Defining Ideas

A Grand Strategy for Failed States

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
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Barbara Kelley

Designing a national security strategy to counter the threats posed by failing or failed states requires that policymakers carefully consider three factors: 1) how to define a failing or failed state; 2) the conditions under which such states matter to the United States; and 3) appropriate policy responses triggered by conditions that affect issues and areas important to the security of the United States and its allies.

What are “Failing” or “Failed States”?

Stewart Patrick observes, “perhaps the main limitation of the ‘failed state’ concept is the lack of agreement among both policymakers and scholars about the particular characteristics that warrant such a designation.” Discussions of failing and failed states are often dominated by examinations of causal factors.

From a national security perspective, what matters more than the cause of the disease is its most potentially troubling symptom, which, using Max Weber’s wording, is a state’s failure to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its territory. For example, one prominent effort to rank order “fragile” states synthesizes such incredibly diverse indices as demographic pressures, group grievance, uneven economic development, poverty, state legitimacy, public services, human rights and rule of law, security apparatuses, and competition among elites.

This partial list perhaps provides us with the various categories in which the symptoms of state failure are typically manifested, but it is hard to imagine a single policy cure that could effectively address all societal illnesses that might arise in a failed or failing state. When crafting policy responses, then, it is prudent for U.S. strategists to focus on both the national security implications as well as the international security consequences of the response when the political authorities of a given state exercise only weak or no control over key parts of its sovereign domain.

Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, were horrible despots whose demises were widely celebrated inside and outside of their countries. The cause of the former’s fall was an external intervention by the United States, while the reason for the latter’s overthrow was an internal civil uprising with the U.S. choosing not to pursue a full scale intervention. But both in Iraq and in Libya, the subsequent descent into chaos has posed greater national security challenges to the United States than existed when they were under the thumb of odious dictators.

Under What Conditions do Failing or Failed States Matter?

Depending on the type and attendant severity of dysfunction exhibited by failing or failed states, the risks and threats that each poses to the security of the United States varies widely. Generally speaking, the categories of threats include: 

  • Sanctuary for terrorist organizations with the intention and capability of launching significant attacks against U.S. interests (Yemen).
  • Large scale uncontrolled migration into the U.S. or into states strategically allied with the U.S. (refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq and flowing in vast numbers into Jordan and Lebanon, potentially destabilizing these states).
  • Denial of access to vital economic resources or significant disruption of international commerce (oil in Iraq or Nigeria, or piracy in the Gulf of Guinea or off the Somali coast).
  • Loss of an important security partner (hypothetically, the collapse of Bahrain impacting the basing of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet) and the possible gain in influence by a rival state power.
  • Contagion, or the transmission of threats from one weak state to another (disorder and terrorist organizations potentially spreading from Libya to other states in the Maghreb or its south).
  • Diminishment of U.S. global standing and influence by failing to effectively respond to large-scale humanitarian suffering (possibly contemporary Syria).

The possible national security consequences of such threats emanating from failing or failed states are dependent on the severity of the conditions unique to each case. The danger to seaborne trade posed by Somali pirates was one that could be mitigated through international cooperation and reasonably low-cost measures. By contrast, the United States (as former-President Bill Clinton has frequently stated) did not enjoy its finest hours as a passive witness to the Rwandan killing fields, and yet it is hard to argue that America’s security materially suffered beyond the reputational consequences at the time.

While the issues and crises that dominated the U.S. national security agenda from the mid-1990s through about 2010 often seemed to revolve around the dangers posed by failing or failed states—a perception reinforced by disturbing real-time media reporting of genocide and gross violations of human rights—it is not clear that the U.S. actually committed significant resources to dealing with the generic threat of failing or failed states during that same period of time. 

President Clinton’s 1999 National Security Strategy devoted only one paragraph to failed states:

At times in the new century, we can expect that, despite international prevention efforts, some states will be unable to provide basic governance, safety and security, and opportunities for their populations, potentially generating internal conflict, mass migration, famine, epidemic diseases, environmental disasters, mass killings and aggression against neighboring states or ethnic groups – events which can threaten regional security and U.S. interests.

President George W. Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy rather unremarkably made only two specific references to failed states, noting in one that

Regional conflicts can arise from a wide variety of causes, including poor governance, external aggression, competing claims, internal revolt, tribal rivalries, and ethnic or religious hatreds. If left unaddressed, however, these different causes lead to the same ends: failed states, humanitarian disasters, and ungoverned areas that can become safe havens for terrorists.

It is true that the United States has committed massive resources to strengthen to Iraq and Afghanistan, but these proved the exceptions (though enormously costly ones, to be sure). Moreover, much of the U.S. motivation in pursuing these efforts was that America’s military intervention is what triggered state collapse in each instance. Thus, it is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that, in the past two decades, the U.S national security strategy regarded failing and failed states as a major threat and then acted globally to deal with the problem.

