"Failed States Are a Threat to U.S. National Security."
Only some of them. It has been a truism of U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the United States is, in the words of President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy, "threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that over the next 20 years, the gravest threats to America will come from failing states "that cannot meet the basic needs -- much less the aspirations -- of their people." Both as candidate and as president, Barack Obama has repeated this claim and has sought to reorient policy toward the prevention of state failure.
But the truth is that some state failure poses a real danger to the United States and the West, and some does not. Consider the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some 5 million or more people have died in the wars that have convulsed the country since the mid-1990s -- the single most horrific consequence of state failure in modern times. What has been the consequence to Americans? The cost of coltan, a material mined in Congo and used in cell phones, has been extremely volatile. It's hard to think of anything else.
Even the role of failed states in global terrorism may have been overstated. To start, terrorism is only a problem in failed states with significant Muslim populations -- admittedly, 13 of the top 20 in this year's Failed States Index. But the correlation between failure and global menace is weaker than we think. Islamist militants in unequivocally failed Muslim states such as Somalia, or profoundly weak ones such as Chad, have thus far mostly posed a threat to their own societies. They are surely less of a danger to the West than Pakistan or Yemen, both at least somewhat functional countries where state ideology and state institutions abet terrorists.
In his new book, Weak Links, scholar Stewart Patrick concludes that "a middle-ranking group of weak -- but not yet failing -- states (e.g., Pakistan, Kenya) may offer more long-term advantages to terrorists than either anarchic zones or strong states." (See "The Brutal Truth.") Terrorists need infrastructure, too. The 9/11 attacks, after all, were directed from Afghanistan, but were financed and coordinated in Europe and more stable parts of the Muslim world, and were carried out mostly by citizens of Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda is a largely middle-class organization.
A similar pattern plays out in the world of transnational crime. Take the three-cornered drug market that links cocaine growers in Latin America, traffickers in West Africa, and users in Europe. The narcotraffickers have found the failed states of West Africa, with their unpatrolled ports and corrupt and undermanned security forces, to be perfect transshipment points for their product. Drugs are dumped out of propeller planes or unloaded from ships just off the coast of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, or Sierra Leone, and then broken into smaller parcels to be shipped north. But the criminal gangs operate not out of these Hobbesian spaces but from Ghana and Senegal -- countries with reliable banking systems, excellent air connections, pleasant hotels, and innumerable opportunities for money laundering. The relationship is analogous to that between Afghanistan, whose wild spaces offer al Qaeda a theater of operations, and Pakistan, whose freewheeling urban centers provide jihadists with a home base.