Are Failed States a Threat to America?

The Bush administration's nation-building efforts are a big mistake.


Throughout the 1990s, conservatives castigated the Clinton administration for conducting foreign policy like social work, taking on vague, ill-defined missions in remote locales from Haiti to Bosnia. Although the editors of The Weekly Standard enthusiastically supported the Clinton administration's interventions in the Balkans, most on the right were encouraged when George W. Bush and his senior foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, came out strongly against such missions during the 2000 presidential campaign. In 2000 Rice famously declared that "we don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten." Bush was equally blunt. During one of his debates with Al Gore, he said: "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building.…I mean, we're going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not."

We agree. That's why we're alarmed that the Bush administration has created a nation-building corps from America: the State Department's new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, which was established by Congress in July 2004. The office's mandate is to "help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy, and a market economy." Meanwhile, a November 2005 Defense Department directive makes stability operations a "core U.S. military mission." Such operations would involve on-the-ground assistance, not unlike the provisional reconstruction teams in Iraq; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the office is presently looking at action in Haiti, Liberia, and Sudan. Beyond that, the details are unclear.

Bush and Rice's change of heart regarding nation building is usually attributed to 9/11. But while the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon certainly underscored the dangers that nontraditional threats can pose, they did not transform every poorly governed nation into a pressing national security concern. Nor did 9/11 change the dismal track record of past nation-building efforts. This debate has obvious relevance in Iraq, where the absence of a functioning state following the U.S. invasion is the most widely accepted argument against withdrawing American forces. But it has much wider implications for America's post–Cold War, post–9/11 foreign policy, pitting nation builders who want to protect the United States by fixing failed states against skeptics who believe such a strategy is unnecessary, impractical, and dangerous.

Depending on how you count, the U.S. is currently involved in as many as 10 nation-building missions—arguably more. Most of these—from Djibouti to Liberia to Kosovo—are far removed from America's national security interests, just as they were in the '90s. Taking on such missions in conflicted environments is even more worrisome today because it would threaten to embroil Americans in an array of foreign conflicts for indefinite periods of time with vague or ambiguous public mandates and little likelihood of success at a time when we should be focused on defeating Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups that intend to attack the United States. This approach to security policy squanders American power, American money, and American lives. Unless events in a failed state are genuinely likely to dramatically affect the lives of Americans, we should have normal diplomatic relations with their governments, assess potential threats discretely, and otherwise leave them alone.

Getting in on the Coming Anarchy

The idea that state failure is inherently threatening to the United States has been circulating for some time. In an influential 1994 article, The Atlantic Monthly's Robert Kaplan sounded the alarm about "the coming anarchy," urging Western strategists to start worrying about "what is occurring…throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war." He warned that "the coming upheaval, in which foreign embassies are shut down, states collapse, and contact with the outside world takes place through dangerous, disease-ridden coastal trading posts, will loom large in the century we are entering." He argued that insecurity and instability in remote regions should be high on the list of post–Cold War foreign policy concerns because the damage and depredations of the Third World would not always be contained, and would inevitably—though he doesn't really explain how—touch the lives of those in America and Western Europe. Although humanitarianism was the most frequently heard justification for the Clinton administration's attempts at nation building, the president's defenders in and out of government also offered a Kaplanesque rationale that fixing failed states would make the U.S. safer.

Despite his initial skepticism toward Clinton-era nation building, President Bush changed course dramatically after September 11, 2001. The United States National Security Strategy, released in September 2002, made "expand[ing] the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy" a central plank of America's response to the 9/11 attacks. Part of the administration's new security policy would be to "help build police forces, court systems, and legal codes, local and provincial government institutions, and electoral systems." The overarching goal was to "make the world not just safer but better."

According to the administration's October 2005 National Intelligence Strategy, "the lack of freedom in one state endangers the peace and freedom of others, and…failed states are a refuge and breeding ground of extremism." The strategy therefore asks our overworked intelligence services not just to gather information on America's enemies but to "bolster the growth of democracy and sustain peaceful democratic states." The premise is, as the former Cato foreign policy analyst Gary Dempsey put it, that "if only we could populate the planet with 'good' states, we could eradicate international conflict and terrorism."

Many foreign policy pundits agree with the Bush administration's goal of making the world safe through democracy. Lawrence J. Korb and Robert O. Boorstin of the Center for American Progress, for example, warn in a 2005 report that "weak and failing states pose as great a danger to the American people and international stability as do potential conflicts among the great powers." A 2003 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees that "as a superpower with a global presence and global interests, the United States does have a stake in remedying failed states." In the course of commenting on a report from the Center for Global Development, Francis Fukuyama, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argued that "it should be abundantly clear that state weakness and failure [are] the single most critical threat to U.S. national security."

