David Rothkopf

Is Pakistan really the most dangerous country in the world? (updated)

The New York Times is getting beat up regularly these days. So, let’s take a minute and comment on the continuing high quality of its reporting in Pakistan. There could be few more important stories. There could be few places where it is tougher to report. And yet, week after week, they produce insightful pieces ...

582579_090806_rothkopfv2.jpg

The New York Times is getting beat up regularly these days. So, let’s take a minute and comment on the continuing high quality of its reporting in Pakistan. There could be few more important stories. There could be few places where it is tougher to report. And yet, week after week, they produce insightful pieces that offer valuable insights into this nation that is ally, warzone, and threat all blended together.

Today’s example is the story “70 Murders Yet Close to Going Free in Pakistan” by Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gillani. It uses the story of how one of Pakistan’s most dangerous extremist leaders is likely to escape multiple murder charges scot-free to illustrate the deep flaws within the Pakistani justice system and the perverse partnership between Pakistani authorities and some very dangerous characters and organizations. (Jane Perlez’s story from earlier last month, on how hard a time the United States was having getting its aid dollars distributed in conjunction with our very unappreciative seeming Pakistani “allies,” is another such example. And there are plenty of others.)

These stories drive home the message that Pakistani society is hugely complex and deeply conflicted, that this is a largely dysfunctional country in which a modicum of political unrest is the best one can hope for during the foreseeable future. They remind us why it has been conventional wisdom for several years now that this is the most dangerous country in the world. 

They also underscore the absolute fallacy that every nation is “entitled” to its own nuclear program. (And they underscore why we will someday look to the Bush administration’s complete caving on sanctioning Pakistan for developing its nuclear program in order to win a strategic advantage in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, a mirage at best, as perhaps the biggest of all its big foreign policy errors.) No society allows everyone access to firearms … even the gun promiscuous USA. We deny weapons to minors, criminals, and the mentally unstable. We limit their ownership to people who have “proven” they can manage them. And look how that’s working for us. Not so well. Is it really reasonable that there should be a lower standard for “permitting” the development of nuclear programs? 

The threat of Pakistan is primarily a regional one, unless a portion of its nuclear arsenal falls into the wrong hands. That would create a potential catastrophe to be sure. It’s a high-risk scenario with an outcome that should have the United States on guard. But is Pakistan really the most dangerous country in the world?

It comes to mind as one of the other countries that I think is among the world’s most dangerous, Russia, has been rattling its rusty sabers more frequently recently. There was the story the other day about its submarines off the U.S. coast, the not so comforting rebuttal today by one of its top generals, its recent naval exercises with the Iranians, its generally non-constructive attitude toward dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem, its belligerent rumblings throughout its near abroad … the list goes on. And this is a country that has the ability, as the submarine (and earlier strategic bomber readiness) stories suggest, to project force anywhere in the world. It is also a country that has the political clout and through its natural resources the economic clout to become something between a difficult rival for the U.S. and a permanent spanner in the works of the international system. (For a very good take on Russia, see today’s op-ed by one of our best experts on the country, Steve Sestanovich, in the Washington Post.)

Despite a new State Department intel estimate saying that the Russian military is less capable of projecting force than it was and is moving toward a “smaller more technical force”, it still has a vastly more potent nuclear capability than all but one countries and a vastly more potent military than all but a tiny handful. Such assessments need to therefore be taken in context and always capabilities need to be multiplied by the will to use them in risk calculations.

Russia also has, as Joe Biden impoliticly noted, some problems that could be complicating factors. In short, the bear has the wolf at its door-demographically and economically. Biden interpreted these as factors that might weaken Russia. But they are also the kind of factors that often inspire leaders to dangerous postures and strategies. What is weakening Russia is simultaneously making the country more dangerous.

I know this is not a popular view. But it seems very likely to me that on more fronts and in bigger ways, Russia could be a bigger problem for the U.S. and for the world at large over the next decade or two than Pakistan.

Which begs the question: Which is the most dangerous country in the world? I’ll try to answer that tomorrow.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf