Crisis of Conscience
The International Crisis Group has been an invaluable resource for conflict analysis. But has the organization been undermined by its growing institutional ties with the Democratic Party?
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The International Crisis Group is, in the organization’s own words, “generally regarded as the world’s leading source of information, analysis and policy advice to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.” From the beginning of my own career as an academic, Crisis Group has set the standard for research on conflict. Their reports have influenced my views of the West African countries I work on. Some of their reports with a global scope, especially the 2016 report “Exploiting Disorder” on the international jihadist movement, have also made an impact on my thinking. I long felt that Crisis Group pushed the envelope policy-wise, offering constructive criticism of existing policies and injecting new ideas into policy conversations.
During the Trump presidency, however, I became concerned about Crisis Group’s trajectory—specifically, that the relationship between ICG leadership and the Democratic Party’s foreign policy elite was watering down the organization’s ability to produce critical analysis and to articulate specific recommendations that break with status quo policies. There has been no decline in the quality of ICG’s research, but their conclusions increasingly lack punch. A leadership change at Crisis Group presents an opportunity for renewal, but I still detect a substantial strain of status quo bias and Western-centric attitudes in the organization’s output. The banalization of Crisis Group—into just another think tank, with a deep bench of experts but without much to say—would be a real loss for anyone interested in ending wars.
ICG as Party Institution?
Crisis Group is an establishment organization with a Euro-American, rather than fully global, pedigree. According to the organization’s official history, the idea for Crisis Group was hatched in 1993 by retired American Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, then President of the Carnegie Endowment, and by the British diplomat Mark Malloch Brown, then a Vice President at the World Bank. The incipient organization was incubated by Carnegie and the Open Society Institute of George Soros. From the beginning, key Democrats served in senior roles at ICG—its first chairman, for example, was former Senator George Mitchell (D-ME). Yet Crisis Group did a good job decentering the United States in its senior leadership for quite some time and achieving, if not a fully international character, at least a trans-Atlantic one. The organization’s presidents have been British, Belgian, Australian, Canadian, French, American, and now British (of Nigerian background).
Obviously, an organization founded by Carnegie and Open Society is going to be liberal and elite-driven, full of insiders who are close to power (Soros and his son Alexander are still members of the board, which more broadly is comprised of former senior government officials, corporate executives, and senior figures from other think tanks and foundations). But under the presidency of Robert Malley, which overlapped with Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Crisis Group veered perilously close to becoming just another place where Democrats go to stay relevant when they are out of power.
There is no questioning Malley’s ability and resume – Rhodes Scholar, author of an important book on Algeria, member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, Middle East Director at Crisis Group, informal advisor to Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, member of Obama’s second term National Security Council, President of Crisis Group, and now Joe Biden’s Special Envoy for Iran. And I am glad that Malley is Biden’s Iran Envoy—while it would be nice to see an Iranian-American in that position, that person would perhaps face an unsustainable level of scrutiny, attacks, and suspicion from those who oppose engagement with Tehran. Malley, in any case, knows the portfolio as well as anyone could.
Alternating between the White House and the think tank world has been fundamental to Malley’s career, following the well-trodden “revolving door” path common to so many US foreign policy elites. Yet to me, Malley’s last two trips through the door—from White House to Crisis Group presidency and then back to White House—threatened the ICG’s independence and internationalism. To have senior staff go into government in various countries, or to recruit former policymakers to the organization, makes sense for a policy-oriented advocacy group. But senior staff is one thing, and the face of the entire organization is another. Because of the strongly two-party US political system, I think it was the wrong move to bring Malley back to Crisis Group as president.
The ICG compounded this decision with two other errors. First, Crisis Group named what seemed like a trickle or even a small flood of out-of-power Democrats into senior positions. Most prominently, Jake Sullivan, now Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, became a member of ICG’s Board. Another former Obama National Security Council (NSC) staffer who joined Crisis Group under Malley is Stephen Pomper, currently Chief of Policy for the organization.
Second, ICG launched a “United States” program (i.e., analyzing the United States as a conflict zone and conflict actor) in 2017. The US program has been a prominent landing site for ex-NSC staffers and Obama political appointees transitioning to Crisis Group. Key US analysts include Daniel Schneiderman, a former NSC Yemen Director who is now head of advocacy and research for the US program at ICG; and Sarah Harrison, who was a political appointee under Obama and served in a variety of mid-level executive branch positions. It could be objected that there are Republicans on ICG’s board, such as former Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Deputy National Security Advisor Meghan O’Sullivan. Yet it makes a difference that the Democratic Party and the Obama foreign policy network have substantial reach not just on the ICG board but at the level of day-to-day analysis and advocacy.
