Weak Links

Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security

In Weak Links Stewart Patrick contends that assumptions about the threats posed by failing states--or "weak links"--are based on anecdotal arguments and challenges the conventional wisdom through systematic empirical analysis.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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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."

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Reviews and Endorsements

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

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

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

In the News

Patrick on Weak Links at the Colorado Foothills World Affairs Council

A CFR Book. Oxford University Press

Patrick Discusses the Threat of Failed States on Voice of America

A CFR Book. Oxford University Press

Conversations With History: Stewart Patrick

A CFR Book. Oxford University Press

Excerpt Up


It has become commonplace to claim that the gravest dangers to U.S. and world secu­rity are no longer military threats from rival great powers but rather cross-border threats emanating from the world's most poorly governed, economically stagnant, and conflict-ridden countries. Public officials and the media—as well as many scholars—depict weak and failing states as generating or enabling a vast array of dangers, from transnational terrorism to weapons proliferation, organized crime, humanitarian catas­trophes, regional conflict, mass migration, pandemic disease, environmental degrada­tion, and energy insecurity. Leading thinkers like Francis Fukuyama argue, "Since the end of the Cold War, weak and failing states have arguably become the single-most important problem for international order." Official Washington agrees. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken of the "chaos that flows from failed states," which serve as "breeding grounds, not only for the worst abuses of human beings, from mass murders to rapes to indifference toward disease and other terrible calamities, but they 1are [also] invitations to terrorists to find refuge amidst the chaos." Likewise, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates predicts, "Over the next 20 years, the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from emerging ambitious states, than from failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs—much less the basic aspirations—of their people."

This new focus on weak and failing states represents a noteworthy shift in U.S. threat perceptions. During the 1990s, a handful of U.S. strategists began to call attention to the possible spillover consequences of weak governance in the developing world.Most U.S. policymakers, however, regarded states with sovereignty deficits almost exclusively through a humanitarian lens: such countries piqued the moral conscience but appeared to have little strategic significance. This calculus shift ed following September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda attacked the United States from Afghanistan, one of the poorest and most wretched countries in the world. The assault quickly produced a consensus in U.S. policy circles that state fragility was both an incubator and vector of multiple transnational threats. President George W. Bush captured this new view in his National Security Strategy of 2002, declaring: "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." In the words of Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, "The attacks of September 11, 2001, reminded us that weak states can threaten our security as much as strong ones, by providing breeding grounds for extremism and havens for criminals, drug traffickers, and terror­ists. Such lawlessness abroad can bring devastation here at home. One of our most pressing tasks is to prevent today's troubled countries from becoming tomorrow's failed states."This new threat perception quickly became conventional wisdom among government officials, journalists, and independent analysts at home and abroad.

Since 9/11, this preoccupation with spillovers from weak or failed states has driven a slew of U.S. policy pronouncements and institutional innovations spanning the realms of intelligence, diplomacy, development, defense, and even trade. In 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identifi ed some fifty lawless zones around the world that might be conducive to illicit activity, and began to devote new intelligence collection assets to long-neglected parts of the world. The following year, Secretary of State Colin Powell established an Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization in the State Department, which worked with the National Intelligence Council to identify states at risk of collapse where the United States could launch conflict prevention and mitiga­tion efforts. In 2006 the National Security Strategy cited "weak and impoverished states and ungoverned areas" as a critical threat to the United States, and Condoleezza Rice, Powell's successor, announced a new "transformational diplomacy" initiative intended to help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. To advance this goal, Rice announced a sweeping plan to ensure that U.S. foreign assistance was more closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy priorities. USAID devised its own Fragile States Strategy, designed to bolster countries that otherwise might breed terror, crime, instability, or disease. The Bush administration even cast its campaign for regional trade liberalization as a means to prevent state failure and its negative externalities. These trends have continued into the Obama administration, informing the Presidential Policy Directive on Development issued in September 2010 and the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), released three months later. Hillary Clinton, Obama's Secretary of State, has repeat­edly depicted fragile and dysfunctional states as growing threats to global security, prosperity, and justice—and endorsed increased investments in U.S. "civilian power" resources to address these challenges.

