Stop Drinking the Weak Sauce

Washington’s paranoia over weak and failing states is distracting it from the real national security threats looming on the horizon.


For 25 years now, a weak-state fixation has transfixed U.S. foreign policy. It all started with the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, which advanced the idea that American power in a post-Cold War world could and should bring justice, peace, and prosperity to places like Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo. Freed from the security constraints of superpower conflict, U.S. foreign policy assumed a more muscular moralism during Bill Clinton’s years. After the 9/11 attacks, shoring up weak states became a vital security interest, not just a humanitarian ideal. The Freedom Agenda of George W. Bush’s administration sought not only to strengthen states, but to transform them, spreading democracy abroad to protect democracy and security at home.

Today, this focus on weak states looks increasingly — what’s the word? — weak. Sure, some weak states (Pakistan, Pakistan, and Pakistan) loom large, posing serious challenges to U.S. interests. But the vast majority of weak states don’t. Instead, the most serious threats to American interests stem, as they always have, from states with sufficient capacity and power to do bad things in the world, not from states so weak that bad things happen within them.

It is worth stepping back and asking: How exactly do weak states threaten the global order or the United States’ vital interests? The weak-state crowd has offered three related but distinct arguments. The first and most compelling is that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life. If al Qaeda could carry out the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor by setting up shop in the lawless rubble of Afghanistan, the thinking goes, other lawless spaces could, similarly, devolve into sanctuaries for the recruitment, training, and deployment of terrorists. Most frightening of all: the specter of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons.

The second, less convincing argument is that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global “bads,” like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks. In this view, weak states generate unwanted outcomes, not existential threats. That’s a big difference. The central purpose of U.S. foreign policy is not eliminating global suffering, however horrible. It is to protect vital national interests from grave dangers.

The third and fuzziest argument of the weak-state crowd holds that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states. This vision, however, is more aspirational than real. Although it is certainly true that ideas, goods, and people can cross borders faster and more densely than at any time in history, we are still a long way from a world where the well-being and security of Nashville hinges on the stability of Ngozi. Yet Barack Obama’s administration has been making this argument for years. As candidate Obama wrote in a signature 2007 Foreign Affairs article, “the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders.… We have a significant stake in ensuring that those who live in fear and want today can live with dignity and opportunity tomorrow.” Just this month, the administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy proclaimed yet again that weak states are one of the “top strategic risks to our interests,” putting transnational organized crime right up there with the use of nuclear weapons. Incredibly, the strategy proclaims that it “establishes … a diversified and balanced set of priorities appropriate for the world’s leading global power with interests in every part of an increasingly interconnected world.”

But a “diversified and balanced set of priorities” is no priority list at all. The United States does not have interests in every part of an increasingly interconnected world. It does not risk American lives and spend American political capital everywhere. Nor should it. Global leadership is about setting priorities — identifying what matters most and deploying resources to succeed. And evidence increasingly suggests that weak states should not be so high on the list.

Even the strongest weak-state claims don’t look so strong anymore. Nearly 14 years after 9/11, Islamist terrorism has yet to morph into anything close to an existential threat. That’s not to say it couldn’t grow into one — catastrophic terrorist attacks may be black-swan events that defy easy prediction. And it is impossible to know whether we have successfully countered terrorism thanks to the war on terror or because terrorists were never such a big danger in the first place. Yet it is hard to dismiss the gnawing, emerging evidence that 9/11 may have been more outlier than harbinger.

In 2012, John Mueller, senior research scientist at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, director at the Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability at the University of Newcastle, noted that Islamist terrorism was responsible for 200 to 400 deaths worldwide each year, outside of war zones. That’s roughly the same number of Americans who die from drowning in bathtubs annually. Harvard University’s Graham Allison darkly warned in 2004 that there was at least a 50 percent chance the world would suffer a nuclear terrorist attack in the next 10 years. It has now been 10 years and counting since he wrote that. The string of failed and foiled attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, including “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, more closely resembles the work of knuckleheads than masterminds.

The connection between weak states and transnational terrorism appears more tenuous too. Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities. Indeed, the January attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — France’s deadliest terrorist attack in 50 years — was perpetrated by two brothers born, raised, and radicalized almost entirely in the terrorist safe haven of France, which came in at No. 160 of 178 countries on the Fragile State Index.

