from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

U.S. Foreign Policy on Weak States: Time to Look at the Facts

July 14, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

Conflict Prevention

People stand near their belongings at a bus station in Mogadishu (Shabele Media/ Courtesy Reuters).

My friend Joseph Siegle of the National Defense University recently published an interesting article about “Stabilizing Fragile States” in order to protect against their “grim dangers to the international community.” In this, he echoes U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s claim that we must prevent Libya from becoming a giant Somalia. U.S. foreign policy has been infused with these arguments since 9/11, when weak and failing states were catapulted from their place as humanitarian concerns on the foreign policy agenda to top national security concerns. Under the first Bush administration, yours truly worked on the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department, considering strategies to combat this threat of failing states.

But the Internationalist just published a book that empirically analyzes the transnational threats emanating from weak and failing states—and concluded that our conventional wisdom is based on isolated anecdotes that don’t accurately reflect the danger of all failing states. I was interviewed by Eric Felten on Voice of America’s On the Line about this recent book, Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security:

Some highlights from the discussion:

  • The notion of a failed state as a safe haven is a contradiction. It turns out that ethnic conflicts, lack of basic communications, crumbling roads and transportation systems, and the absence of banks or their inability to transfer money frustrate terrorists just as much as they frustrate citizens or aid workers. (Watch to hear about some stunning cables from al-Qaeda complaining about this.)
  • International drug traffickers will accept a slightly higher degree of risk to be in functioning societies that are geographically and logistically more convenient-- and where they can make higher profits. It’s easier to corrupt a weak regime than be entirely responsible for their security. (Watch to hear about one nation where cocaine shipments exceed GDP.)
  • Policymakers must look beyond institutional capacity of the country, and also consider the will of the ruling regime. Consider that Osama bin Laden was discovered to be hiding miles from a military academy where the state was relatively strong.
  • Countries like South Africa or Mexico that possess stronger institutions, but governance gaps, represent greater threats to the international community in the issue areas of: epidemic disease, terrorism, global crime, weapons of mass destruction and energy insecurity.
  • Pandemics don’t fester in failing states and later engulf entire regions. The most fragile states bear a disproportionate disease burden, but they’re endemic diseases: measles, malaria, cholera. Acute, fast-moving pandemics that endanger international health, like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or influenza,  bypass failed states because they’re not linked with the global economy.
  • Simply because weak and failing states are not of security concern to the United States does not mean they should not be of humanitarian and development concern. However, when the United States misperceives a humanitarian challenge as a security threat,  it unwittingly empowers regimes that obscure oppression as combating terrorism.

More on:

Conflict Prevention