Bringing in former Obama administration appointees and starting a US program were not problematic in and of themselves, but they took on a certain valence given the “Democrat waiting to go back to the White House” vibe surrounding Malley as Crisis Group president. Starting a US program made sense in the context of Donald Trump’s destabilizing impact and inflammatory rhetoric, the more brazen activities of right-wing groups, the physical violence perpetrated at places like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, and the seemingly growing potential for clashes at protests. Yet having someone who is effectively a senior member of the Democratic Party at the helm undercut, at least for me, ICG’s ability to speak on the Trump administration as an outside observer rather than as a player with skin in the 2020 elections—and also undercut Crisis Group’s ability to dispassionately analyze Black Lives Matter and left-wing challenges to the US status quo and the Democratic Party.
These developments also left Crisis Group vulnerable to the danger of becoming just another liberal think tank. There was nothing particularly original in Crisis Group’s commentary on the protests following George Floyd’s death, for example; nothing deeply objectionable (to my eye, at least) but also nothing that one couldn’t have read in The New Yorker. In the foreign policy arena, meanwhile, there is now a question about the extent to which ICG’s analysis and advocacy (particularly on Iran) will overlap with the administration’s priorities and with Malley’s specific portfolio. I am very much in favor of resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal, and thus I sympathize strongly with both Malley’s efforts and ICG’s analysis, but at the same time I am concerned about the optics (or even the reality) of Malley’s former subordinates at ICG being part of a kind of “inside-outside” strategy to boost Biden administration priorities.
On a more positive note, I am heartened by the choice of Comfort Ero as Crisis Group’s new president (disclosure: I have met her and admire her work). Ero comes out of the organization’s Africa program and has a different background from Malley, in terms both of life experience and professional expertise. Her inaugural message as president, which begins with a reflection on the impact of Nigeria’s civil war on her family and her own outlook, is powerful and promising.
ICG in The Blob
At the same time, the question now for Crisis Group is its relationship not just to any specific presidential administration in Washington, but to the overall liberal, Washington-centric view of the world—the idea, now shared across much of “The Blob,” that the United States government not only is but deserves to be at the center of the international system, and that American foreign policy is guided by normatively good impulses that place Washington in a fundamentally different category than Moscow, Beijing, or indeed anyone other than, perhaps, some Western European states. For a close look at how those attitudes surface in Crisis Group’s writing, let’s look back at the organization’s “10 conflicts to watch in 2022” list.
The opening paragraphs of the list are a lament about the perceived decline of the United States as a supposed stabilizing force in global affairs. Crisis Group leaves it ambiguous as to whether this is a voluntary retreat (there are references to “dwindling US ambition on the global stage” and “a more cautious United States”) or a structural decline in US power. Crisis Group is also sanguine about the limits of “Washington’s sway even in its post-Cold War heyday,” and also acknowledges that “US forces are still deployed around the globe, NATO stands, and Washington’s recent Asia diplomacy shows it can still marshal coalitions like no other power.”
The key line in the opening paragraphs to me, however, was this: “Whatever one thinks of US influence, its decline inevitably brings hazards, given that American might and alliances have structured global affairs for decades.” That “whatever” is being asked to do a lot in this sentence. It hints towards an acknowledgment of Washington’s often-destructive role in world affairs, but without really acknowledging it, and then also asks critics of US foreign policy to bracket their objections and join the lament over a decline whose precise nature and impact the piece is vague in describing.
The conflict list itself then proceeds in the following order (I use their phrasing):
The United States and China
Iran vs. the United States and Israel
Islamist militancy in Africa
Let’s take a closer look at some of their language. To start with Crisis Group’s first entry, Ukraine, what stands out to me is the consistent framing of Vladimir Putin and Russia as emotional, almost to the point of irrationality. Putin is “angered” and “angry,” Russia has “grievances,” and “Moscow is upset.” There is an implicit contrast here with the supposedly more rational but perhaps too weak-kneed West. Crisis Group then, like so many pro-Washington commentators, recommends a kind of controlled escalation by the West: “Western powers, which too often have relied on bluster packaged as strategic ambiguity, need to clarify what they would do to support Ukraine, relay that to Moscow, and hold fast to red lines.”
The report posits that limited escalation can give way to “choreographed de-escalation," with everyone pulling back and saving face. Perhaps they are right, and I won’t pretend I know how to solve a conflict I don’t even follow closely. But what’s striking to me is that the foremost conflict-oriented think tank in the world has little to offer, even in a short piece like this, beyond what one would find in the Twitter feed of any status quo American foreign policy commentator: Putin is unruly, the benevolent American Father can tame him, everyone go home. I also find the recommendation to adopt “red lines” contrary to Crisis Group’s core mission as a conflict prevention actor.