Consider interstate war. Between weak states, wars can be destructive and destabilizing for local populations. Between strong states, wars can be destructive and destabilizing for the world. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was one thing; World War II was quite another. Even in a 21st-century interconnected world, conflict between powerful countries with large economies poses far greater direct threats to the global economy, international order, and American interests than wars between fragile states. Ethiopia and Eritrea posted a combined GDP of $51 billion in 2013 — less than the revenues of Google.

While the Cold War’s end led many to believe that wars between great powers had been rendered to the dustbin of history, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and China’s ongoing provocations in the South and East China seas should remind us that great powers can still behave badly. Conflicts between powerful countries are not such distant possibilities after all. Had NATO enlargement grown a little larger, Ukraine would today be a member of the alliance, and the United States could very well have found itself locked in a European land war with Russia. Similarly, America’s long-standing security commitments to Japan and Taiwan make China’s aggressive military modernization and belligerent posturing in the region a potential flash point for future conflict between the world’s largest economies. Beijing’s naval maneuvering around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (also claimed by Japan), its aggressive claims to territory in the South China Sea (contested by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia), its 2013 declaration of an air-defense identification zone, and its two decades of double-digit defense spending increases, all raise the odds of conflict with the United States and its regional allies through deliberate action, miscalculation, accidental escalation, or some combination.

The specter of conflict between these powerful states may be unwanted, but that doesn’t make it unlikely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed unimaginable until President Vladimir Putin imagined it. China’s “peaceful rise” may also turn out to be more wishful thinking. And that’s to say nothing of the risk and impact of interstate war between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers with deep grievances and a history of miscalculation.

The most serious cyberthreats also appear to require substantial state capacity. Sure, Russian criminal networks and teenage hackers are busy stealing and selling millions of credit card numbers. And the Target and Home Depot breaches were certainly serious threats to Target and Home Depot customers. But not all cyberattacks are created equal.

Three types of cyberattacks most directly threaten U.S. national interests: large-scale theft of intellectual property, which can undermine national economic competitiveness and sap the source of American power; disabling attacks on military communications and operations than could impair the country’s capacity to attack and defend itself; and attacks on critical infrastructure that could disrupt the U.S. economy and society on a massive scale. Evidence suggests that all three types require state capacity far beyond what Cheetos-eating kids or criminals can muster.

The massive theft of intellectual property from American companies is directed, aided, and abetted principally by the Chinese government. The recent Sony hack was attributed to the government of North Korea. The most damaging cyberattacks abroad have also been sourced to organized states, not ungoverned spaces. The 2012 Saudi Aramco attack, which erased data from 30,000 computers — three-quarters of the company’s PCs — was traced back to Tehran. And the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges is estimated to have taken months to create, required 15,000 lines of code (120 times longer than your typical malware), and demanded the dedicated efforts of the best cyberwarriors in the Israeli and U.S. governments.

Finally, even the most frightening weak-state scenario, nuclear terrorism, isn’t even really about weak states. For years, Islamist terrorist groups have declared their fervent desire to obtain and use nuclear weapons. Why haven’t they succeeded? Because the most important ingredient, fissile material, cannot be developed in remote terrorist hideouts in ungoverned spaces that lack basic Internet or plumbing. Instead, readily usable fissile material rests in the hands of a small number of states with substantial governance and scientific capacity. Of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, five — the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and India — are strong and stable democracies. China and Russia may lack democracy, but not the capacity to govern. Pakistan and North Korea are worryingly weak and rightly rise to the top of the counterproliferation agenda.

But the point is this: Nuclear terrorism is not a “weak-states” problem. It is a specific-states problem, where a handful of countries play an outsized role in producing, spreading, and securing fissile material — whether it is Iran’s development of a covert nuclear weapons program, Russia’s efforts to secure its loose nukes, Pakistan’s command and control of its mobile nuclear weapons, or North Korea’s nuclear recklessness. Some of the states that we need to keep fissile material out of the hands of terrorists are weak. Most are not.

Weak states pose a number of challenges, and Washington must do what it can to address them. But the emphasis must be on “do what it can.” The world is too dangerous a place to combat state weakness wherever it lives, to conflate ideals with interests, or to make the analytical mistake of treating so many threats as “weak-state problems.” Increasingly, it appears that the most serious threats to American national interests emanate from states with capacity, not states without it.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Amy Zegart is co-director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation and is Davies family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Twitter: @AmyZegart