loyalties and influences. Most U.S. policy-makers assume the state or “host nation” to be the most important political actor and so end up directing the implementation of policies that discount how such populations are actually governed at the substate level. Even when policy-makers recognize local legitimacy as the key to stabilization — and with the recent evolution of U.S. thought on the question, more and more do —  it is usually with the twin assumptions that (1) the goal is to convince those local populations that the state government is legitimate, and (2) that goal can be reached by building the political will and capacity of the state government to govern those local populations effectively.

The first assumption is incomplete; the second is misguided. Together they reveal a small but important deficiency in the implicit conceptualizations of governance and legitimacy underlying the recent evolution of U.S. policy, doctrine, and practice. This deficiency is not fatal and can be mended by taking a somewhat closer look at the underlying concepts to see what they look like at the street level, that is, from the perspective of those whose opinions on the matter are said to be key to the whole effort.[xx]

Legitimacy and Governance

The entire literature on legitimacy is but a series of variations and elaborations on a simple observation: People are motivated by what they think is right.[xxi] Legitimacy is worthiness of support, or as Karol Soltan puts it, a “right to loyalty.”[xxii] To claim that something is legitimate is to give a moral or normative reason (“it is right”) to obey, support, imitate, or refrain from opposing it within some bounded range of activity or experience; to say that something is illegitimate is to give a moral or normative reason to ignore, disobey, or oppose it. Importantly, to say that one should offer such support, or that something is worthy of support, is different from saying that one merely does offer such support. Support can be externally motivated as well — it can be coerced or purchased, for example — but loyalty and self-motivated support are what make a social relationship or governance structure legitimate, stable, and sustainable.[xxiii] The UGA/SH report defined governance as “the delivery of security, judicial, legal, regulatory, intelligence, economic, administrative, social, and political goods and public services, and the institutions through which they are delivered.”[xxiv] Note that this is not a definition of “good,” “legitimate,” or “democratic” governance; the “delivery of political goods to citizens,” as Rotberg and West define the term,[xxv] can be done well or poorly, fairly or unjustly, democratically or dictatorially. There is nothing in this definition, moreover, that limits governance to something that only states can do, and there is nothing in the definition of legitimacy that limits it to something that only states can have.[xxvi]

Fragile states are fragile for a reason. “Ungoverned” areas are not under control of the state for a reason. As noted, that reason often has to do with political relationships between the social elites who happen to control the state institutions, and the other populations who happen to live in the state’s nominal territory. If certain populations do not identify with the state and its system of governance, it often is because the state — whether from lack of capacity, ethnic enmity, or historical mistakes of cartography — has never governed them, has failed to protect them, has not advanced their interests, has exploited their resources, or has outright harmed them. Consequently, local power structures — family, community, tribe, clan — have stronger claims to the locals’ loyalty and support than does the state: from their perspective, the legitimate governing structure is whatever entity governs them in a way that they consider right or worthy.

For example, members of a tribe will be self-motivated to comply with an elder’s demands if that elder came into his role in what they consider to be the right way and if his demands are within the bounds they consider appropriate. Likewise, slum residents will be self-motivated to provide material support to a local gang if they believe the gang is worthy of their support (e.g., they believe it protects them, or its members are family) and as long as its activities remain within the acceptable bounds of behavior (e.g. violence is directed only toward outsiders, rule-breakers, and “low-lifes”[xxvii]). We outsiders might not agree that the entity in question is a “legitimate” governing structure, but the insiders’ views on the matter, not ours, are what determine how stable their social and political arrangements will be: different groups have different criteria for “right.” Sometimes, of course, the local governing structure them is exploitive or abusive, and the people consider it, at best, merely less illegitimate than the alternative. But this only illustrates the point that, where multiple entities compete for a population’s support, what matters is the relative legitimacy of each: given the choice of two evils, people will accept the lesser evil. Sometimes the lesser evil is the state, sometimes the substate governing structure. Oftentimes, however, the substate entity is actually effective and the people there consider it more legitimate, rather than merely less illegitimate, than the alternative.