Such initiatives have been mirrored across the Potomac. The Defense Department's guiding strategy documents now emphasize military cooperation to strengthen the sovereign capacities of friendly governments in the developing world against the internal threats posed by insurgents, terrorists, and criminals. "State weakness and failure may be an increasing driver of conflict and situations that require a U.S. military response," the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy declared in spring 2009. As the National Defense Strategy of June 2008 explains, "Ungoverned, under-governed, mis­governed, and contested areas offer fertile ground for such groups to exploit the gaps in governance capacity of local regimes to undermine local stability and regional secu­rity."The Defense Department and its Combatant Commands—including a new Africa Command—are responding to this new mission by deploying assets to the world's rugged remote regions, uncontrolled borders, and un-policed coastlines. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has emphasized that, "Where possible, U.S. strategy is to employ indirect approaches—primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces—to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention."

The new conventional wisdom is not restricted to the United States. Other rich world governments have adopted analogous policy statements and have begun to adapt their defense, diplomatic, and development policies and instruments to help prevent state failure and respond to its aftermath—and to quarantine themselves from the presumed "spillover" effects of state weakness. The European Security Strategy iden­tifies the "alarming phenomenon" of state failure as one of the main threats to the European Union. In Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government pioneered a government-wide effort to help prevent failed states from generating pathologies like crime, terrorism, disease, uncontrolled migration, and energy insecurity. Blair's suc­cessor, David Cameron, has since launched a new UK National Security Strategy that prioritizes attention and resources to "fragile, failing, and failed states" around the world. Canada, Australia, and others have issued similar policy statements.

Likewise at the multilateral level, international organizations depict state failure as the Achilles' heel of collective security. A unifying theme of UN reform proposals over the past decade has been the need for effective, sovereign states to contend with today's global threats. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared in a December 2004 speech, "Whether the threat is terror or AIDS, a threat to one is a threat to all. . . . Our defenses are only as strong as their weakest link." In 2006, UN member states endorsed the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission to ensure that states emerging from confl ict do not collapse once again into failure. In parallel with these steps, the major donors of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have pursued a "Fragile States" initiative, in partnership with the World Bank's Low Income Countries Under Stress (now Fragile and Conflict Affected States) program. The underlying motivation for all of these efforts, as former Congressman Lee Hamilton has noted, is that "our collective security depends on the security of the world's most vulnerable places."

What is striking, in view of this flurry of official activity, is how little empirical analysis has been undertaken to document and explore the connection between state failure and transnational security threats. Policymakers have advanced blanket associations between these two sets of phenomena, often on the basis of anecdotes or single exam­ples (e.g., al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan before 9/11) rather than through sober analysis of global patt erns or in-depth case studies that reveal causal linkages.Such sweeping generalizations provide little analytical insight or guidance for policymakers in setting priorities, since they fail to distinguish among categories of weak and failing states or to ask whether (or why) particular developing countries are associated with specific sets of threats. This book aims to fill these gaps by analyzing the relationship between state weakness and five of the world's most pressing transnational threats.


The growing concern with weak and failing states is really based on two separate prop­ositions: first, that traditional concepts of security such as interstate violence should expand to encompass cross-border threats driven by non-state actors (such as terror­ists), activities (crime), or forces (pandemics or environmental degradation); and sec­ond, that such threats have their origins in large measure in weak governance in the developing world.

Since the Reagan administration, successive versions of the U.S. National Security Strategy have incorporated non-military concerns such as terrorism, organized crime, infectious disease, energy security, and environmental degradation. Th e common thread linking these challenges is that they originate primarily in sovereign jurisdic­tions abroad but have the potential to harm U.S. citizens. This definitional expansion has stimulated lively debate. Some national security traditionalists argue that such concerns pose at best an indirect rather than existential threat to U.S. national inter­ests, and that the effort to lump diverse phenomena into a common analytical frame­work dilutes the meaning of "national security." Proponents of a wider view of national security respond that unconventional threats contribute to violence by destabilizing states and regions and generating spillover effects. More fundamentally, they argue that the traditional "violence paradigm" for national security must adapt to accommo­date other threats to the safety, well-being, and way of life of U.S. citizens. Such threats include not only malevolent, purposive ones such as transnational terrorism—something many traditionalists now accept—but also "threats without a threatener": malignant forces that emerge from nature, such as global pandemics, or as by-products of human activity, such as climate change. Senator Barack Obama firmly embraced this perspective in his first major foreign policy address as a presidential candidate.

