In the field of international relations, a nation’s credibility is often thought to be calculated by evaluating its historical record of following through on threats of punishment issued to adversaries. In contrast, today, the larger challenge to U.S. global credibility arises not from questions about its ability to inflict pain on rivals, but rather from the demonstrated failure of U.S. policymakers to make good on incentives promised to rivals in exchange for constructive changes in their behaviors.
This graphic highlights the uptick in Russia’s engagement in Libya from mid-2014 to the end of 2018. If you want to read more about Russia’s re-emergence as a power broker in the MENA region, see Lisa Watanabe’s chapter in Strategic Trends 2019 here.
Last month, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a new program that would aim to bolster economic growth in Africa as part of the European Union’s (EU) efforts to reduce irregular migration. Such a measure stands in contrast to others taken in recent years where, for example, Italy worked to stem the flow of migrants—with EU backing—by engaging local intermediaries, who have allegedly paid armed groups to cease smuggling. Avoiding the extreme flows of migrants as experienced in 2015 remains a top concern irrespective of the measures employed, not least to contain the rising tide of populism rooted in anti-migrant sentiment in Europe.
Conflict has had devastating impacts on the populations of Libya and Syria, but it has also provided opportunities for new actors within their burgeoning war economies. In Libya, the removal of the Gaddafi regime, the proliferation of armed groups and the erosion of the state’s coercive capacity have produced an environment conducive for a new set of conflict entrepreneurs and armed actors to build new – or expand upon existing – forms of revenue. In Syria, the collapse of state authority and ongoing civil conflict has similarly led to the creation of new armed groups and a wide range of new economic elites, some aligned with the regime and others with a wide array of opposition groups. Others have generated significant revenues through their ability to deal across frontlines. The rise to prominence of these actors has, in many cases, entrenched negative incentives for the perpetuation of conflict and the disruption of conflict mediation efforts.
In recent weeks, allegations have surfaced that Italy has been paying armed groups in Libya to cease smuggling migrants into the country. Some estimate that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Italy has reduced by half compared to the same time period last year. At the heart of the issue is a governance vacuum that allows armed groups to control the flow of migrants in and out of Libya, presenting a unique challenge for governments in North and West Africa and EU policymakers.