Re-assessing Failed States and International Security

In The Washington Post today CFR’s Stewart Patrick argues that failed states are exactly the geopolitical bogeyman that policy-makers often state. In particular he mentions that al-Qaeda found it very difficult to function in anarchic Somalia as an example. Having done an extensive study (which I have not read) he argues that:

The findings are startlingly clear. Only a handful of the world’s failed states pose security concerns to the United States. Far greater dangers emerge from stronger developing countries that may suffer from corruption and lack of government accountability but come nowhere near qualifying as failed states.

The key dangers are terrorism, WMD, and trans-national crime. Bad actors prefer weak but functional states where there are sufficient links and contacts to the world to get things done by the state’s control over its territory and institutions is limited so that the bad guys have room to play. Pandemics also come from functional but weak states, not truly failed ones because the failed states are too isolated from global trade networks for diseases to spread.

He also grants that there are sound humanitarian reasons to intervene, but we should be clear about our intent and purpose and that our real focus should be on strengthening institutions in weak but developing states.

These are sound arguments.

Although it must be pointed out that strengthening institutions is not easy – it is the philosopher’s stone of international development. But it is unfair to pick on this aspect of the paper, the discussion of institutional development is not the author’s focus.

One question is whether or not Afghanistan of Taliban era was a failed state or just a very weak one. Granted that a failed Somalia is a limited threat to international security. But, what if a particularly nasty group emerges from the wreckage and re-establishes order. That can be a threat and Yemen (for example) would seem particularly ripe. The cynical policy response would be to keep the place in anarchy, but that is profoundly immoral.

The second question is not spillover effects of failed states globally but in their region. Would a collapsing Yemen have an effect on Saudi Arabia? This would be a very big deal. Trouble in Saudi Arabia leads to nervous energy markets, which drives up the prices for everything. The spikes in food prices seem to be a component in the disorders rocking the Middle East. If you want to see angry mobs in the street everywhere in the world, trouble in Saudi Arabia is the way to do it. Libya is a much smaller player in world energy markets, but still disorder there doesn’t help. Failed states tend to generate refugees, which are difficult to manage and cause problems of their own. A disintegrating Pakistan, for example, would probably send tens of millions of refugees into the Gulf and neighboring India. Besides humanitarian problems, these could also overwhelm local governments and trigger further instability.

In that situation failed states should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Some would simply not rise to the level of geopolitical concern – others would. Nonetheless, better tools for intervention and prevention should be developed for those cases where a state failure crosses the intervention threshold and – wherever feasible – to prevent grief and suffering.

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