The bipartisan Beltway consensus that sponsored the Iraq war is in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of having to justify its most basic tenets. After the Washington foreign policy community all but unanimously assured Americans of the prudence and necessity of starting a war with Iraq, other articles of faith in foreign policy circles are coming under attack. Perhaps most pernicious among them is the consensus view that the United States must reconstitute its national security bureaucracy in order to develop the capacity to fix failed states.
The fetish for fixing failed states is found in Democrats and Republicans alike. Take, for one example, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger's 2005 article in The National Interest titled "In the Wake of War." There, Scowcroft and Berger assure us that "action to stabilize and rebuild states emerging from conflict is not 'foreign policy as social work,' a favorite quip of the 1990s. It is equally a national security priority."
This is argument by assertion. A better-founded argument would at least go to the trouble of defining its terms. Alas, any attempt to define terms would also demonstrate the unconvincing nature of the thesis. Failed states rarely present threats to the United States, and attempting to "fix" them portends serious problems for US policy. To assess whether or not failed states pose a threat to US national security, we must first define "state failure" and then examine the historical cases that meet that definition.
Failure Is in the Eye of the Beholder
The most comprehensive and analytically rigorous study of state failure was a task force report commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Intelligence in 2000. The report's authors sought to quantify and examine episodes of state failure between 1955 and 1998. Working from their first definition of state failure (when "central state authority collapses for several years"), the authors only found 20 cases of bona fide state failure--too small a number to produce statistically significant conclusions. As a result, the authors chose to broaden the definition. After establishing those new criteria, the authors found 114 cases of state failure between 1955 and 1998.
The new methodology increased the number of failed states nearly sixfold by changing the definition of what constituted state failure. Although the authors made the change to achieve a degree of statistical significance, they contended that the new methodology was appropriate because "events that fall beneath [the] total-collapse threshold often pose challenges to US foreign policy as well." That speculative and highly subjective standard produced a list that characterized China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, Israel, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, and Turkey as failed states as of December 1998. A data set that includes such disparate countries does little to inform US policy toward failed states. It is less useful as a heuristic for guiding national policy than is blithely declaring that "states that begin with the letter I pose challenges to US foreign policy."
More recent efforts offer little encouragement. A 2007 update of the Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy magazine "Failed States Index" promises on the magazine's cover to explain "why the world's weakest countries pose the greatest danger." In what can only be described as false advertising, the article does little to prove or even argue this claim. It instead concedes that "failing states are a diverse lot" and that "there are few easy answers to their troubles." But since the concept of "failedness" tells us so little about these states, why assemble such a category at all? One could imagine any number of arbitrary distinctions that would group together less disparate states than those that receive the designation "failed." Still, with the problem diagnosed as failure, the proposal is to fix the failure. …