Are they actually legitimate, though? Maybe not according to how we outsiders in Western, liberal democracies would define it. But ask the people who live there what they think: Do they believe their traditional tribal leaders are worthy of their support? Do they believe the local militia has protected them more than the state has? Do they believe the local street gang has provided just enough stability in their communities to enable them to shop for groceries, take their children to school, or go to and from work without being robbed or killed? Do they believe the country’s insurgents share their religious or ideological outlook, their ethnic or linguistic identity, their long-term political or economic goals? Maybe they think so, and maybe they do not. But if they do not consider the state to be their legitimate government, it is worth considering whether it is because the state does not govern them well, or fairly, or perhaps even at all, and so has no practical claim to their loyalty or support.

Building legitimacy, therefore, requires more than is suggested by the “rough consensus” view that correctly posits that irregular security challenges are contests over legitimacy but wrongly assumes, as noted, that (1) legitimacy-building is an effort to demonstrate to locals that “our” contestant, usually the state, is the most worthy, and (2) the appropriate strategy is to improve our contestant’s capacity to govern them effectively and to publicize the good fit between our contestant and the population’s interests and outlooks.

In fact, legitimacy-building, if it is to have any hope of succeeding against dangerous illicit activity, involves three efforts: (1) employing locally legitimate processes to resolve jurisdictional disputes; (2) establishing through those processes a set of locally acceptable principles of subsidiarity; and (3) providing assistance to enable the governing structures at all jurisdictional levels (national, provincial, local, tribal, autonomous, etc.) to govern effectively. These phases entail building the legitimacy of, respectively, processes, structures, and outcomes.

1. Build on Locally Legitimate Processes

Legitimation has a procedural component that is essential to the stability of social and political arrangements. Anthropological and social-psychological accounts of legitimacy demonstrate that all social groups have their own ways, processes, and methods for legitimizing decisions (e.g., by communal or tribal deliberation, legal procedures, shamanic consultation, etc.). Even if the substantive content of a decision might be otherwise acceptable, if it was not derived by locally legitimate processes it could still be rejected by the group as illegitimate.[xxviii] For the present purposes, this suggests that the U.S. role (or that of trusted third parties) should be limited to helping representatives of the state and various substate governing structures to identify a common decision-making process that accounts for and reconciles their varied legitimation processes so that the final result — a new arrangement based on mutually acceptable principles of subsidiarity (see next section) — may be accepted by all sides as legitimate.

Our promoting a “democratic” process or outcome at this stage would both premature and redundant: premature because the time to advocate major societal changes is after we have actual influence inside those societies, which we cannot really achieve until we earn insiders’ respect as an honest broker; and redundant because encouraging and supporting locally defined processes of “public reason” is the truest form of democracy promotion.[xxix] As I have written elsewhere, “there are many forms that ‘rule by the people’ can take, and democracy is more enduring when its form is defined locally.”[xxx]

2. Build on Locally Legitimate Governance Structure

Contrary to the first assumption of the “rough consensus” view, legitimacy is not a one-way street, a matter of getting citizens to accept the state as legitimate. In the United States, for example, it is true that citizens accept the mayor of their town, the governor of their State, and the president of their country as their legitimate leaders, but it is true as well that the president accepts governors as legitimate leaders of States, mayors as legitimate leaders of towns, and citizens as legitimate members of the political community. Further, all more or less agree that local governments are responsible for locals schools, state governments are responsible for state parks, and the national government is responsible for national security. In other words, we as a society have established a set of principles of subsidiarity that is generally accepted as legitimate from the top down and the bottom up.