"Whether it's global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries."

Today the conventional wisdom in official circles holds that poorly governed states are disproportionately linked to these types of transnational threats. Lacking even minimal levels of resilience, they are perceived as more vulnerable than rich nations to illicit networks of terrorists or criminals, cross-border conflict, and devastating pan­demics. Yet traditionalists are often dubious that weak and failing states—in general—endanger U.S. national security. More relevant, they contend, are a handful of pivotal weak states, such as nuclear-armed Pakistan or North Korea, whose fortunes may affect regional balances of power or prospects for large-scale destruction. It is not always easy to predict, however, where such threats may emerge. In the 1990s, few anticipated that remote, poor, and war-ravaged Afghanistan would be the launching pad for the most devastating attack on the United States in the nation's history.

The unenviable challenge for policymakers is to try to anticipate where weak gov­ernance in the developing world is likely to become strategically salient. "A failing state in a remote part of the world may not, in isolation, affect U.S. national security," Peter Bergen and Laurie Garrett explain, "but in combination with other transna­tional forces, the process of state failure could contribute to a cascade of problems that causes significant direct harm to the United States or material damage to coun­tries (e.g., European allies) or regions (e.g., oil-producing Middle East) vital to U.S. interests."

At least four things have been missing from the discussion of failed states and trans­national threats. The first is an appreciation that state failure is not simply an either/or condition. Rather, states may fall along a broad continuum in terms of their relative institutional strength, both at the aggregate level and within individual dimensions of state function. Equally important, states' level of function (or dysfunction) may repre­sent a variable mixture of inadequate capacity and insufficient will.The second is a sophisticated understanding of the conditions under which state weakness may increase a country's propensity to fall victim to or enable negative "spillovers," ranging from terrorism to infectious disease. The third is the recognition that all weak states are embedded in a larger global system that can exert both positive and pernicious eff ects on their resilience and vulnerability. The fourth is an awareness of how transnational threats, such as crime, terrorism, or disease, can further undermine the capacity and will of weak states to meet their obligations to citizens and the international community.

This book seeks to fill these gaps. It begins by delving more deeply into the definition of state weakness, identifying its potential sources and expressions. Chapter 1 intro­duces an Index of State Weakness in the Developing World, which permits one to gauge relative state performance across 141 developing countries. Chapters 2–6 then probe the potential connections between state fragility and fi ve of the most pressing global threats to U.S. and international security: transnational terrorism; the prolifera­tion of weapons of mass destruction; cross-border criminal activity; energy insecurity; and major infectious disease. Where relevant, these chapters also reveal reverse linkages, that is, the role of transnational forces in weakening local governance in the developing world.

Understanding State Weakness and Its Consequences

The point of departure for assessing common claims about "weak and failed states" is clarity about the meaning of "state weakness," or "fragility" (terms that the book uses interchangeably). As chapter 1 points out, a weak (or fragile) state is one that struggles to fulfill the fundamental security, political, economic, and social functions that have come to be associated with sovereign statehood. These four core functions include: preserving a monopoly over the use of armed force within a given territory and providing its inhabitants with security from physical violence; maintaining eff ective, accountable, and legitimate institutions of government that protect the basic rights of citizens; creating a legal and regulatory environment conducive to private sector activity and broadly shared growth; and meeting basic social welfare needs, including in the spheres of health and education.

Particularly in the developing world, many states have difficulty fulfilling even the most basic responsibilities of statehood. The reasons are partly historical. Although state sovereignty has been a bedrock of international legal and political order since the mid-seventeenth century, it is a comparatively recent phenomenon in much of the post-colonial world, a belated effort to superimpose a Western model of the legal-rational state onto often unpromising political, geographical, social, and cultural foundations.

Generally speaking, a state's propensity to weakness or even failure is determined by dynamic feedback among four sets of variables: its baseline level of institutional resilience; the presence of long-term drivers (or "risk factors") of instability; the nature of the state's external environment (whether positive or negative); and the occurrence of short-term shocks or "triggering" events. In extreme circumstances, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Liberia in the recent past, some weak states may actually fail. This typically occurs when the political legitimacy of the governing regime evaporates and the state faces an existential armed threat to its survival. Th e vast majority of fragile states, however, fall along a continuum of performance between the extremes of effective statehood and outright failure.

