“Good Enough” Governance

Conclusion: Policy and Academic Research Recommendations—What Can Realistically Be Done?

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Karl W. Eikenberry and Stephen D. Krasner
Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses

Main Policy Implications

The major constraints affecting any attempt at external intervention pre­­sent major pitfalls and a risk of counterproductive results. Accordingly, we identify the following core policy considerations:

  1. The need for modesty, humility, and specificity when establishing goals. The international community needs to recognize the limits to what can realistically be achieved through external intervention. In some cases, particularly where parties to the conflict cannot be reconciled with the international system, achieving complete, “positive peace” may not be feasible in the short term. Goals from the outset must be realistic and attainable.64
  2. With the acknowledgment that positive peace may not be attainable in the short term, stricter periodization of goals is essential for any external intervention in order to avoid overreaching.
  3. External interveners must be pragmatic and support the goal of “good enough” governance, emphasizing stability and security, improving the functioning of some institutions, and facilitating economic growth. Interveners must acknowledge that this can require painful tradeoffs against other policy priorities, such as establishing inclusive social justice processes, that are less likely to succeed through external intervention.
  4. Diplomacy, development assistance, and military doctrines should be revised to reflect this more modest and realistic approach; education and training programs that support these new approaches should follow.
  5. When proper conditions do obtain, the United States should support UN-led and UN-sanctioned application of the “standard treatment” regime and persuade its allies, partners, and others to do so as well.
  6. Given the growing realization, especially in the wake of the emergence of COVID-19, that a pandemic as deadly as MERS and as contagious as measles could one day pose an existential threat to human civilization, the United States should promote the establishment of healthcare and medical infrastructure in violent, fragile states and help develop international and regional contingency plans.




  • 64“The April 2016 resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly introduced the concept of ‘Sustaining Peace.’ This represents a fundamental shift in the way the United Nations approaches peace and conflict. Underpinning the shift is a new focus on preventing conflicts via the identification of the factors that foster peace. . . . Positive Peace is associated with many of the indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda. It therefore provides a useful analytical framework for orienting international action that can serve to sustain peace.” Positive Peace: The Lens to Achieve the Sustaining Peace Agenda (Sydney: Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016).

Key Policy Recommendation: Aim for “Good Enough” Governance

When caught between, on the one hand, threats emanating from civil wars and fragile states and, on the other hand, the difficulties and potential pitfalls of producing good governance from the outside, policy options are limited. We suggest that the United States aim for “good enough” governance. Pursuit of this more realistic goal has a better chance of improving not only the security of the United States but the living conditions of individuals in states susceptible to high levels of internal violence.

Good enough governance should aim to achieve three primary objectives.65 The first is to improve security in the target country. This includes specialized, focused, security-force assistance designed to build the capacity of military forces in accordance with the goals of the United States, as well as the ruling elites of the target country. Carefully facilitated, elite-led negotiations (with limited measures of public inclusivity) that satisfy each faction may have more success, as suggested by the Colombian case.66 Security-force assistance and development have been successful in South Korea (1949–1953), the Philippines (2001), and other countries.67

The second objective is to improve some public services; healthcare is the clearest example. “New approaches that better integrate the technical and political challenges inherent in preventing pandemics in areas of civil wars are urgently required.”68 This will require the restructuring of a framework that integrates state-level health systems with international efforts to strengthen pandemic prevention, mitigation, and containment. This framework must take into account the political realities of states experiencing civil war and internal violence. The speed with which pandemics can spread—and the potential for widespread paranoia and disregard for global health system recommendations—means this framework must be developed with input from a variety of countries to ensure it is realistic and understood by all parties.69 Further, the framework should ensure that “the minimal governance and security conditions required by the technical aspects of pandemic control are met” as a baseline criteria for identifying good enough governance.70 Even then, because it may be impossible to create an effective public health system in some countries, developed countries must have a surge capacity of their own.

The third objective is to stimulate economic growth, provided that such growth does not threaten the rent-seeking opportunities of national elites. Improving growth includes developing a revenue stream for the state to pay for security and basic services for its people. Certain human rights, especially those associated with physical integrity, might also be improved, provided that such improvements do not jeopardize the ability of national elites to stay in power.

A carefully sequenced approach that focuses on capacity building in ways that support state institutions capable of responding to and containing terrorism and potential pandemic outbreaks will ideally build a stronger state without full-scale military intervention.71 We advocate for smarter uses of coercion and a deep inquiry into what this would mean for future security and military strategies.




