The Weakest Link

Article excerpt

Global instability in the 21st century will come not from superpowers but from failed states.

Even if the March 7 elections in Iraq come off without a voter boycott or major violence, forming a new government is likely to take months of hard work. Making it function will be even more difficult. Once the most powerful country in the Arab world, Iraq is now anything but.

True, even an ardent opponent of the war would have to acknowledge that Iraq has evolved dramatically from the authoritarian state it was under Saddam and the failed state it became after he was ousted. Violence is down. The economy is growing. Politics in the run-up to the elections has been intense. But clearly the country is still fragile. Deep fault lines persist, most notably between Kurds and Arabs, but also between minority Sunnis--not all of whom accept their diminished position--and majority Shia, who have yet to fully embrace Winston Churchill's dictum, "In victory: magnanimity." There is no national consensus on how to share oil revenues. Neighbors like Iran meddle at will.

It is impossible to escape the irony. A principal rationale for the Iraq War was to create a model democracy that other Arab countries would be forced to emulate. Iraq has become a model, certainly, but of a different sort: it is the epitome of a weak state, one that cannot defend itself, maintain internal peace, or address many of its most pressing challenges without outside help. As such, it is a harbinger of the kind of national-security challenge the United States will confront this century.

That we should care so much about weak states marks a major change. Much of 20th-century history was driven by the actions of strong states--the attempts by Germany, Japan, and, in the century's second half, the Soviet Union to establish global primacy, and the corresponding efforts of the United States and a shifting coalition of partners to resist. Those struggles produced two world wars and a Cold War. In the 21st century the principal threat to the global order will not be a push for dominance by any great power. For one thing, today's great powers are not all that great: Russia has a one-dimensional economy and is hobbled by corruption and a shrinking population; China is constrained by its enormous population and a top-heavy political system. Just as important, China and the other major or rising powers seek less to overthrow the existing global order than to shape it. They are more interested in integration than in revolution.

Instead, the central challenge will be posed by weak states--Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Haiti, Mexico, Congo, and others. What they have in common (in addition to the fact that many, like Iraq, are located in the greater Middle East) are governments that lack the capacity, the will, or both to rule. They are unable to exercise what is expected of sovereign governments--namely, control over what goes on within their own territory. In the past, this would have been mostly a humanitarian concern. …