After reviewing the strengths and shortcomings of previous approaches to measuring state fragility, chapter 1 introduces an Index of State Weakness in the Developing World, which the author developed with Susan E. Rice. Using twenty widely accepted indicators as proxies for state performance, the Index ranks 141 developing and transi­tional countries according to how well they fulfill the four basic functions of state­hood. States ranking in the bottom two quintiles of the Index are separated into three tiers: "failed," "critically weak," and "weak." The Index also identifies a number of "states to watch." These countries earn higher aggregate scores but nevertheless possess wor­risome shortcomings in at least one area of state function.

The Index offers a useful picture of relative state performance at a single point in time. What it does not reveal is whether state weakness in any given case is primarily a function of (objectively) low capacity or of inadequate commitment by the ruling regime to fulfill basic state functions. Nor does the static ranking tell us whether the country is headed in a negative or positive direction. To supplement the Index, chapter 1 proposes additional taxonomies of state weakness, depending on the nature of the ruling regime and the country's trajectory. Making such distinctions is essential if poli­cymakers hope to tailor strategies to specific fragile states.

The chapter closes by enumerating the potential implications of state weakness for three categories of interested parties: for the state's inhabitants themselves; for the sur­rounding region; and for the wider international community. The burden of state fra­gility falls hardest, of course, on the citizens of weak and failing states, which are home to the vast majority of the "bottom billion" of humanity. The regional implications of state fragility can also be immense, however, with neighboring countries suffering from additional instability and conflict, spillovers of humanitarian disasters, and years of lost economic growth. Such local and regional instability may have important stra­tegic implications for the United States, for instance by undermining friendly govern­ments, weakening regional anchors of U.S. foreign policy, and limiting or reversing economic and democratic gains.

By themselves, the humanitarian, economic, political, and regional implications of state fragility would be enough to warrant sustained policy attention from U.S. policymakers. It is above all the risk of transnational threats, however, that has animated U.S. and Western concern with the world's weak and failing states. Chapters 2–6 thus look more closely at recent claims by U.S. officials and others that weak and failing states are disproportionately implicated in five critical global threats: transnational terrorism; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; transnational crime; energy insecurity; and infectious disease.


A central motivation for recent U.S. and international attention to weak and failing states is the conviction that such countries enable transnational terrorist networks. "Weak and impoverished states and ungoverned areas are . . . susceptible to exploita­tion by terrorists," declares the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy. Such claims seem plausible. All things being equal, terrorist groups would presumably prefer to operate within corrupt, unstable, and violent states that lack effective control over their terri­tories. Weak states from Sudan to Pakistan have at times provided transnational terror­ist organizations, including al-Qaeda, with certain benefits. These include off ering sanctuary to conduct and plan operations; access to weapons, conflict experience, financial resources, and pools of recruits; supply lines, transit zones, staging grounds and targets for attack; and opportunities to gain ideological support through provision of services left by the vacuum of state capacity. Certainly, jihadist web sites have iden­tified weak and failing states as attractive targets of opportunity for al-Qaeda and affil­iated organizations.

With these presumed connections in mind, the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism commits the United States to "diminishing the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit," by bolstering state capacities, alleviating poverty, and pro­moting good governance. A major strategic aim in the U.S.-led campaign against global terrorism is to deny terrorists access to poorly governed lands, including in Africa, where porous borders, political instability, and lawless regions are perceived as vulnerabilities.

Chapter 2 takes a closer look at the connection between state weakness and transna­tional terrorism, focusing on the most pressing terrorist threat to U.S. and interna­tional security: the global presence and activities of al-Qaeda and the broader Salafi jihadist movement. Based on an analysis of global patterns and specific country case studies, it concludes that the links between state weakness and transnational terrorism are more complicated and tenuous than often assumed. To begin with, it is obvious that not all (or even most) weak and failed states are afflicted by terrorism. By itself, weak capacity cannot explain why terrorist activity is concentrated in the Middle East and broader Muslim world, rather than other regions like Central Africa. Clearly, other variables and dynamics—including political, religious, cultural, and geographical factors—shape its global distribution.

