The Democratic Party Platform: An Opportunity Missed

American political party platforms are not known for their candor or detailed character. So it is with the foreign policy section of the 2012 DNC document. While the platform does address a wide range of foreign policy challenges – from climate change to cybersecurity to China – direct discussion of weak and failed states is largely absent.

The relative silence is evident through an analysis of rhetoric. None of the following terms appear in the 32-page document: failed state(s), state failure, weak state(s), fragile state(s), and state collapse. The most direct phrase used is “fragile democracies.” The latter term is a useful one, which is highly relevant to regions like the Middle East and Africa. However, the goal of “bolstering fragile democracies” does not connect with the many weak and failed states that are saddled with authoritarian regimes.

So, the Democrats have missed an important opportunity to educate and engage with the American people on the question of state failure. Some would dismiss this criticism as wildly out of touch with modern campaigning. To be sure, discussion of state decay abroad does not inspire excitement for most voters, particularly during an era of huge federal deficits. Discussion of “nation building” (direct or indirect) conjures up ghosts from Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. And after all, party platforms are not meant to be analogous to a National Security Strategy or a Quadrennial Defense Review. Even so, the simple avoidance of commonly used terms – failed states, fragile states, weak states – is a missed opportunity for civic engagement.

In fairness to the Democrats, there is obviously significant awareness of these broader challenges within the State Department and elsewhere. At a USAID sponsored conference in June, the influential development economist Paul Collier identified weak and failed states as posing the most serious global challenges for the next generation. Instead of addressing these challenges more directly, the Democratic platform dances around these topics.

For example, here is an excerpt on Africa, from the global section “Strengthening Alliances, Expanding Partnerships, and Reinvigorating International Institutions”:

We will continue to partner with African nations to combat al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Somalia and to bring to justice those who commit mass atrocities, like Joseph Kony. We have made great efforts to reduce the violence in Darfur and built international support for a successful referendum on South Sudan’s future. And in his first visit as President to the United Nations, President Obama advanced initiatives to strengthen UN peacekeeping capabilities in Africa. This includes providing equipment, training, and logistical support for UN and African Union missions in Darfur and Somalia. The President has also worked to help African nations grow their economies, and we have opened trade and investment opportunities across the continent.

This excerpt does provide some useful pointers on the Democratic agenda for weak and failed states. More effective international peacekeeping would be an asset going forward. Criminals like Joseph Kony should be brought to justice locally, or otherwise. That said, the platform offers very few specific principles or new ideas that can help invigorate global response to state decay. And, critically important, the platform does almost nothing to indicate the tough choices involved in responding to failed states. While the DNC document is far from isolationist, it does little to prepare the public for looming foreign policy dilemmas.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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