Why failed states shouldn’t be our biggest national security fear

Security expert Stewart Patrick on looking for threats in all the wrong places

Failed states have become the bogeyman of the international order, the nightmare that inspires our national security doctrines and keeps our top officials up at night.

It began with Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda’s ability to launch the attacks from one of the world’s most wretched and poverty-stricken lands — Afghanistan — persuaded the foreign policy establishment that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones,” as President George W. Bush’s 2002 national security strategy put it.

In the Obama administration, the fear endures. “In the decades to come, the most lethal threats to the United States’ safety and security — a city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack — are likely to emanate from states that cannot adequately govern themselves or secure their own territory,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained last May. “Dealing with such fractured or failing states is . . . the main security challenge of our time.” And just last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said military intervention in Libya was justified to prevent that country from becoming “a giant Somalia.”

The message is clear: Failed states are the weak link in the world’s collective security.

In truth, while failed states may be worthy of America’s attention on humanitarian and development grounds, most of them are irrelevant to U.S. national security. The risks they pose are mainly to their own inhabitants. Sweeping claims to the contrary are not only inaccurate but distracting and unhelpful, providing little guidance to policymakers seeking to prioritize scarce attention and resources.

In 2008, I collaborated with Brookings Institution senior fellow Susan E. Rice, now President Obama’s permanent representative to the United Nations, on an index of state weakness in developing countries. The study ranked all 141 developing nations on 20 indicators of state strength, such as the government’s ability to provide basic services. More recently, I’ve examined whether these rankings reveal anything about each nation’s role in major global threats: transnational terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international crime and infectious disease.

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 link between failed states and transnational terrorism, for instance, is tenuous. Al-Qaeda franchises are concentrated in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia but are markedly absent in most failed states, including in sub-Saharan Africa. Why? From a terrorist’s perspective, the notion of finding haven in a failed state is an oxymoron. Al-Qaeda discovered this in the 1990s when seeking a foothold in anarchic Somalia. In intercepted cables, operatives bemoaned the insuperable difficulties of working under chaos, given their need for security and for access to the global financial and communications infrastructure. Al-Qaeda has generally found it easier to maneuver in corrupt but functional states, such as Kenya, where sovereignty provides some protection from outside interdiction.

Pakistan and Yemen became sanctuaries for terrorism not only because they are weak but because their governments lack the will to launch sustained counterterrorism operations against militants whom they value for other purposes. Terrorists also need support from local power brokers and populations. Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, al-Qaeda finds succor in the Pashtun code of pashtunwali, which requires hospitality to strangers, and in the severe brand of Sunni Islam practiced locally. Likewise in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has found sympathetic tribal hosts who have long welcomed mujaheddin back from jihadist struggles.

Al-Qaeda has met less success in northern Africa’s Sahel region, where a moderate, Sufi version of Islam dominates. But as the organization evolves from a centrally directed network to a diffuse movement with autonomous cells in dozens of countries, it is as likely to find haven in the banlieues of Paris or high-rises of Minneapolis as in remote Pakistani valleys.

What about failed states and weapons of mass destruction? Many U.S. analysts worry that poorly governed countries will pursue nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapons; be unable to control existing weapons; or decide to share WMD materials.

These fears are misplaced. With two notable exceptions — North Korea and Pakistan — the world’s weakest states pose minimal proliferation risks, since they have limited stocks of fissile or other WMD material and are unlikely to pursue them. Far more threatening are capable countries (say, Iran and Syria) intent on pursuing WMD, corrupt nations (such as Russia) that possess loosely secured nuclear arsenals and poorly policed nations (try Georgia) through which proliferators can smuggle illicit materials or weapons.

When it comes to crime, the story is more complex. Failed states do dominate production of some narcotics: Afghanistan cultivates the lion’s share of global opium, and war-torn Colombia rules coca production. The tiny African failed state of Guinea-Bissau has become a transshipment point for cocaine bound for Europe. (At one point, the contraband transiting through the country each month was equal to the nation’s gross domestic product.) And Somalia, of course, has seen an explosion of maritime piracy. Yet failed states have little or no connection with other categories of transnational crime, from human trafficking to money laundering, intellectual property theft, cyber-crime or counterfeiting of manufactured goods.

Criminal networks typically prefer operating in functional countries that provide baseline political order as well as opportunities to corrupt authorities. They also accept higher risks to work in nations straddling major commercial routes. Thus narco-trafficking has exploded in Mexico, which has far stronger institutions than many developing nations but borders the United States. South Africa presents its own advantages. It is a country where “the first and the developing worlds exist side by side,” author Misha Glenny writes. “The first world provides good roads, 728 airports . . . the largest cargo port in Africa, and an efficient banking system. . . . The developing world accounts for the low tax revenue, overstretched social services, high levels of corruption throughout the administration, and 7,600 kilometers of land and sea borders that have more holes than a second-hand dartboard.” Weak and failing African states, such as Niger, simply cannot compete.

Nor do failed states pose the greatest threats of pandemic disease. Over the past decade, outbreaks of SARS, avian influenza and swine flu have raised the specter that fast-moving pandemics could kill tens of millions worldwide. Failed states, in this regard, might seem easy incubators of deadly viruses. In fact, recent fast-onset pandemics have bypassed most failed states, which are relatively isolated from the global trade and transportation links needed to spread disease rapidly.

Certainly, the world’s weakest states — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa — suffer disproportionately from disease, with infection rates higher than in the rest of the world. But their principal health challenges are endemic diseases with local effects, such as malaria, measles and tuberculosis. While U.S. national security officials and Hollywood screenwriters obsess over the gruesome Ebola and Marburg viruses, outbreaks of these hemorrhagic fevers are rare and self-contained.

I do not counsel complacency. The world’s richest nations have a moral obligation to bolster health systems in Africa, as the Obama administration is doing through its Global Health Initiative. And they have a duty to ameliorate the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS, which continues to ravage many of the world’s weakest states. But poor performance by developing countries in preventing, detecting and responding to infectious disease is often shaped less by budgetary and infrastructure constraints than by conscious decisions by unaccountable or unresponsive regimes. Such deliberate inaction has occurred not only in the world’s weakest states but also in stronger developing countries, even in promising democracies. The list is long. It includes Nigeria’s feckless response to a 2003-05 polio epidemic, China’s lack of candor about the 2003 SARS outbreak, Indonesia’s obstructionist attitude to addressing bird flu in 2008 and South Africa’s denial for many years about the causes of HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, misperceptions about the dangers of failed states have transformed budgets and bureaucracies. U.S. intelligence agencies are mapping the world’s “ungoverned spaces.” The Pentagon has turned its regional Combatant Commands into platforms to head off state failure and address its spillover effects. The new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review completed by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development depicts fragile and conflict-riddled states as epicenters of terrorism, proliferation, crime and disease.

Yet such preoccupations reflect more hype than analysis. U.S. national security officials would be better served — and would serve all of us better — if they turned their strategic lens toward stronger developing countries, from which transnational threats are more likely to emanate.

Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow and director of the program on international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.”

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