Nor are all weak and failing states equally attractive to transnational terrorists. Conventional wisdom holds that collapsed, lawless polities like Somalia are particu­larly vulnerable. In fact, terrorists are likely to find weak but functioning states like Pakistan or Kenya more congenial long term bases of operations. Such poorly gov­erned states are fragile and susceptible to corruption, but they also provide easy access to the financial and logistical infrastructure of the global economy, including commu­nications technology, transportation, and banking services. Moreover, weak states may be of declining importance to transnational terrorists as the al-Qaeda threat has evolved from a centrally directed network, dependent on a "base," into a more diffuse global movement, with autonomous cells in dozens of countries, poor and wealthy alike.

Moreover, some of the supposed benefits of weak states to transnational terrorists are less important than often assumed. Among the most att ractive att ributes such states present to terrorists are safe havens for leadership cadres; conflict experience for terrorist fi ghters; opportunities for training and planning; and weak border and cus­toms control. With important exceptions, however, weak states rarely provide large pools of recruits, attractive targets of operations, or opportunities to win popular support through the performance of para-state functions. Whether states provide lucrative sources of terrorist financing depends on the presence of exploitable resources.

Beyond these factors, two other sets of variables appear critical in determining the attractiveness of fragile states to transnational terrorists. The first are the social/cultural attributes of the country in question. Although national security experts often speak of "ungoverned" spaces, such territories are more commonly "alternatively" governed, by non-state forms of social and political arrangements, including tribes. The specific cultural and social milieu of the state (or region) in question—and the interests and ideology of local power-wielders—will often determine whether transnational terror­ists are able to set up shop. The second, arguably most important, variable is the attitude of the state itself. Independent of a state's objective capacity to oppose terrorism, its actual policy may occupy a blurry middle ground between wholehearted sponsorship and clear opposition. As U.S. experiences with Pakistan in the years fol­lowing 9/11 underscore, even countries designated "critical allies in the global war on terrorism" may pursue ambiguous policies, particularly if the state itself is internally fragmented.

The chapter's overall conclusion is that weak and failing states can provide useful assets to transnational terrorists, but they may be less indispensable to their operations than is widely believed. Moreover, weak state commitment may be as important as weak state capacity in determining the global distribution of transnational terrorism.


Fears that weak and failing states may incubate transnational terrorism merge with a related concern: that poorly governed countries may—deliberately or otherwise— facilitate the global spread of weapons of mass destruction or their component parts and technology. These are not idle worries. According to the British government, beyond the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, thirteen of the sev­enteen states with current or suspended WMD programs are "countries at risk of insta­bility." Perhaps the most frightening prospect is that a nuclear armed weak state like Pakistan or North Korea might lose control of its weapons, placing them directly in the hands of a successor regime (or non-state actors) with little compunction about using them. Direct transfer of functioning WMD is not the only concern, however. Revelations about the international nuclear arms bazaar of Abdul Qadeer Khan have suggested that poor governance in the developing world may be the weak link in global non-proliferation efforts.

Chapter 3 identifies and evaluates five potential "proliferation pathways" by which fragile states might exacerbate the growing WMD threat. First, a fragile state could itself decide to purchase, steal, or develop weapons of mass destruction, or consciously assist other states or non-state actors in doing so. Second, state or non-state prolifera­tors could target WMD weapons or materials located in weak states for theft or diver­sion, without the knowledge or consent of the host country. Third, WMD traffickers could exploit weak states as intermediaries and transshipment points for their activ­ities. Fourth, fragile states could provide sanctuaries for non-state actors seeking to develop their own weapons. Finally, the collapse of a WMD-armed state could result in the unauthorized transfer of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to non-state actors.