In many respects, the core problem of “fragile” states, “ungoverned” areas, and “feral” cities is that the societies in question have not established or accepted their own principles of subsidiarity. Some populations do not accept certain provincial or national officials as their legitimate leaders. Some national officials do not accept certain provincial or local officials as legitimate leaders or certain social groups as legitimate citizens. And officials at multiple levels dispute who has jurisdiction over different functions of government. The street of legitimacy runs both ways: the state government has to be legitimized to the substate governing structures, but the substate governing structures have to be legitimized to the state government as well. Rather than automatically taking the side of the state and possibly fueling the jurisdictional disputes at the heart of its fragility, we should be encouraging and helping the state to take the first steps toward resolving those disputes. Whatever the source of the sour political relationship between the state elites and the “ungoverned” locals, surely there is some aspect of the relationship that is in the state’s power to change: to start governing locals in a way they would consider more fair, or to give locals more autonomy and perhaps assistance to govern their own affairs, or to end the practice of taking resources from their lands without providing them any benefit in return. We have more influence over those who receive or benefit from our foreign assistance than we do over those with whom we have no relationship. Since we already work mostly with states, then, our overall strategy has a better chance of success if we begin by getting the state to make concessions. If locals see us as advocates for their interests and opinions, it might increase our influence with them over time and make them potential partners in the future.

Legitimacy-building is more akin to conflict resolution than to king-making. It often begins by determining who actually wants jurisdiction over what functions of governance at what levels (e.g., does the state government even want to run local schools and public utilities? Are tribal elders even interested in national monetary policy?). Where there is no jurisdictional dispute, U.S. foreign assistance — or assistance from other countries, IGOs, and NGOs — can be provided immediately and directly to the governing structures at all levels (e.g., bypassing the state, with its consent, and providing assistance directly to the local school system). Where jurisdictional disputes remain, a trusted third party can be identified to help resolve them using whatever conflict-resolution process is considered legitimate by representatives of all the governing structures we hope to reconcile (see previous section). The United States can hold out the promise of foreign assistance to whatever governing structures (at all levels) prove willing and able to work out some mutual accommodation through that process.

We should consider this approach successful to this point if the new arrangement, based on mutually acceptable principles of subsidiarity, is something that all parties are self-motivated to support based on the beliefs they already hold about what counts as right and wrong, good and bad, worthy and unworthy — that is, if locals consider the arrangement minimally legitimate. Getting to this point is the hard part, and we can expect it to fail in many instances: in some places, the bad blood is simply too intense for constructive negotiations. But where it succeeds, it will free us to focus more on improving the effectiveness of those governing structures that already are considered legitimate locally (see next section) than on trying to compete in political battles and power struggles that we cannot hope to understand.

3. Build Capacity for Effective and Legitimate Outcomes

U.S. foreign assistance can be a powerful tool for influencing how and how well our aid recipients govern. I will not presume here to tell the public servants who implement U.S. capacity-building programs how to ensure that the assistance they provide is used properly; given the proper resources and a strategic context in which to operate, they can accomplish most any goal U.S. policy makers lay out for them. Under the model of legitimacy-building described here, the role of U.S. foreign assistance is not merely to support the state government by building its capacity to govern effectively. Rather, the role of foreign assistance is to support the governing entities at all levels — once an acceptable division of labor among them is worked out — by building their capacity to govern effectively and legitimately. We can consider the overall policy a success from a security perspective if, under the new arrangement, the entities that actually govern do so in a way that is inhospitable to illicit activity.

To that end, we can influence our aid recipients by what we ask them to do with the aid we give them — but we will influence them much more by what we give them in the first place. Theory, practice, and doctrine on the kinds of irregular challenges discussed in this essay is nearly unanimous with respect to the view that these problems are solved most effectively by political, not military, means. Yet much, perhaps most, of the relevant assistance we provide overseas goes to supporting hard-power capabilities. Most U.S. assistance to Pakistan, for example, has gone toward reimbursing the government for its support to the war on terrorism, propping up its national budget, providing military and counternarcotics training and equipment, and helping its military purchase high-tech weapons systems that are useless to countering insurgencies; only a small portion has gone into governance, development, and humanitarian programs.[xxxi] In this and other regions, we might as well wink at our aid recipients whenever we mention “legitimacy”: The key to solving our little problem is to improve your political relations with the locals so you can help build domestic legitimacy. Here, take this: buy as many weapons as you need. The aid we give as a whole should reflect what we say our overall goal is. If our goal is to build legitimacy as a buffer between illicit actors and their bases of support in local populations, then our foreign assistance has to be rebalanced from its current bias toward hard-power solutions.

