Failed States and Terrorism

According to an increasingly popular conceit in American national security thinking, the phenomenon of “weak” or “failed” states is everywhere a threat to the United States. For example, here’s John Nagl and Brian Burton in The Washington Quarterly:

Trends like the youth bulge and urbanization in underdeveloped states and the proliferation of weapons and advanced technologies point to a future dominated by chaotic local insecurity and ‘‘non-traditional conflict’’ waged by non-state actors rather than confrontations between the armies and navies of nation-states.

This likely future of persistent low-intensity conflict around the globe suggests that U.S. interests are at risk not just from rising peer competitors but also from what has been called a ‘‘global security capacity deficit.’’ Gates recently warned that ‘‘the most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland, for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.’’ As a result, the U.S. military is more likely to be called upon to conduct counterinsurgencies, intervene in civil strife and humanitarian crises, and rebuild nations than to fight mirror-image conventional forces.

Michael Cohen responds:

Some weak states have incubated global threats – obviously Afghanistan and Pakistan comes to mind. Others are responsible for regional instability (Somalia, Congo, Lebanon and North Korea). But the majority of failed states represent very little threat to America and to address Gates’s argument more directly, they are highly unlikely to be the source of a terrorist attack (particularly one involving WMD) against the United States (for example, Haiti, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cote d’Ivorie, Burma, Uganda, Guinea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc).

I would make a couple of further points. First, one needs to watch the use of relative terminology. It’s true that we’re more likely to be threatened by a terrorist attack launched from a weak or failing state than we are to fight a large-scale war against a conventional peer competitor. But that has a lot to do with the fact that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that we’ll fight a large-scale war against a conventional peer competitor. What’s more, we have good policy levers that have nothing to do with the military at our disposal to try to ensure that our relationship with China doesn’t deteriorate to that point. None of this speaks to the actual likelihood of a threat emerging from a failed state.

Another thing is that one shouldn’t assume that intervention in a state-failure scenario makes things better. America’s effort to “solve” the problem in Somalia around Christmas/New Year’s of 2006 made things worse. In particular, botched intervention is a good way to transform a situation form the kind of failed state scenario that’s not a problem for us into the sort of situation where you suddenly have a faction that’s hostile to the United States.

Last, people shouldn’t assume that yoking humanitarian goals to a security agenda is always such a great idea. I think sometimes that people who mostly just think it’s sad that living conditions in Haiti are so bad jump on this kind of bandwagon because they think that’s a good way to get more funding for their agenda. Ultimately, I think that’s very short-sighted. People who think we should be spending less on the military and more on non-military priorities—including helping people out who find themselves in sad situations—ought to say so, and make sure their members of congress hear about it.