  • 65In accordance with Risse and Stollenwerk’s argument, the authors focus on governance-building rather than state-building. “[A] too-narrow focus on state-building may be counterproductive, as it may foster ineffective or even predatory state institutions. Such a focus also ignores the plurality of governance actors beyond the state that are relevant for effective governance—such as service provision and rule-making—in areas of limited statehood. Therefore, external actors like international organizations and foreign powers should contribute to governance-building rather than state-building, with a focus on service provision and rule-making institutions with a broader scope than the state.” Risse and Stollenwerk, “Limited Statehood Does Not Equal Civil War,” 104.
  • 66Matanock and García-Sánchez, “The Colombian Paradox,” 152.
  • 67“SFA is conducted in a wide variety of settings. Sometimes it takes the form of a handful of trainers working with indigenous allies in a country at peace, as in the US missions in Mongolia, Bangladesh or Peru. Sometimes it can involve larger missions in countries actively fighting insurgents or terrorists, such as Yemen, Colombia or the Philippines. Sometimes it can involve remote training for fighters who will return to their countries afterwards, as in Syria.” Steve Biddle, Julia Macdonald, and Ryan Baker, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff: The Military Effectiveness of Security Force Assistance,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41 (1–2) (2018): 126, doi:10.1080/01402390.2017.1307745.
  • 68Wise and Barry, “Civil War and the Global Threat of Pandemics,” 71.
  • 69Wise and Barry conclude, “Current discussions regarding global health governance reform have largely been preoccupied by the performance and intricate bureaucratic interaction of global health agencies. However, what may prove far more critical may be the ability of global health governance structures to recognize and engage the complex, political realities on the ground in areas plagued by civil war.” Ibid., 82.
  • 70Ibid., 77.
  • 71“Terrorism against outside powers can provoke military intervention, which not only intensifies and internationalizes civil war but also sparks more terrorism against the occupiers and their local allies.” Crenshaw, “Transnational Jihadism and Civil War,” 69.

Confronting Painful Trade-Offs

Painful trade-offs are often associated with good enough governance. For example, elections, under certain circumstances, might be viewed more as devices that legitimate agreements already made among elites rather than as expressions of the popular will. Improving the ability of national elites to secure control over the territory of their state might mean strengthening a security apparatus that abuses human rights if this furthers the ability of national elites to stay in power. Ambitious and costly efforts to create politically neutral armed forces will likely be subverted by ruling cliques; more limited projects aimed at building host-nation counterterrorist forces that can deal with potential threats to U.S. security might be the most realistic and cost-effective course of action.

Good enough governance implies that corruption will not be eliminated in the short term. National elites in rent-seeking regimes depend on the proceeds of corruption to stay in power. The best that can be hoped for in many countries is a system based on clientelism or patronage rather than gross theft that simply moves money out of the country. In 2010, investigators discovered that nearly $900 million was missing from the Kabul Bank. Much of this money had disappeared. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of loans were found to have no adequate documentation. The bank was closely associated with then President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and Vice President Mohammed Qasim Fahim. Neither of these individuals or members of their immediate families were ever prosecuted. Much of the money simply disappeared, although at least some of it is suspected to have ended up in Gulf state villas. This sort of gross theft might be avoidable, but the idea that corruption can be totally eliminated is a fool’s errand.

In poorly governed states some kinds of development might be possible. The provision of basic healthcare and education services, at least in areas and to groups not viewed as hostile to the regime, will often be viewed positively. National elites might support infrastructure projects that directly benefit their allies and contribute to broader economic growth and job creation. Elites will not, however, tolerate economic changes that might threaten their ability to remain in office. New technologies and economic enterprises will be repressed if they threaten the position of those in power. In the first half of the fifteenth century, the emperor of China ordered that the Chinese treasure fleet, comprising ships that were much bigger than any of those possessed by the Europeans, be destroyed. The emperor feared that growing commerce would threaten his rule. Economic development is possible even in repressive states—but only so long as that development does not endanger the position of national elites.

Advanced industrialized democratic societies are confronted with a world of uncertainty in which black swans live and unexpectedly appear. Highly destructive events could take place, but it is impossible to know with any confidence what their underlying probability distribution might be. States or nonstate groups with relatively limited resources but possessing nuclear or biological weapons could kill countless numbers of individuals residing within the boundaries of much more powerful states. Terrorist groups, national or transnational, could also inflict levels of death and destruction that have in the past only been associated with large-scale warfare.

The position outlined in the 2017 National Security Strategy hews more closely to the approach to international intervention that we advocate than does the more utopian vision of the George W. Bush administration. Global pandemics and transnational terrorism are two sources of mass death and destruction that could arise in poorly or malevolently governed areas. If Americans are concerned with their own security, they cannot ignore despotic regimes, but neither can they place such countries on the road to consolidated democracy. And, if we are concerned with the basic humanity of our neighbors in countries experiencing civil war, we have a moral obligation to help countries achieve good enough governance. We must learn how to get to good enough governance when good governance is not feasible.

To protect its own national security, the United States must depart from its own history. The utopian perspective—that every country can be a consolidated democracy if only American resources are effectively deployed—and the dystopian view—that the rest of the world is basically sinful and seeks to take advantage of the United States—are not the only alternatives. Good enough governance is possible, but it is a policy that will require America to break with its past and accept imperfect outcomes.