In the waning days of his presidency, with very little planning or even forethought, George H.W. Bush sent 28,000 U.S. troops to support a humanitarian mission in a hapless country of no strategic significance to the United States. That noble endeavor ended, of course, with the fiasco known as Black Hawk Down. Somalia was scarcely history's first failed state, but it was the first one whose failure U.S. policy sought consciously to address. Today, three U.S. administrations, two U.N. secretaries-general, and 18 years later, Somalia has a raging Islamist insurgency, a government that controls a few city blocks, and African Union peacekeepers with no peace to keep. And once again this year, Somalia stands atop the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Failed States Index -- a testament to the persistence of state pathology and the weakness of the powers the world community can bring to bear.
Barack Obama came into office acutely, perhaps uniquely, aware of the problem of failed states, but his administration has yet to develop an explicit policy on the subject, let alone increase the U.S. government's capacity to heal these profoundly sick patients. Obama has an intuitive grasp of the transnational problems of the post-Cold War world -- nuclear proliferation, global warming, pandemic disease. The same is true of failing states. In an August 2007 speech, during the first months of his presidential campaign, Obama asserted that the "nearly 60 countries" that "cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people" constituted not only a moral dilemma but also a security challenge to the West. Candidate Obama vowed to "roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate" by helping failed states establish good governance and the rule of law, doubling foreign assistance to attack entrenched poverty, establishing a $2 billion education fund "to counter the radical madrasas … that have filled young minds with messages of hate," and opening "America Houses" across the Islamic world.
Vacationing in the world’s most failed state.
The premise that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had made weak states not just a moral problem but a matter of national security was scarcely new; it was a central axiom of President George W. Bush's foreign policy after the attacks (and even President Bill Clinton, in the pre-9/11 era, had seen failing states as a threat to the emerging, democratic, free market world order). But Obama's emphasis on economic and social development was very different from the bellicosity of regime change and the grandiose hopes of Bush's Freedom Agenda. As president, Obama has indeed sought more funding for development assistance, though the economic crisis and ballooning budget deficit have made Congress wary of authorizing his aid budgets and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have absorbed much of his attention. Most of his other promises remain on the drawing board -- if they're anywhere.
At the most basic intellectual level, there is an unacknowledged tension in the Obama administration's thinking about this issue. Obama has persistently argued that addressing the poverty and misery of people in remote places is a U.S. national interest. But the case he has made is, like Bush's, limited to the threat of terrorism and does not have much to say about, for example, the threat that collapsing states pose to more stable neighbors. And that's true of others in the administration as well. In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that because terrorist attacks are most likely to emanate from weak states, "Dealing with such fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main security challenge of our time." Where, however, does that leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo (No. 5 on FP's list), or Ivory Coast (12), or Burma (16), whose doomed and despairing citizens are not likely to take up arms against the West?
If no explicit policy exists, an implicit one has begun to emerge. Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning at the State Department, told me that Afghanistan is "the petri dish" for the administration's strategy on weak and failing states. And by that she means the Obama team's embrace of a nation-building plan that puts development in a place equal to security. Development must be understood less as providing aid than as building government capacity. "That's the shift," she says. "There's a big emphasis not just on delivering services, which happens through contractors and NGOs, but enabling the government to provide the services."