Letters: The End of Evil?

Former National Security Council staffer Peter Feaver argues that Niall Ferguson's "axis of upheaval" won't replace the old "axis of evil" any time soon.

I appreciate what Niall Ferguson ("The Axis of Upheaval," March/April 2009) is trying to do, and I certainly agree with him that 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 I read another article that made exactly this case, Robert Kaplan’s "The Coming Anarchy," during my time as a staffer on the National Security Council (NSC) in the first Clinton administration. And just because the idea isn’t new doesn’t make it not true.

It is true, and significant parts of the Bush National Security Strategy released in 2006 were devoted to dealing with this problem.

What is less reliable is Ferguson’s suggestion that the "axis of upheaval" can or should trump the more traditional "axis of evil." 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 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 to 2007, while serving on the NSC in the Bush administration, I developed many conceptual frameworks for long-range planning on issues other than Iraq. The first step in that strategic planning always required making an assumption of where the United States would be in its Iraq effort at the designated time. You can develop a meaningful, resource-intensive Iraq policy that brackets off policy in 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.

–Peter D. Feaver
Alexander F. Hehmeyer
Professor of Political Science and Public Policy
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

[Peter D. Feaver is a regular contributor
to FP’s Shadow Government blog.]

Niall Ferguson replies:

I quite agree with Peter Feaver that the members of the "axis of upheaval" aren’t about to replace Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as problems for the United States, to say nothing of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Pakistan (which were not members of the "axis of evil"). My point was simply that the economic crisis is going to add a new and larger set of unstable countries to the existing set. It also seems likely to exacerbate the problems in the countries he mentions.

Finally, the problems arising from economic shocks and political weakness are much less predictable than the problems caused by rogue regimes intent on mischief. They also create opportunities for potential rivals to the United States — just watch how Russia will seek to exploit upheaval in Eastern Europe.

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