Even foreign policy specialists known for their hard-nosed realism have succumbed to the idea that nation building is a matter of self-defense. A 2005 Council on Foreign Relations task force co-chaired by Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration and a critic of the current war in Iraq, produced a report that insists "action to stabilize and rebuild states marked by conflict is not 'foreign policy as social work,' a favorite quip of the 1990s. It is equally a humanitarian concern and a national security priority." The report says stability operations should be "a strategic priority for the armed forces" and the national security adviser should produce an "overarching policy associated with stabilization and reconstruction activities."

Those arguments suffer not so much from inaccuracy as from analytical sloppiness. It would be absurd to claim that the ongoing state failure in Haiti poses a national security threat of the same order as would state failure in Indonesia, with its population of 240 million, or in nuclear-armed Pakistan. In fact, the overwhelming majority of failed states have posed no security threat to the United States. Take, for example, the list of countries identified as failed or failing by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace in 2005. Using 12 different indicators of state failure, the researchers derived state failure scores, and then listed 60 countries whose cumulative scores marked them as "critical," "in danger," or "borderline," ranked in order. If state failure is itself threatening, then we should get very concerned about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Chad, Bangladesh, and on and on.

In short, state failure ranks rather low as an accurate metric for measuring threats. Likewise, while the lists of "failed states" and "security threats" will no doubt overlap, correlation does not equal causation. The obvious nonthreats that appear on all lists of failed states undermine the claim that there is something particular about failed states that is necessarily threatening.

The dangers that can arise from failed states are not the product of state failure itself. They are the result of other factors, such as the presence of terrorist cells or other malign actors. Afghanistan in the late 1990s met anyone's definition of a failed state, and the chaos in Afghanistan clearly contributed to Osama bin Laden's decision to relocate his operations there from Sudan in 1996. But the security threat to America arose from cooperation between Al Qaeda and the Taliban government, which tolerated the organization's training camps. Afghanistan under the Taliban was both a failed state and a threat, but in that respect it was a rarity. More common are failed states, from the Ivory Coast to Burma, that pose no threat to us at all.

It's true that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations can operate in failed states. But they also can (and do) operate in Germany, Canada, and other countries that are not failed states by any stretch of the imagination. Rather than making categorical statements about failed states, we should assess the extent to which any given state or nonstate actors within it intend and have the means to attack America. Afghanistan is a stark reminder that we must not overlook failed states, but it does not justify making them our top security concern.

That Fixer-Upper Isn't As Cheap As It Looks

If state failure does not in itself pose a threat to U.S. security, an ambitious program of nation building would, in turn, be a cure worse than the disease. One particularly troubling prospect is the erosion of internationally recognized sovereignty. As Winston Churchill said of democracy, sovereignty may be the worst system around, except for all the others. A system of sovereignty grants a kernel of legitimacy to regimes that rule barbarically; it values as equals countries that clearly are not; and it frequently enforces borders that were capriciously drawn by imperial powers. But it's far from clear that any available alternative is better.

Yet in his previous life as an academic, Stephen Krasner, the director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, flatly declared that the "rules of conventional sovereignty no longer work." A stroll through the work of scholars who support nation building reveals such alternative concepts as "shared sovereignty," "trusteeships," even "postmodern imperialism." (The latter is supposed to mean an attempt to manipulate domestic politics in foreign countries without all that old-fashioned imperial messiness.)

If the United States proceeds on a course of nation building, based largely on the premise that sovereignty should be de-emphasized, where will that logic stop? Who gets to decide which states retain their sovereignty and which states forfeit it? Will other powers use our own rhetoric against us to justify expansionist foreign policies? It's not hard to envision potential flashpoints in eastern Europe and East Asia.

An American exceptionalist might reply that the United States gets to decide, because we're different. But such an argument is unlikely to prevent other countries from using our own logic against us. If we tug at the thread of sovereignty, the whole sweater may quickly unravel.

An aggressive nation-building strategy would also detract from the struggle against terrorism, by diverting attention and resources, puncturing the mystique of American power, and provoking anger through promiscuous foreign intervention. A prerequisite for nation building is establishing security in the target country, which requires the presence of foreign troops, something that often inspires terrorism. In a survey of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003, University of Chicago political scientist Robert A. Pape concluded that almost all suicide attacks "have in common…a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland."

Such risks might be justified if the chances of success were high. But history suggests they're not. In the most thorough survey of American nation-building missions, the RAND Corporation in 2003 evaluated seven cases: Japan and West Germany after World War I, Somalia in 1992–94, Haiti in 1994–96, Bosnia from 1995 to the present, Kosovo from 1999 to the present, and Afghanistan from 2001 to the present. Assessing the cases individually, the authors count Japan and West Germany as successes but all the others as failures to various degrees. They then try to determine what made the Japanese and West German operations succeed when all the nation-building efforts since have failed.

Their answer is complex and not entirely satisfying. To the extent that any clear conclusion can be drawn from this research, the report says, it is that "nation building…is a time- and resource-consuming effort." Indeed, "among controllable factors, the most important determinant is the level of effort—measured in time, manpower, and money."

In its 2004 Summer Study on Transition to and From Hostilities, the Defense Science Board, a panel that advises the Defense Department on strategy, reached a similar conclusion. Although "postconflict success often depends on significant political changes," it said, the "barriers to transformation of [an] opponent's society [are] immense." And in the absence of a decisive outcome between warring parties (such as happened in World War II), there is always a danger that violence will continue.

Not surprisingly, successful nation building is highly contingent on security within the target country. The non-war-fighting roles a nation-building military has to play would be tremendously taxing for both the armed services and the U.S. treasury.

By the Defense Science Board's calculations, achieving "ambitious goals" in a failed state requires 20 foreign soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants. Applying this ratio to a few top-ranked failed states yields sobering results. Nation building in the Ivory Coast would require 345,000 foreign troops. Sudan would take 800,000. Iraq, where the U.S. and its allies currently have 153,000 troops, would need 520,000. And if history is any guide, effective execution would require deployments of 10 years or longer.

All this means that nation-building missions are extremely expensive, regardless of whether they succeed or fail. Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and current ambassador to Iraq, believes that in the case of Afghanistan, "it will take annual assistance [of $4.5 billion] or higher for five to seven years to achieve our goals." Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, which restored a government and installed 8,000 peacekeepers but left that country in its perpetual state of chaos, cost more than $2 billion. Operations Provide Relief and Restore Hope in Somalia, which provided tons of food as humanitarian relief (which were in turn looted by warlords) and eventually got dozens of Americans killed and injured, leading to a hasty and disastrous American retreat, ended up costing $2.2 billion. As of 2002 the United States had spent more than $23 billion intervening in the Balkans since the early '90s. In Iraq, we have already crested the $300 billion mark, having decided that the vagaries of Iraqi sectarian politics should decide our future mission in that country.

Even Francis Fukuyama, a staunch advocate of nation building, admits such efforts have "an extremely troubled record of success." As Fukuyama wrote in his 2005 book State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, "It is not simply that nation building hasn't worked; in cases like sub-Saharan Africa, many of these efforts have actually eroded institutional capacity over time." Put simply, there is no "model" for nation building. The few broad lessons we can draw indicate that success depends on a relentless determination to impose a nation's will, manifested in many years of occupation and billions of dollars in spending.

In this light, the position of the more extreme neo-imperialists is more realistic than that of nation builders who think we can fix failed states on the cheap. The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that a proper approach to Iraq would put up to 1 million foreign troops on the ground there for up to 70 years. If resources were unlimited, or if the American people were prepared to shoulder such a burden, that might be a realistic suggestion. But the notion that such enterprises can be carried out quickly and inexpensively is badly mistaken.

A Really Distant Mirror

People who believe that failed states pose a threat to U.S. security and that nation building is the answer see the world as both simpler and more threatening than it is. Failed states generally do not represent security threats. At the same time, nation building in failed states is very difficult and usually unsuccessful.

There is certainly a point at which Robert Kaplan's "coming anarchy," if it were to materialize, would threaten American interests. Here's how Ferguson, in Foreign Policy magazine, describes a world in which America steps back from its role as a global policeman: "Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might quickly find itself reliving."

It's telling that to find a historical precedent on which to base his argument, Ferguson has to reach back to the ninth century. His prediction of a "Dark Age" hinges on a belief that America will collapse (because of excessive consumption, an inadequate army, and an imperial "attention deficit"), the European Union will collapse (because of an inflexible welfare state and shifting demographics), and China will collapse (because of a currency or banking crisis). There is little reason to believe that if America refuses to administer foreign countries, the world will go down this path. The fact that advocates of fixing failed states have to rely on such outlandish scenarios to build their case tells us a good deal about the merit of their arguments.