Legitimacy-Building and Foreign Assistance in the New Security Environment

A model of foreign assistance in which we attempt to build the capacity of states to govern all of their territories is a model that cannot work in instances where the relationship between the state and the local populations or power structures is poisonous. This is not to say that we should never try to extend a central government’s reach. If the problem really is one of capacity and not of politics or grievances, then capacity-building and public diplomacy can be an extremely effective approach. And if the principles of subsidiarity that would emerge from the legitimacy-building approach described here would end up providing freedom of action to extremist elements that govern in a way that fails to counter illicit activity, then extending the reach of a friendlier, more moderate government (whether it be the state or some other entity) might be the only approach available. In either case, however, we should know in advance what kinds of power struggles we might get ourselves into, and we should try to avoid getting into those that are avoidable.

The alternative approach to foreign assistance described in this essay — based on a legitimacy-building rather than a capacity-building model — is not without its flaws and will often fail, in which case we can revert to the current model. But while it may be naïve to suggest that the United States should require its partners to resolve their internal jurisdictional disputes as a precondition for receiving our foreign assistance, it is perhaps even more naïve to continue believing that our foreign assistance can achieve our security objectives in places where those disputes have not been so resolved.

We outsiders need to protect ourselves from security threats that emerge from inside “fragile” states, “ungoverned” areas, and “feral” cities. The insiders of such places need to live, to live well, and to live in accordance with their own views of the right and the good. The reconciliation of these two sets of very human needs is the essence of legitimacy-building. If the Obama Administration can implement an approach to foreign assistance that has a good chance of accomplishing this sort of reconciliation in the places of greatest concern, then the United States will be in a much safer position as the new security environment continues to evolve. Not insignificantly, adopting an effective strategy of legitimation between moderate, responsible governing structures and the people they supposedly govern also would put the United States back on the moral high ground in the eyes of the rest of the world, make it difficult for adversaries to continue to demonize us, and in the process help us recover some of the international influence that has been lost in recent years.

[i] {\On “irregular” threats, see: \United States Department of Defense, 2008, #17403} {\On “asymmetric” warfare, see: \Cassidy, 2000, #23808} {\On “open-source” warfare, see: \Robb, 2007, #80429} {\On “failing” states: \Krasner, 2004, #82382; Rotberg, 2002, #219;\and \Lefort, 2001, #55765} {\On “fragile” states: \United States Agency for International Development, 2005, #17642;\and \United Kingdom Department for International Development, 2005, #49720} {\On “lawless” states: \Dao and Schmitt, 2002, #27314} {\On “hollow” states: \Robb, 2007, #80429} {\On “paper” states: \Menkhaus, 2001, #50902} {\On “ungoverned” areas: \Clunan, forthcoming, #11778; Lamb, 2008, #84385; \and \Rabasa et al., 2007, #4902} {\On “feral” cities: \Norton, 2003, #93844} {\On “complex” challenges: \Consortium for Complex Operations, 2008, #8678} {\See also: \United States Department of the Army, 2008, #51954; Kilcullen, 2007, #37112; Fukuyama, 2006, #726; United States Department of Defense, 2006, #7774; \and other works cited here.\}

[ii] {United States Department of Defense, 2008, #7772@2-3}

[iii] {United States Department of the Army, 2008, #51954}

[iv] {Clunan, forthcoming, #11778; Haass, 2008, #88521; Williams, 2008, #99218; Robb, 2007, #80429; Corn, 2006, #68227; Rapley, 2006, #1997; Krasner, 2004, #82382; Steinbruner and Gallagher, 2004, #79634; Hooghe and Marks, 2003, #91048; Lake, 2003, #59581; Evans and Sahnoun, 2002, #76293; Frank and Meyer, 2002, #84257; Friedman, 2002, #56942; Cohen, 2001, #53327; Duffield, 2001, #214; Menkhaus, 2001, #50902}

[v] {United States Agency for International Development, 2005, #17642; United States Department of Defense, 2008, #7772; United States Government, 2006, #34943; United States Department of the Army, 2008, #51954; United States Department of the Army, 2006, #1139; United States Special Operations Command and United States Marines Corps, 2007, #18946}