The chapter uses a mixture of global data and case studies to suggest that not all of these scenarios are equally plausible. Weak states do possess important vulnerabilities that provide an opening for would-be proliferators. These include incomplete territorial control, weak law enforcement, poor security, and high corruption. Overall, however, the connection between state weakness and WMD proliferation is more limited than often presumed. Perhaps most significantly, few fragile states currently possess or indeed seek nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and thus the vast majority of countries in this cohort do not present major proliferation concerns. The two glaring exceptions are North Korea and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states that have served as important sources of WMD-related technology and materials for other countries. Taken collectively, however, the world's fragile states pose less acute risks for WMD proliferation than do a number of countries that score more highly on the Index. Th ese include Russia, whose vast and poorly secured nuclear stockpiles have long been con­sidered a major proliferation risk, as well as Iran, Syria, and several other countries in the Middle East.

The apparent lesson is that the biggest WMD proliferation risks emanate less from weak states than from countries that are superfi cially strong. Such countries are more likely to have the capacity to seek nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons, but still suffer from governance gaps that can be exploited by prolifera­tors. The A. Q. Khan case is revealing in this regard. On the one hand, as David Albright and Corey Hinderstein write, "The Khan network could not have evolved into such a dangerous supplier without the utter corruption and dishonesty of suc­cessive Pakistani governments." But it also could not have gone global, they add, without institutional weaknesses in more advanced middle-income countries, including Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, that possessed manufacturing capa­bilities but lacked the capacity or will to implement relevant export controls and non-proliferation laws.


Transnational criminal activity has surged in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, paralleling the dramatic expansion of licit cross-border transactions. Weak and failing states are often portrayed as critical nodes in this global trend, providing conve­nient bases for groups involved in the production, transit, or traffi cking of drugs, weapons, people, and other illicit commodities, and in the laundering of the profits from such activities. On its face, this connection seems logical. If given a choice of where to conduct operations, criminal groups would presumably be attracted to cor­rupt, unstable, and dysfunctional states that lack the capacity or the will to deliver impartial justice and the rule of law, provide for the safety of their inhabitants, enforce private contracts, and regulate economic activity.

Chapter 4 explores the linkages between state fragility and transnational crime, focusing on six sectors often cited as being facilitated by weak governance: narcotics production and transit, human trafficking, the illicit small arms trade, money laun­dering, environmental crime, and maritime piracy. As elsewhere, the book combines an in-depth analysis of global patterns along with targeted country case studies, including of Haiti, Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Cambodia, and Somalia.

The resulting picture is one in which patterns of transnational crime are imperfectly correlated with state weakness. Fragile states can indeed provide criminal networks with important functional benefits. These include high levels of corruption and weak rule of law; safe havens for illicit activity; poor border and customs control; lack of licit economic alternatives; and unique criminal opportunities provided by violent conflict and its immediate aftermath.

As with transnational terrorism and proliferation, however, the relationship between state fragility and cross-border criminality is variable and complicated. To begin with, the strength of the connection depends on the nature of the criminal activity. Weak states rank high as hotbeds of certain types of narcotics production, illegal arms traf­ficking (as destination countries), and maritime piracy, but there is no obvious rela­tionship when it comes to human trafficking, money laundering, drug transit, or environmental crime. Such states play only a marginal role in other realms of transna­tional crime, such as intellectual property theft, cybercrime, and the counterfeiting of manufactured goods.

Furthermore, as with terrorism, weaker is not necessarily better for transnational crimi­nals. In a global economy, realizing high returns requires tapping a worldwide market to sell illicit commodities and launder the proceeds, which in turn depends on access to financial services and a modern telecommunications and transportation infrastructure—which many of the weakest states lack. Failed or critically weak states may thus be less attractive than superficially functional states, which provide a baseline level of order and easy access to international commerce while also affording opportunities to corrupt political authorities and exploit various governance gaps. Geographical location and proximity to the global marketplace may also trump the weakness of state institutions as enticements for criminals. Such considerations help account for the activities of transna­tional criminal groups in many middle-income and even highly developed countries.

Finally, the chapter suggests that the relationship between transnational crime and state fragility is a dynamic and parasitic one. A state's vulnerability to transnational criminals and its commitment to combating their activities are in part a function of the state's penetration by those same illicit actors. Beyond benefiting from fragility, crimi­nals often deepen it, deploying corruption as a tool to weaken state institutions and, in extreme cases, to "capture" the state itself.


