Shadow Government

The “axis of upheaval” is still a secondary concern

By Peter Feaver Color me skeptical on the "axis of upheaval." I appreciate what Professor Ferguson is trying to do, and I certainly agree with him that the economic upheaval has potentially profound geopolitical ramifications, and that failing states are a source of instability in international affairs. I have been teaching this point for nearly ...

By Peter Feaver

Color me skeptical on the "axis of upheaval." I appreciate what Professor Ferguson is trying to do, and I certainly agree with him that the economic upheaval has potentially profound geopolitical ramifications, and that failing states are a source of instability in international affairs.

I have been teaching this point for nearly 15 years, ever since, while a staffer on the NSC in the first Clinton Administration, I was assigned to read and respond to another article that made exactly this point: Robert Kaplan’s "The Coming Anarchy."

Just because the idea is not new does not make it not true. It is true, and Professor Ferguson is right that responsible states need to address these failing states with a range of actions. The Bush administration’s 2006 National Security Strategy listed many of these under the umbrella of promoting "effective democracy." What was envisioned was all the sorts of state-building and state-bolstering activities that international relations theorist and former Policy Planning Director Steve Krasner described as "responsible sovereignty."

In other words, Professor Ferguson has identified a long-standing problem, and there is a long-standing laundry list of to-do items addressing this problem. So my skepticism is not about the concern for this issue, but rather the belief that the "axis of upheaval" can or should trump the more traditional "axis of evil." Mind you, I would be fine dropping the old label, which was more a rallying cry for critics than an organizing schema for government action.

But I doubt that any administration could sustain a policy that prioritized Somalia ahead of Afghanistan, Lebanon ahead of Iraq, Darfur ahead of Pakistan, Zimbabwe ahead of North Korea, or the Congo ahead of Iran. There is plenty of upheaval or potential for upheaval in the old list of states of concern and they will always trump the new list of states of concern. (One possible exception: Mexico.)

From 2005-2007, I was asked to develop many conceptual frameworks for long-range planning on issues other than Iraq. I did so, but the first step in that strategic planning always required making an assumption of where we would be in our Iraq effort at the designated time. You can develop a meaningful, resource-intensive Iraq policy that brackets off for the time being our policy in the Congo; vice-versa doesn’t work.

So, by all means, let us remember that there are many problem areas in the world beyond the traditional ones. But if you try to address them at the expense of addressing traditional concerns, you will fail at both. And then you will see what real upheaval looks like.

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