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CFR Report Calls for Overhaul of U.S. Conflict Prevention Policy, Urges Stronger NSC Oversight

November 5, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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"The United States has considerable influence and resources at its disposal to carry out various forms of preventive action. What it lacks are effective organizational arrangements to make the most of this latent capacity and help overcome some of the more common hindrances to preventive action," says a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report sponsored by its Center for Preventive Action (CPA).

"Recent statements by senior U.S. officials, including President Obama, indicating that the administration intends to place more emphasis on preventing foreign crises and violent conflict from becoming the source of new military commitments, are necessary but not sufficient," say the report's co-authors Paul B. Stares, CPA director and General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention, and Micah Zenko, CPA fellow for conflict prevention.

The authors argue: "Not only can the United States take meaningful steps to improve its ability to manage regional instability and prevent violent conflict, but it must take such steps."

Enhancing U.S. Preventive Action provides policymakers with an actionable roadmap to make U.S. prevention architecture more effective at identifying, preventing, and responding to potential crises abroad.

The report maintains that rectifying current deficiencies in the government's ability to avert conflict does not require a radical overhaul of the U.S. government or costly new programs. They recommend the following:

1) Early-warning efforts must be streamlined and integrated into a dedicated interagency process that would be led and coordinated by the National Security Council (NSC).

  • The director of National Intelligence should prepare, as part of the Annual Threat Assessment, a classified review of the most worrisome sources of potential conflict for the coming year. All instability "watchlists" should be consolidated into one government-wide watchlist.

2)† The NSC should set clear priorities and provide broad policy guidance for U.S. preventive action.

  • The strategic planning directorate at the NSC needs to be bolstered with additional staff and given appropriate authority to perform its mission.
  • The moribund interagency National Security Policy Planning Committee, established under the George W. Bush administration, needs to be revived and elevated in importance.

3)† An NSC Directorate for Development and Governance should be created to oversee and coordinate foreign assistance planning and programming across the U.S. government while also synchronizing cooperation with related international and regional organizations. An NSC Directorate for Prevention, Stabilization, and Reconstruction should also be created to oversee and coordinate interagency crisis prevention.

4) Civilian resources for preventive action should be upgraded to include more flexible crisis contingency funds and a diplomatic "surge" capacity to support observer missions, mediation efforts, and other special initiatives abroad.

For the full text of the report, visit: www.cfr.org/preventive_action

Paul B. Stares is the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Besides overseeing a series of Council Special Reports on potential sources of instability and strife, he is currently working on a study assessing long-term conflict trends. Stares recently led an expert working group on preventive diplomacy for the genocide prevention task force co-chaired by Madeleine K. Albright and William S. Cohen.

Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he worked for five years at the Harvard Kennedy School in a number of research positions, and in Washington, DC, at the Brookings Institution, Congressional Research Service, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Veterans for America, and State Department's Office of Policy Planning, where he was a contributor to the department's Kosovo History Project.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.

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