The tremendous volatility in global oil prices in the first decade of the twenty-first century helped to place energy at the top of the U.S. and global security agenda. In the first eight years of the decade, the price of a barrel of oil increased more than three and a half times. Although prices fell sharply as a result of the global financial crisis that began in late 2008, most analysts expect the upward trend to resume, given rapidly rising demand in emerging countries and dwindling reserves, investment, and produc­tion in major producing states. In such an environment, analysts and offi cials have argued, U.S. and global energy security will increasingly rely on supplies of oil and gas from weak and failing states, from Nigeria to Angola to Iraq.

Chapter 5 takes a closer look at the influence of state weakness on the availability, reliability, and cost of global energy. The chapter focuses primarily on oil, likely to remain the world's most important source of commercial energy and the dominant preoccupation in U.S. energy security for the foreseeable future.

In principle, countries suffering from weak or dysfunctional governance could endanger global energy security in several ways, whether these countries are suppliers, transit states, or simply situated in proximity to world energy choke points. First, political instability and violence, terrorist or insurgent att acks on energy infrastruc­ture, widespread social unrest, and rampant criminality in some fragile states may endanger the production or transit of oil and gas. Second, poor governance in energy-rich states, including high levels of corruption and weak rule of law, may discourage or thwart productive investment in energy exploration and production, limiting the ability of such states to meet growing demand on world energy markets. Third, natural resource bonanzas may well exacerbate the pathologies of fragile states, reinforcing patterns of authoritarian governance, hindering investment in other sectors of the economy, and exacerbating the risk of violent conflict between groups competing for access to revenue streams. Chapter 5 shows how these dynamics play out in a number of developing countries, from Nigeria to Iraq to Colombia to Chad.

Although the threat posed by weak states to U.S. energy security has sometimes been overstated, it remains real and is likely to grow as global demand surges in the years ahead. As the world becomes increasingly dependent on fragile-state producers, the reliability and price of oil and gas supplies will be more and more subject to the internal dynamics of weak states.

At the same time, the chapter reveals that many of these vulnerabilities are not limited to fragile states. Indeed, the greatest threat to global energy security may come not from those countries ranked in the bottom quintile of the Index of State Weakness but rather from better-performing countries, including several classified as "states to watch," such as Venezuela, Iran, and Russia. Besides suffering from governance gaps that discourage investments in their energy sectors, such countries are also more likely to use their energy resources to pursue political ends at odds with those of the United States and its allies.


The rapid spread of avian influenza, with the potential to kill tens of millions of people, and the more recent emergence of H1N1 ("swine flu") have made infectious disease a first tier national security issue. At first blush, the connection between state weakness and pandemic threat would appear strong. In an age of mass travel and global commerce, a government unable or unwilling to respond to a disease outbreak with vigorous public health measures is a potential threat to countless lives across the globe. Many disease agents that have emerged in recent decades, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and West Nile virus, originated in developing countries; national security and public health experts alike worry that weak and failed states—which invest little in epidemiological surveillance, health information and reporting systems, primary health care delivery, preventive measures, or response capacity—lack the means to detect and contain such outbreaks. States in the bottom two quintiles of the Index are also among the main victims of the world's seven deadliest infectious diseases: respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases, TB, malaria, hepatitis B, and measles, some of which are emerging in drug-resistant strains that pose serious chal­lenges to global public health.

Chapter 6 takes a closer look at the purported link between state fragility and the most serious infectious disease threats, and finds that while shortcomings in state capacity and commitment can facilitate the emergence and spread of infectious dis­ease, globally there is no consistent relationship between levels of state fragility and patterns of pandemics. A number of ecological, geographic, cultural, technological, and demographic variables having little to do with state capacity help to determine whether (and which) developing countries are susceptible to spawning and spreading infectious disease. There is no question that many infectious diseases are incubated in weak and failing states, exacting a horrific human toll. But only some of these diseases pose direct threats to U.S. national security, while a number of critical infectious dis­eases (including avian flu) are concentrated not in the weakest countries, but in stronger developing states. Indeed, the most promising disease vectors may be better ­performing countries that are more integrated into the global economy, yet suffer from limited but critical governance gaps.

