President Obama delivered an unusually thoughtful State of the Union address last night. Appropriate for his valedictory speech to Congress, the president skipped the usual laundry list of legislative priorities and chose to “talk about the future” instead. He implored his fellow Americans see the world as it is—and the United States as it could be. If there was a unifying theme, it was the growing threat posed by state failure, both domestic and international. The questions that lingered were two: Do Americans have the will to overcome political dysfunction at home? Does the United States have the capacity to ameliorate it abroad?
The gravest danger facing the United States, the president made clear, is internal. It is the failure of the two major political parties to deliver a politics worthy of the American people. A successful democracy does not just happen, Obama observed, it “require[s] basic bonds of trust among our citizens.” The collapse of the political center, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the flood of special interest money, and the fragmentation of the U.S. media have all but eliminated incentives and opportunities for rational discourse and civil debate over public policy choices. “One of the few regrets of my presidency,” Obama declared, is that the “rancor between parties” has only deepened over his seven years in office.
Historians are better placed than pundits to apportion blame for this state of affairs. It is disappointing that the president—who promised a new type of politics in his 2008 campaign—waited until his last State of the Union to return to this theme. But no honest observer can deny the reality he describes. Until Democrats and Republicans regain some basic comity, the United States will fail to tackle urgent domestic priorities, from restoring aging infrastructure to fixing income inequality to reducing gun violence.
But the dangers of dysfunctional governance extend far beyond U.S. shores, the president declared. Today, the United States is threatened “less by evil empires and more by failing states,” particularly in the turbulent Middle East, which is likely to be mired in a painful and violent political transition for a “generation” or more. The president’s diagnosis was a startling echo of George W. Bush, whose 2002 National Security Strategy famously declared that the United States is “threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” Obama promised that the United States would respond mercilessly to terrorist groups that found haven in war-torn and misgoverned states, sending al Qaeda and the Islamic State an unmistakable message: “When you come after Americans, we come after you.”
But if Obama shared W’s diagnosis of failed states, he disagreed on the course of treatment. The “lesson of Iraq,” and one “we should have learned,” is that “we can’t take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis.” Resorting to nation-building is “a recipe for quagmire,” the president warned. “Fortunately, there is a smarter approach,” which involves mobilizing coalitions of like-minded states and getting these partners to pull their weight, as the United States was doing in both Iraq and Syria. This formula for success was also on display when Ebola erupted in the weak states of West Africa, he said, where the United States provided a platform to stop the epidemic in its tracks.
Painting with a broad brush helped the President get his message across. But it also omitted inconvenient details that might render a more realistic portrait of the “failed state” thesis—and how the Obama administration has applied it. (Full disclosure: I collaborated closely with now National Security Advisor Susan Rice from 2005 to 2008, while she was at the Brookings Institution, on U.S. policy options toward failed states, including creating an Index on State Weakness in the Developing World).
To begin with the diagnosis is far too sweeping. As I pointed out in my 2011 book, Weak Links, not all failed states matter, and not all transnational threats can be traced back to failed states. The November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris were perpetrated by EU citizens, for example. Moreover, some “failed” states are failed precisely because of outside invasion. “Regime change” occurred not only under Bush’s watch, in Iraq, but also under Obama’s direction, in Libya. Rejecting “nation-building” in Libya in 2011 may have made sense, but the decision to walk away after Gaddafi was removed left that nation in chaos—disorder that contributed to the rise of extremists in Mali and which continues today in Libya itself.
Avoiding quagmires, moreover, is hardly the same as achieving success. The president may have escaped a morass in Syria, for instance. But his alternative strategies—arming Syrian “moderates” and mobilizing a makeshift coalition—have yielded only desultory results, while opening the door to Russian intervention. Obama’s prudence has also carried steep human costs, giving Bashar al-Assad free rein to commit atrocities against civilians. More than 300,000 Syrians have died, half of all Syrians have fled their prewar homes, four million refugees are trapped in neighboring countries, and hundreds of thousands have struck out for Europe.
To be fair, state failure is—like genocide—a “problem from hell.” There are no easy answers. In Iraq, the United States tried invasion and nation-building. In Libya it tried invasion without nation-building. In Syria it chose to do neither. And as my colleague Phil Gordon has pointed out, the result in all three was the same: violent chaos and human suffering. The disappointing conclusion is that U.S. policy towards failed states hasn’t improved much since 9/11, through two very different administrations.
If the United States is serious about reducing the risks of—and mitigating spillovers from—state failure, it needs to move from a reactive to a preventive mode. The first step is to adopt a comprehensive, U.S.-government-wide “fragile states” strategy. This would allow the United States and its partners to better measure and understand dysfunctional governance worldwide, predict which countries are most vulnerable to collapse, and take timely steps with partners to try to prevent state failure where significant U.S. interests or values are involved. Winning the necessary legislative support and funding for such an approach, however, will require overcoming state failure at home.