How Should the United States Respond in Instances that do Matter?

If a state’s inability to secure and control its own population poses a threat to the United States, what is to be done? Four principles should be kept in mind.

First, consider the historical and socio-political context before setting policy goals. It is possible that Syria could be transformed over the next few years into a coherent inclusive accountable state aligned with U.S. interests. However, this is quite unlikely given such factors as the legacy of Sykes-Picot, massive demographic changes over the past several decades, worsening sectarian conflict, the complex mixture of civil and proxy wars, and the still unresolved debate within much of the Arab world of the appropriate roles of the state and religion. For now, at least, working to confine the violence of the Syrian civil war to within its borders is a more realistic and cost-effective approach than aiming to establish an effective, friendly democratic government in Damascus.

Second, look for other major powers or regional stakeholders with greater equities to solve the problem. Afghanistan provides a useful example. Should the central government in Kabul implode after the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, life will be more brutish in many parts of that country. No coalition of countries will join hands in an effort to maintain America’s robust state and nation building efforts. However, Iran, Russia, and India, and possibly even China, might wage a proxy war with Pakistan to prevent the return to power of a Salafi Taliban regime. This would be a rather disappointing outcome compared to what was hoped for in the first few years after the Taliban’s ouster, but has the merit of being far less costly and strategically less distracting.

Third, U.S. efforts to strengthen weak states whose incapacities are regarded as threatening vital interests must be diplomatically led as well as politically and historically informed. If the goal is to stabilize a country and establish positive state control, holding free and fair elections in accordance with a hastily written constitution might be a milestone on the road to success, but there have been many instances in recent years where this has not been the case.

The end sought is the creation of a political elite coalition with the resources and incentives to cooperate in efforts to secure their country. Focusing on elections, trying to build political institutions at breakneck speed, and launching massive scale economic development programs are often assumed to inevitably produce effective governance. Yet such an approach can retard the emergence of sustainable organic political regimes that would probably be more capable of securing their own lands.

U.S. military interventions in failing or failed states can also obscure the salience of politics. “Boots on the ground” leads Washington to see the problem primarily through the prism of combat action and the need to build sufficient indigenous security capacity that would eventually permit the disengagement of foreign intervention forces. The spectacular failure of the Iraq Armed Forces (trained for eight years at huge expense by the U.S. military) at the hands of numerically inferior and poorly equipped ISIL fighters was the result of Iraq’s political problems. The Iraq Army that was humiliated by ISIL in 2014 was politicized, dominated by the Shiites, and corrupt. These are not developments that suddenly occurred after the U.S. military left Iraq in late-2011. Spending significant quantities of money on raising and fielding armies without consideration of political or historical context basically amounts to squandering significant quantities of money and not much else.

Fourth, and last, before the United States intervenes to improve the internal security of a failed or failing state, it must at least debate the likely maximum level of effort—the amount of troops, money, and time—that it is willing to exert. These factors, in turn, impact political objectives. For a country as powerful as the United States, it will always be possible to commit more military resources when conducting a limited war and it will always be possible to increase the amount of development aid allocated to strengthen a state’s capacity. Once American military forces are committed to combat, the tendency is to provide them with whatever is needed “to win.” During the Second World War, U.S. civilian and military leaders had to prioritize both strategies and resources between the European and Pacific Theaters of War. Today policy discussions on military interventions are too often reduced to the muscular battle cry of “stay the course” versus the pusillanimous pretext of “cut and run” without reference to resources, strategic opportunity costs, or political objectives.

The Lowy Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones published an assessment in 2014 of Australia’s extended Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) that is worth citing. RAMSI was led and initiated by Australia in 2003 to help stabilize a failing Solomon Islands state at a cost of over $2.6 billion USD. Hayward-Jones writes:

When he launched the mission in a post 9/11 environment, the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard argued that a failed Solomon Islands would pose a significant security risk for the whole region and be vulnerable as a safe haven for transnational criminals and terrorists. Governance and the rule of law were failing in Solomon Islands but governance challenges were common to many Pacific Island countries. The spectre of terrorism and dangerous transnational crime was very unlikely. Indeed, Howard’s overwrought justification for the mission may well have contributed to what in many respects has been Australia’s greatest failure when it comes to RAMSI: the inability to conceive and execute an exit.

If the Australian Government has difficulty, in Hayward-Jones’ words, “knowing how much to spend and when to leave” in a mission concerning a weak, insecure state in its near abroad, then the United States is not alone struggling to tailor its efforts to deal with similar challenges. However, given the endless global possibilities for the United States to fix failing states, it must suppress its appetite for large scale interventions and get the calculus right. When it comes to failing or failed states, the implications of acting matter more than the impetus for choosing to do so.