[vi] {Johnson and Mason, 2008, #8177}

[vii] {United States Department of Defense, 2006, #7773\, Tasks 3.3.4 and 3.3.5\; United States Department of Defense, 2006, #7774}

[viii] {Lamb, 2008, #84385}

[ix] {\Early instances of the use of “ungoverned” in this manner include: \1852, #43799; Special Dispatch to the New-York Times, 1870, #47527; and Spencer, 1878, #8576}

[x] {Lamb, 2008, #84385} I worked initially with project’s first co-managers — a civilian staffer, Ms. Leslie Hunter, and a consultant, Dr. Colin Kahl — and later with Major Sandra Reyna of the U.S. Army. Although the final report bears my name as the “prepared by” author, all three of the other co-managers deserve credit for its substance, as their contributions were indispensible. Credit is due, as well, to Barry Pavel, Thomas Mahnken, Amanda Dory, Kathleen Hicks, Alisa Stack O’Connor, Katherine Johnson, and Laura Cooper, and others who, at different times, oversaw the project. Contributions to the project came as well from more than a hundred people in more than forty offices throughout the U.S. government (Defense Department, State Department, USAID, the Intelligence Community,  the National Security Council staff, and others).

[xi] We stuck with the name throughout the project because it had become a recognizable “brand” among these colleagues.

[xii] {Lamb, 2008, #84385@4}

[xiii] {United States Department of Defense, 2006, #7773@12-13}

[xiv] {\The term “capacity-building” was picked up by governments from the fields of international development and non-profit management, where it was used to refer to nearly any effort to help non-governmental organizations and government institutions to function more effectively. \Light, 2004, #49794; De Vita, 2001, #56736}

[xv] {Lamb, 2008, #84385@31}

[xvi] {Lamb, 2008, #84385@28\ at note 22\}

[xvii] {Johnson and Mason, 2008, #8177@54-55}

[xviii] {Lamb, 2008, #84385@32\ at note 26\}

[xix] {\See, for example: \United States Department of Defense, 2008, #17403; United States Department of the Army, 2008, #51954\, pp. 1–7 to 1–8\; United States Special Operations Command and United States Marines Corps, 2007, #18946; United States Department of the Army, 2006, #1139\, ch. 1 and 5\; Lynn, 2005, #23807; Collings and Rohozinski, 2005, #2962;\and \Charters, 1989, #1121}

[xx] {\Some of what follows is drawn from \Lamb, 2005, #1107\}

[xxi] {\I wish to thank Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland for challenging me to formulate this observation. He once told me that the entire literature on rational-choice theory boils down to the simple observation that “people respond to incentives” and then challenged me to identify a similarly simple observation on which the literature on legitimacy can be said to derive. \Soltan, 2008, #75713}

[xxii] {Soltan, 2005, #1105}

[xxiii] {Alagappa, 1995, #565; Beetham, 1991, #382; Gilley, 2006, #551; Grafstein, 1981, #1104; Hampton, 1997, #239; Jost, 2001, #45420; Kelman, 2001, #5892; Kostova and Zaheer, 1999, #89401; Lipset, 1981, #497; Sen, 1980, #89881; Sen, 2003, #43111; Shapiro, 1994, #374; Tilling, 2004, #545; Waskan, 1998, #553; Weatherford, 1992, #546; Williams, 1981, #74394; Weber, 1914, #339; Zelditch, 2001, #6303}

[xxiv] {Lamb, 2008, #84385@17; \This was developed by the Ungoverned Areas Project based on existing definitions used by various U.S. government offices, the World Bank, and the World Peace Foundation.\}

[xxv] {Rotberg and West, 2004, #577@5}

[xxvi] {Hooghe and Marks, 2003, #91048; Keohane and Nye, 2000, #537@12}

[xxvii] {Arias, 2006, #76260}

[xxviii] {Kelman, 2001, #5892; Tyler, 2001, #42385}

[xxix] {Sen, 2003, #43111}

[xxx] {Lamb, 2008, #34465}

[xxxi] {Cohen and Chollet, 2007, #5589}