Secretary Pompeo wants the State Department to get its swagger back. While the State may start to swagger again it also needs agility and adaptability to face down three big trends. Chaos, complexity and convergence will have profound implications for the United States and the world order in the mid-21st Century.
First the world may be tipping to chaos. More than 65 million people are displaced; the highest number since World War II. Displaced populations often accelerate local conflicts into broader regional wars. The world is also experiencing a substantial increase in the number of disasters — both natural and political. Right now four concurrent famines place 20 million people at grave risk. The near future may likely be more chaotic than any time since World War II.
A chaotic world coupled with rising nationalism pose a complex threat to liberal post-World War II institutions. The Syrian crisis continues to challenge the nation-state order in the Middle East. Rising powers and the proliferation of non-state actors seek to destabilize political and economic systems. Yet, the United Nations and international financial institutions are in desperate need of reform; these institutions operate on an outdated model which does not align with the challenges of the mid-21st Century. This trend may move international systems from order to uncertainty.
Despite chaos and complexity, technology, public and private finance, as well as rapid advances in power and water are converging forces to change the human experience in frontier markets. Specifically, community access to power and water coupled with agriculture and technology can fundamentally change economic and political development. The convergent world has seen rapid transformation in standards of living, education and health to previously vulnerable populations.
Given chaos, complexity and convergence, America will certainly remain the dominant power in the decades ahead. Yet, as President Trump’s election demonstrates, American voters have little appetite for big civilian attempts to nation build in far off lands. America canassert its interests abroad while not bankrupting its future at home simply by being smarter and more efficient in responding to many of the most complex crises.
First, leverage the private sector to help fix a humanitarian assistance system that is overwhelmed and failing. The United Nations estimates that the humanitarian architecture costs $25 billion — and yet there remains a fundamental need for leadership, adaptive technology, forensic audits, causal impact analysis, and better results. The continued spread of conflict particularly in the Middle East also underscores the requirement for new and creative solutions that bridge the divide between humanitarian relief and much cheaper, more efficient development assistance. It is time to bring start-up culture to the humanitarians.
Second, Senators Corker and Coons are leading a bipartisan effort to reform America food aid to make it far more efficient. Allowing for local purchase of food in a crisis zone, if available, would save millions of lives while lowering costs. There is, however, much more which can be done to improve food aid. For instance, expanding the use of iris scans, mobile payments, RFID chips, electronic vouchers, drone technology and operating systems reform could dramatically improve impact over cost. Additionally, the famine early warning system based on satellite forecasting has directly saved hundreds of thousands of lives but was developed in the 1985 and now currently fails to adequately capture crowdsourced and big data analytics. Collectively, food aid reform — from procurement to distribution — is ripe for disruption change.
Third, encourage private-public partnerships to transform the water, power and agriculture nexus. If Google can map all streets, then it is time to map all water sources in Africa. Water technology, including desalination, efficient use and re-use technology, remains largely untapped in semi-arid environments in the Middle East and Africa. The relationship to water and power with solar, wind or biomass can change fundamental economics for communities. The relationship between water and power is on the tipping point of massive change in many frontier markets.
Finally for high priority crises, the Administration must begin by building expeditionary embassy teams. Think Rumsfeld after 9/11 and his small military units deployed in Afghanistan. The decade ahead will demand something similar in diplomacy — small, professional, resourced, and adaptable teams which can be deployed as interagency crisis responders in theaters where the US military is engaged, where the U.S. partners closely with allies on cross-border crises, or where there is a protracted crisis.
The mid-21st Century is coming. U.S. leadership, resolve and innovation can shape the most complicated challenges ahead to favor American interests — but policy leaders will need to hack the systems that served us since World War II.