US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Meet the Demand for Civilian Capacity

in Program

Click here to view the complete Presidential Inbox series.

By Russell Rumbaugh and Alison Giffen

The Challenge

The US needs more deployable civilian capacity to assist a troubled country move towards stability. The military is not a wholly appropriate tool for many challenges but too often has been the only one available. The challenges include preventing  violence against civilians; promoting security sector reform; restoring infrastructure and markets; providing basic services; establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights; and rebuilding state institutions and civil society networks. The locales have included Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and basically every other troubled country that outsiders have engaged on these issues in the past decade or more.

The United States, its Western allies, and multilateral institutions have simply lacked sufficient civilian capacity and expertise to effectively address these challenges. Just as concerning, the limited civilian capabilities that exist have often focused solely on strengthening central governments instead of supporting the state and societal institutions that are foundational to the prevention and mitigation of violence in the short-term, as well as long-term peace and stability.    

During its first term, President Obama’s Administration sought to improve and expand US capabilities to provide such essential support. It now has the opportunity to fully implement a civilian capacity that can advance US security and foreign policy objectives much more effectively.


The Context


In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The QDDR was in part an initiative to strengthen and revitalize the role of the Secretary of State and US resources for diplomacy and development. The QDDR highlighted challenges — such as atrocity preventionand transnational threats — that require a whole-of-government approach and collaboration with multilateral institutions and allies. Following words with action, the Administration developed new US interagency mechanisms including the Atrocities Prevention Board to align agency strategies and focus diverse resources on complex crises, and embraced constructive and effective public and private engagement in multilateral institutions like the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council.

The Administration also created the Conflict and Stabilization Operations Bureau (CSO) within the State Department, which offers a real opportunity to invest in civilian capacity and expertise at the operational level. CSO is tasked with “breaking cycles of violent conflict and mitigating crises in priority countries,” and is intended to go beyond traditional State Department and Foreign Service roles and responsibilities. Such a tasking makes it a new kind of operational capability in the US quiver to respond to foreign policy crises, and ideally prevent them. 

Stood up in 2010, CSO currently only has about 100 full-time government personnel supplemented by 70 contract employees, but is being built with the goal of expanding.  Only one of CSO’s current four offices deploys personnel to conduct operations, though these deployments were spread over priority areas in 2012: Kenya, Syria, and Central America as well as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda.

The other CSO offices should continue to develop the intellectual and administrative framework needed to underpin a more robust capability, honed by practical experience. Subsequently, CSO personnel available to conduct operations could be increased and the Civilian Response Corps (CRC) augmented. The CRC – originally a rapid deployment team of employees from existing agencies– is being re-conceptualized and could be rebuilt as a professional force with specialized skills in conflict prevention and mitigation.

To be of value, CSO must offer a capability different from existing departments and agencies. At the same time, CSO’s small size and its aspiration to provide surge capacity require it to work smoothly with existing embassy staff and the State Department’s regional offices. These sometime divergent requirements can result in tension and a complicated relationship between CSO and existing foreign policy players that must be effectively managed. 

Although CSO’s predecessor, the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), was unsuccessful institutionally, its operation in Sudan hinted at the potential of the new Bureau. S/CRS deployed a civilian surge to the ten states of South Sudan prior to the South’s referendum for independence. This augmented civilian footprint at the subnational level remained through the initial months of the new nation with the objective of preventing a diverse range of conflicts.  The aspirations and modest but worthy success of the South Sudan experience underscores the need for a more robust civilian capacity for other global contingencies.

Moreover, as the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya made all too clear, the work of the State Department and CSO’s role, as conceived, are inherently dangerous.  Yet the State Department’s security practices have traditionally been reactive, which will not adequately support the expeditionary character of CSO deployments.  The State Department must develop a comprehensive and proactive approach to security that will enable the civilian capability of CSO. 

Even with substantial investment in US civilian capacity, the US will need to work more closely with others to leverage adequate and appropriate capabilities for future crises. Fortunately, there are willing partners. The United Nations recognized its own struggle to recruit and deploy the civilian capacities needed to promote sustainable peace. In 2010, the UN launched “Civilian Capacity in the Aftermath of Conflict,” a review of needs and a proposed strategy to address its capacity gaps. Several US allies have established civilian response units (the UK’s Stabilization Unit, Civilian Stabilisation Group, and Stabilisation Response Team; the Australian Civilian Corps; the Australian Federal Police International Deployment Group; and the Canadian Policing Arrangement) that have supported peace building efforts in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea among others.

Pragmatic Steps

  • Continue to invest in the new CSO bureau and evolving CRC. CSO and CRC should be given appropriate resources and running room to refine their unique role as a US civilian capability with expeditionary reach and rapid response capabilities.

  • Incorporate CSO into formal processes like Interagency Policy Committees, as existing bureaucracies will seek to limit its role. 

  • The US Foreign Service as a whole must be modernized. Foreign Service officers need training and career incentives for supporting civilian assets needed in conflict prevention and post conflict situations.
  • Protect international affairs funding in today’s budget crunch, prioritizing the capabilities described here. 

  • Review diplomatic security practices and protocols to ensure the right balance between protecting US government workers and enabling US civilian representatives to increasingly operate outside capitals when it’s necessary to achieve US objectives.

  • Work with others. The US should publicly and privately monitor and support the UN’s implementation of the UN Civilian Capacities review, developing ways that US capacity can be deployed to complement the UN and vice versa. Where possible, the US should encourage the European Union, African Union and other regional organizations to develop civilian capabilities. Finally, the US government should learn from, support and complement US allies’ comparative advantages when developing US civilian capabilities.   


For additional perspectives on challenges related to civilian capacity, see presidential inbox memos #5 Execute the Defense Builddown by Russell Rumbaugh and #4 Reinvigorate American Soft Power to Shape Change in the Arab World by Mona Yacubian.

For background on Stimson’s work on atrocity prevention, see  Stimson’s project on Civilians in Conflict:

See presidential Inbox #3 Prevent Trafficking in the Global Supply Chain

For an overview of CSO deployments and numbers, see Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity, Stimson, American Academy of Diplomacy, and Cox Foundation, October 2012, page 40.

A new CRC should steer clear of the previous model of a roster of federal employees that are temporarily seconded or assigned to CRC deployments.  













Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Part of the Presidential Inbox Project
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices