Thursday, August 18, 2005

Weak States, Failed States, and Collapsed States

[In Tuesday's post concerning the void that would be left by the onset of an "Iraq syndrome" in American foreign policy, I noted the security threat posed by weak states, failed states, and collapsed states. The following excerpt (with footnotes removed) from Seeking Security in an Insecure World, soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, provides some additional perspective on the threat posed by weak states.]

One of the problems with the traditional approach to the understanding of states and security is that the dramatic differences among states have often been underappreciated. The false assumption that states are all fundamentally the same, at least with respect to their security interests, was especially prevalent during the Cold War, when the overwhelming majority of students of security studies focused on the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies. Not surprisingly, given this focus, it appeared that states were principally concerned with external threats to their territorial and political integrity. To put it differently, national security required a capability to deter or defend against a military assault or espionage aimed at a coup d’état.

Because states vary widely in size, military might, political stability, and, perhaps most importantly, coherence (that is, literally, their ability to stick together), their security interests diverge in ways that the traditional understanding of national security fails to capture. The "ethnocentric obsession with external threats to state security" overlooks the fact that weak states are often concerned primarily with internal threats that commonly attend the creation and development of new states. Sir Michael Howard wrote over a decade ago that "the problems of the twenty-first century will not be those of traditional power confrontations. They are more likely to arise out of the integration, or disintegration, of states themselves, and affect all actors on the world scene irrespective of ideology." He could have said the same of the problems of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the historical record since 1945 suggests that security threats (understood narrowly as the threat of war and its effects) have been particularly significant in the developing world, where war has attended the creation and consolidation of new states (as in Pakistan, Vietnam, Algeria, and East Timor, to name but a few examples). Far more fighting occurred in the world of weak states in the last half of the twentieth century than in the world of the strong states, and most of that fighting took the form of intrastate conflict rather than interstate conflict.

Weak states are problematic for a number of reasons. First, they fail to provide the basic security that states are supposed to offer their citizens. They fail, in other words, to offer a respite from the "state of nature," in which, according to Hobbes' famous description, "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." As a consequence, there may be little protection against crime (including violent crime), little opportunity for education, little economic opportunity, and little access to health care.

Second, by failing to protect their citizens or to offer assistance with basic needs, weak states may burden their neighbors with refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2003 there were 9,672,000 refugees in the world. Stateless persons, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers brought the total to 17,084,100 "persons of concern." Remarkably, that total was the lowest in a decade. The three largest "producers" of refugee populations in 2003 were Afghanistan, Sudan, and Burundi.

Third, by failing to extend the rule of law over all of their territories, weak states may provide safe havens for terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, international fugitives, and other actors that are a menace to international society. This problem in particular has turned a key assumption of national security on its head.

For most of the history of the modern states system, national security has required assessing and responding to the threat--defined as a product of capabilities and intentions to do harm--posed by the strongest states in the system. The balance-of-power approach to security assumes that, for their own protection, states will arm themselves and form alliances in order to meet the threats posed by powerful potential enemies. Since the end of the Cold War, however, national security has required that strong states deal with passive threats posed by the weakest states in the system.

Today, with its Cold War rival Russia in decline and with the People’s Republic of China the only potential contender for superpower status, the United States stands unchallenged, the world’s only hyperpower. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 demonstrated clearly the superiority of the American military over what was, at the time, thought to be a formidable Iraqi army. Events during the remainder of the 1990s, however, indicated that the U.S. military might not be capable of dealing as well with weak states as with strong states.

In country after country during the 1990s, the United States was confronted with humanitarian disasters that created pressure (in part as a consequence of media coverage and the public opinion it generated) for intervention. A more active post–Cold War UN Security Council both encouraged and assisted the interventionist impulse, with mixed results, in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, and elsewhere. During his eight years in office, President Clinton was alternately criticized for doing too little--for failing to stop genocide in Rwanda, for example--and for doing too much--for conducting "foreign policy as social work."

Each of the opportunities for intervention during the 1990s--those that were seized and those that were avoided--had at its core a state in which the most basic functions of government--establishing a minimal public order and providing basic services--had broken down. The problem for strong states in the post–Cold War world had become weak states, not the threat posed by other strong states. It was exemplified in one form or another by Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire. In fact, the problem arose so often that some felt a new taxonomy--dividing cases among the categories of "weak states," "failed states,"and "collapsed states"--was required. It was the phenomenon of the failed state and its implications that more than any other transformed post–Cold War optimism about the triumph of democracy and the "end of history" into pessimism about "the coming anarchy."

Robert Kaplan, one of the most influential pessimists, described the problem in a bleak account, published originally in 1994, of the situation in West Africa. "Even in the quiet zones [of Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone] none of the governments except the Ivory Coast's maintains the schools, bridges, roads, and police forces in a manner necessary for fundamental sovereignty." It was not just West Africa, though, because Kaplan regarded the region as a microcosm of a much broader phenomenon:

West Africa is becoming a symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic” danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.

For those who live in (or near) failed states, "national security" must seem an ironic concept since the state is, whether directly or indirectly, the very cause of insecurity. Rather than providing protection against anarchy, failed states permit and sometimes even abet society’s slide into the Hobbesian state of nature. Wars for control of territory or resources (such as the diamond mines of Sierra Leone) or for ethnic advantage or revenge are both common and extraordinarily devastating. An estimated eight million people, primarily civilians, have been killed in failed-state conflicts since the end of the Cold War. Another four million people have been driven from their homes by such conflicts. Tens, or perhaps even hundreds, of millions more have been affected in other profound ways, especially by the denial of basic needs such as food, shelter, and health care.

For the United States, the security issue related to failed states moved from the margins to the center as a consequence of 9/11. Two failed states, Sudan and Afghanistan, hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda training facilities in the years prior to 9/11. The American experience in another failed state, Somalia, in the October 1993 battle of Mogadishu (recounted in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down) was read by bin Laden as an example (along with Vietnam, Lebanon, and Afghanistan) of the ability of insurgents in a weak state to drive out a superpower. In short, failed states, once a cause of debates in the United States over the nation's moral responsibilities and the proper configuration of the military, became a central concern, due to the platform they provided for the operation of Al Qaeda and, potentially, other transnational terrorist organizations. The first major operation of the "global war on terrorism," consequently, was the war to overthrow the Taliban regime that had hosted bin Laden in Afghanistan. And lest there be any doubt about Afghanistan's status as a failed state in the fall of 2001, Barry Bearak indicated the true situation with this memorable line in a New York Times story on the possibility of war there: "If there are Americans clamoring to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, they ought to know that this nation does not have so far to go. This is a post-apocalyptic place of felled cities, parched land and downtrodden people."