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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