The chapter begins by analyzing the contemporary global threat of infectious dis­ease, distinguishing among various pathogens according to their ease of transmission, mortality rates, potential economic impact, and geographic scope. Three main cate­gories emerge from this exercise: (1) endemic diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, measles, and hepatitis B and C; (2) diseases with short-wave, rapid-onset pandemic potential, such as influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); and (3) long wave pandemics, notably HIV/AIDS, which have the ability to affl ict millions around the world but over the course of many years. Of these, rapid-onset pandemics pose the most immediate and alarming threat to U.S. national security, while long-wave pandemics are a serious but more manageable concern. Endemic diseases, while exacting enormous human costs at a national and regional level—and thus worthy of attention on humanitarian grounds—are least likely to have a direct impact on U.S. security.

The chapter then explores whether and how fragile states facilitate the spread of pan­demic diseases. The picture is mixed. It concludes, first, that countries are more likely to serve as vectors of disease if they suffer from critical shortcomings in state capacity, particularly in the area of public health, including inadequate levels of funding, poor health infrastructure, organizational and public policy gaps, and a dearth of human services. These shortcomings not only decrease baseline levels of public health but also impair the ability of states to quickly detect and respond to disease outbreaks. The inability of many weak states to control their borders and the persistence of violent conflict within them can also serve as infectious disease multipliers. Second, insuffi­cient will on the part of governing regimes to tackle public health problems can be an important enabling factor in the spread of disease, often trumping baseline state capacity in determining effective national and international responses. Lack of candor and resistance to external assistance can pose as great a threat to global public health as decrepit infrastructure—and such shortcomings are often most prevalent in coun­tries of middling performance, rather than the weakest states. Finally, the chapter notes that, contrary to widespread fears that infectious disease might exacerbate instability and even state failure in the developing world, there is little evidence that endemic or long-wave disease actually leads to violence or state collapse.


The book's Conclusion makes three main points. First, the relationship between state fragility and transnational threats is more complicated and contingent than the con­ventional wisdom would suggest. It depends on the threat in question, the specific sources of state weakness, and the will of a regime—not simply its inherent capacity—to assume sovereign functions. 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. Where such linkages do exist, the most salient governance gaps tend to be in the political and security arenas—notably high levels of corruption, weak rule of law, and a history of violent conflict—rather than in the economic and social welfare spheres (such as absence of economic growth or failure to meet basic human needs). And when poor state performance is associated with transnational threats, it often reflects weak commit­ment by the ruling regime to meet obligations to its citizens and the international community, rather than an inherent lack of capability.

Second, the United States retains a compelling interest, for humanitarian as well as strategic reasons, in helping fragile states—as well as more stable developing coun­tries—improve their institutional performance. Unfortunately, the U.S. government's recent approach to state fragility has been reactive, fragmented, militarized, under-resourced, and self-contained. The conclusion calls on the United States to formulate a preventive, government-wide "fragile states strategy" that can be tailored to local con­ditions. As part of such a strategy, the U.S. government should adapt its conventional development aid and policy to the realities of fragile states; invest in the civilian U.S. capabilities necessary to advance good governance and security in such contexts; and rebalance the military, diplomatic, and development components of its engagement. Most importantly, it must embrace a multilateral approach to the problem of state fra­gility, coordinating its efforts with like-minded donor governments and international institutions to share the burdens and increase the legitimacy of its state-building initiatives.

Finally, developing a generic fragile state strategy is not enough. The United States and other international actors must also formulate targeted interventions to cut con­nections between fragile statehood and transnational threats where these exist, shaping incentives and deploying resources that bolster the capacity and the will of vulnerable regimes to exercise responsible sovereignty, including curtailing spillovers across their borders. The Conclusion outlines specific initiatives that rich world countries can take to mitigate the risks from fragile states; these include modifying some of their own counterproductive policies (such as source control approaches to counter-narcotics) that inadvertently exacerbate state weakness and vulnerability. At the same time, policymakers must design and implement such threat-specific initiatives in a manner that complements rather than undermines more broad-based efforts to advance sus­tainable economic growth, promote good governance, and advance human security. Some trade-offs will be inevitable, of course. But the United States and its international partners should beware pursuing short-term "fixes" to perceived threats—like bol­stering authoritarian regimes to combat terrorism or ensure steady access to oil resourc­es—that may undercut the long-term pursuit of resilient, effective, and accountable state institutions.


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