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Fragile States Do Not Automatically Threaten U.S., Argues Stewart Patrick in New Book

May 18, 2011

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Since 9/11, it has become commonplace for policymakers to claim that the gravest threats to international security come from the world's most fragile states, notes Stewart M. Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Challenging this claim, Patrick argues in Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security that “globally, most fragile states do not present significant security risks, except to their own people, and the most important spillovers that preoccupy U.S. national security officials are at least as likely to emanate from stronger developing countries, rather than the world's weakest countries.”

Relying on global data patterns and country case studies, Patrick demonstrates the “weak links” between state fragility and five major transnational threats: terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cross-border criminal activity, energy insecurity, and infectious diseases. He finds that “the relationship between state fragility and these threats is more complicated and contingent than the conventional wisdom would suggest.” In fact, he writes, threats are just as likely to come from stronger states with political objectives at odds with U.S. interests.

Highlighting the critical implications for U.S. national security policy, Patrick argues that given its limited attention and resources, the United States cannot hope to engage in state-building efforts in every corner of the world. To set priorities, policymakers need “greater clarity about the nature, causes, and expressions of state weakness”—and a more nuanced understanding of the conditions under which fragility enables transnational threats.

Nonetheless, Patrick stresses that the United States must continue to invest in helping certain fragile states, for humanitarian as well as strategic reasons. The United States should not withhold aid to Haiti, for example, or others hit by similar catastrophes. Nor should it abandon critical fragile states, like Pakistan, due to its strategic importance, no matter how fractious relations may sometimes become.

Patrick calls on the United States to formulate a preventive, government-wide “fragile states strategy” that can be tailored to local conditions. This strategy should assess the United States' humanitarian, development, diplomatic, and security interests in each country. “The United States and like-minded international partners should seek to cut those links between state fragility and transnational threats that, while hardly universal, do sometimes arise.”

To order this book, visit www.cfr.org/weak_links.

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Advance Praise for Weak Links:

"Understanding how and why states fail is not just an urgent task for policymakers but also for anyone interested in the main trends shaping the world. Weak Links is a rigorous account of a phenomenon that combines medieval-like realities with modern conditions. There is no other book like this."
—Moisés Naím, author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy

"The phenomenon known as fragile states is typically over-determined but poorly specified, leading to sweeping conclusions of limited policy relevance. Stewart Patrick's new book performs a critically important service by analyzing fragile states in relation to specific security threats."
—Chester A. Crocker, professor of strategic studies, Georgetown University

"Weak Links takes on the conventional wisdom that there is a close connection between weak states and transnational threats like terrorism. The book demonstrates that the relationship is much more attenuated—perhaps a small comfort, since the international community's ability to fix failed states is so limited."
—Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy, Johns Hopkins University, and author of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

"Stewart Patrick's brilliantly researched book is an overdue corrective to some of the overwrought claims about the problems posed by failing, failed, and phantom states. He shows that every state situation is different, demanding its own analysis and its own policy solution. Meticulously and impressively argued."
—Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia

Stewart M. Patrick is senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Since 1922, CFR has also published Foreign Affairs, the leading journal on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

The International Institutions and Global Governance program aims to identify the institutional requirements for effective multilateral cooperation in the twenty-first century.

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