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Weak Links

Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security

Author: , Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

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Publisher A CFR Book. Oxford University Press

Release Date

Price $29.95 hardcover

352 pages
ISBN 978-0-19-975151-8 (paper)


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."

Watch Stewart Patrick in this CFR video:

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Video Interview

Conversations With History: Stewart Patrick

On Conversations With History, Patrick discusses the criteria for defining fragile states and for creating benchmarks for evaluating whether they pose national security threats with reference to terrorism proliferation, criminal activity, energy insecurity and infectious disease. He argues that in most cases the links are tenuous and the focus on one category obscures the challenges these states actually pose for the U.S. and the community of nations. He proposes that the United States focus on an early warning system that anticipates problem areas, identify local environments that shape harmful outcomes, engage in multilateral solutions, and de-emphasize the over reliance on military solutions.


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Risk and Failing States

Speakers: Christine Cheng, Isobel Coleman, and Stewart M. Patrick
Presider: Scott Malcolmson

Experts discuss the inherent risk of failing states and the economic consequences for the United States and global community.