Ten years ago, the United States got a graphic introduction to state failure. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed while patrolling rough neighborhoods in Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. They were part of a U.N. effort to halt fighting between warlords. Instead, they became the victims.
After the September 11th attacks two years ago, the question of state failure took on new urgency. Al Qaeda was discovered using Afghanistan, a failed state taken over by the Taleban, as a base for its terrorist activities around the world. In response, President George Bush issued a new security strategy designating areas where America may need to intervene on its own, if necessary.
Wendy Sherman served in the State Department from 1997 to 2001 as a special advisor on major issues of foreign policy. She says the September 11th attacks have elevated the role of failed states in the Bush Administration's approach to the world: “Now objectives are to defend, preserve and extend the peace, and the United States will accomplish these three goals by fighting terrorists and tyrants, building good relations among great powers, and encouraging free and open societies on every continent -- quite an acknowledgement of the importance and character of failed and weak states.”
In fact, failing states are so important that the Central Intelligence Agency has a team called "The State Failure Task Force," which examines how and why countries become unstable.
David Gordon is director of the Office of Transnational Issues at the CIA, which oversees the task force: “State failure is a gradual process. Before total collapse occurs, states become embroiled in other kinds of political crisis that they are unable or unwilling to resolve. Many of the consequences of state collapse human rights violations, ungoverned zones that become potential terrorist havens, humanitarian crises, drug trafficking, and regional spillover -- occur in failing as well as failed states.”
Where do you find failed states?
The CIA says it has some clues. Ironically, nations that have made some democratic reforms appear more prone to failure. While citizens gain outlets for their complaints, the governments remain inclined to suppress any opposition, thus creating the ingredients for conflict and possibly civil war. Another indicator is a country's poor quality of life and lack of involvement with the outside world. Also failing states are often located in unstable regions and are characterized by repression of ethnic groups.
So what can the United States do about failing states?
Some analysts say America must find allies and work multilaterally. Failed states need to be revived with plenty of money, resources and advice. Nation building, say analysts, is a complicated undertaking that requires many specialties. One outside nation might bring expertise in building democratic institutions from the ground up, while another may be experienced in providing security on the ground.
Chester Crocker, professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1981 to 1989. He says the United States needs to cooperate with others: “The sensible place to start is to identify who else is in this struggle with us, to identify the institutions, coalitions, alliances, partnership, friendships which we can work with in order to share this huge burden because the number of potential failing states is probably somewhere like 50 or 60.”
Other analysts worry about fostering a belief around the world that the United States is going to come to the rescue of collapsing countries wherever they are. Newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer says the United States should conserve its resources, both military and non-military, for states and groups that present an actual threat to America's national security:
“I think hostility has to be the essential criterion of any intervention. Otherwise, we are going to end up spreading ourselves thin, spending our resources and leaving us less prepared for the real threat and issue, which is today terrorism emanating from the Middle East and the Islamic world.”
But where does this leave Liberia, a poor African country engulfed in civil war for much of the past two decades? It has a strong historical connection to the United States.
Earlier this year, the United States declined to intervene with its military to stem fighting, preferring to leave that task up to a regional force. Nigerian troops were able to pacify the Liberian capital of Monrovia, scene of the most violence. A subsequent peace agreement has installed a power-sharing government, although armed troops continue to loot and terrorize the population in the countryside. Some analysts think the United States could have made a difference in Liberia and earned some international good will along the way.
“The place was founded by Americans for Americans,” says Chester Crocker of Georgetown University. “Everybody in the world except us accepts that it is basically the 51st state of the union, and it is a slam-dunk (an easy task) to do something for a few weeks and then hand it off to the United Nations with burden sharing, and they will do it.”
Charles Krauthammer thinks otherwise: “I am very reluctant and opposed to any military intervention of the United States in a place like Liberia, not that as a human being I would not want to see that suffering relieved. But where do you draw the line? Why are we, therefore, not intervening in Congo, where far more people are dying everyday? The places where we could intervene and make a difference are almost infinite, and unless we apply strict criteria having to do with our national security, we will spend ourselves into oblivion, both in blood and in treasure, in rectifying all the evils and suffering of the world.”
Both sides agree that inequality between rich and poor countries may lead to more failed states. At a recent meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico, industrialized countries failed to compromise on the issue of government support for their agricultural goods. That means developing nations are still unable to compete with subsidized food from rich countries.
Wendy Sherman thinks that stance may come back to haunt the United States: “When Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali look for a breakthrough on cotton and wonder why the United States, which gives three billion dollars to 25,000 cotton farmers, does not intervene, we in fact are sowing a seed that we could otherwise prevent in the potential for a failed or weak state among them.”
Charles Krauthammer says that if the United States wants to help other countries by opening up trade, it must be prepared to pay a price at home. Removing subsidies and exporting jobs to other countries means more jobs lost by American workers.
The damage caused by the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. That figure is, in part, a testament to the damage failing states can now wreak on America and other countries. The cost of reviving those states may well be far less than the cost of future terrorist attacks launched from them.