More recent offerings from Crisis Group on Ukraine remain disappointingly vague and unimaginative; a February 24 statement offered recommendations that more or less boil down to sanctions on Russia, weapons for Ukraine, diplomatic pressure, humanitarian relief, and human rights investigations. ICG is unlikely to be a major player in shaping the White House’s response to tensions in Ukraine, but the organization’s pessimism is nevertheless politically convenient for Washington. ICG does not appear to be substantively critiquing the administration’s approach in any way.
Returning to the list of conflicts to watch in 2022, on Afghanistan (#3), Crisis Group shows why I still believe it has something to offer the DC foreign policy discourse: “Since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August, a humanitarian catastrophe has loomed…Western leaders shoulder much of the blame…International financial institutions, having released a small part of the almost $2 billion earmarked for Afghanistan, should disperse the rest. The United Nations and United States, which have now lifted some sanctions to allow in humanitarian aid, should go further by easing restrictions to permit regular economic activity. Biden should release Afghanistan’s frozen assets, with an initial tranche to test the waters.” This is valuable not just because it points to a significant degree of Western responsibility for human suffering in the peripheries of the capitalist world-system, but also because it points to genuine alternatives to the status quo, pressuring Washington instead of stoking its self-regard.
This is not to say that I have a reflexive need to hear criticism of the United States. It is rather that if ICG’s goal is conflict prevention and resolution, Washington has an extraordinarily poor record on this front, either due to its own direct role in conflicts, its cozy relationships with various conflict actors, or its limited imagination. A willingness to criticize the United States (and the West more broadly) is not the answer to conflict but it is often a precondition for sparking new thinking on any given conflict.
Turning to the fourth item on the list, “The United States and China,” I found ICG’s commentary here particularly disappointing. The section is descriptive, focusing on the differences in Washington’s and Beijing’s understandings of their mutual tensions. Some of the section is just hand-wringing: “The two giants’ rivalry casts a long shadow over world affairs and heightens dangers across flash points in East Asia” and “Along the first island chain, things are particularly frightening. Warplanes flying close to one another near Taiwan, for example, or warships crossing paths in the South China Sea are more common.” Yet Crisis Group offers no solutions here, including the (to me) obvious one of suggesting that Washington take the first step by pulling back on its Indo-Pacific military ventures.
Finally let’s consider item 10, “Islamist militancy in Africa.” The report gets off to a troubling start by lumping together, at the very bottom of its list, conflicts in at least seven African countries in order to treat those conflicts as a singular phenomenon. The section also opens in a particularly misleading way, with the authors stating, “Since 2017, when the Islamic State lost its so-called caliphate in the Middle East, Africa has suffered some of the world’s most ferocious battles between states and jihadis.” This framing ignores the organization’s own complex and nuanced work on the origins of jihadism in the region, in favor of an analysis that could have come verbatim from a US Africa Command Posture Statement or from a Foundation for Defense of Democracies report. Especially disappointing is that by focusing on a particular type of actor—jihadists, militants, whatever one wants to call them—the nature of these conflicts as multi-faceted civil wars recedes into the background.
Turning from the 2022 list to the organization’s output more broadly, I am more and more concerned by what Crisis Group does not say in its pieces. There is no questioning the depth of expertise among the organization’s analysts. But why, then, has their commentary often lapsed into pablum when it comes to making specific policy recommendations?
For example, a recent spate of coups in Africa (many of which have fundamentally different causes and contexts) has occasioned much reflection on what can be done to prevent and respond to coups in general. At Crisis Group, two United Nations watchers recently authored a piece on the UN Security Council’s responses to coups. The piece was oddly pessimistic for an organization whose mission is to find solutions for even the most intractable conflicts. After stressing that confusion, tensions between major powers, and “the Council’s lack of leverage in the countries concerned” can all impede effective responses to coups, the authors landed lamely on the suggestion that countries use the UN “as a platform for public diplomacy.” This is what one says when one has no real ideas about how to solve a problem, I think—or when one is increasingly focused on aligning with, rather than challenging, policy decisions emanating from Washington.
Can one draw a straight line between Malley’s complex attempt to balance his positions as both Obama-Biden insider and Crisis Group president on the one hand, and the shortcomings of individual analytical briefs by Crisis Group on the other? No, obviously not. But a culture of caution and small-c conservatism can filter down from the top, and I am afraid it has in Crisis Group’s case. It is no accident that while I still return frequently to reports that ICG released prior to 2017, I now often merely skim reports that have come out during the Trump and Biden administrations. I hope that Comfort Ero, as president, reverses that trend and looks beyond the horizons of what Joe Biden, and even his most talented staffers, would consider possible in today’s world.
Full disclosure: I applied for a position at ICG in 2012 that ended up going to someone more senior and better-qualified, and I participated in a Crisis Group workshop in person in 2019 and another one virtually in 2021.