U.S. efforts to improve police and military capacity accelerated after 9/11, when the United States began to see weak, fragile, or failed states as reservoirs of insecurity and committed to helping strengthen their ability to fight internal threats before they crossed borders.1 Meanwhile, as part of a lighter-footprint approach to global engagement, building the capacity of partner states – many of them fragile – became a way for the United States to address the growing number of crises without directly committing troops.2

U.S. security assistance (the term used by civilian agencies) and security cooperation (the Department of Defense nomenclature) involves many U.S. agencies, as the most recent presidential directive on security sector assistance (SSA), PPD-23, recognizes.3 Since only 1 in 5 violent deaths worldwide is now caused by civil or interstate war, SSA encompasses law enforcement support in addition to military support.4 In Guatemala, for instance, more people die violently today than did during any year of the 36-year civil war, one of the multiple causes behind the surge of forcibly displaced Central Americans on U.S. borders.5

Proliferating actors, sprawling authorities, and conflicting objectives make it nearly impossible to render an accurate account of the scale of America’s SSA. What is clear, however, is that the United States is increasingly relying on this tool, spending an estimated $18.5 billion on SSA in 2014 – two to three times more than it did 20 years ago.6

Unfortunately, there is no correlation between increased SSA and stability in fragile states.7 Studies show that in the absence of minimal state capacity and societal inclusiveness, SSA fails. Improving SSA effectiveness requires changes to both strategy and implementation.

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