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Leaning Away

Maybe the real failed states are the ones that have the means to help other nations -- but choose to retreat inward.

There are no failed states. There is only a failure of our international system. Yet we persist in speaking of institutional and economic collapse, social discord, and the turmoil associated with dwindling resources as though they existed somehow separate from the world, as though calamity somewhere were not of consequence everywhere.

This is old think. Very old think: Westphalian nation-state nonsense that evokes a 17th-century mentality in which words like "foreign," "border," "us," and "them" meant something very different. But as we have seen during this 350-year nation-state experiment, this old think doesn't simply divvy up the world into manageable chunks -- it also endows countries with the profound and fundamental right to be selfish. As much as it says, "Our business is our own," it also says, "We have the right not to care about others, to pretend they don't exist, to look away when they are in distress or torment or at war with one another."

It is true that within each country's borders, different views exist of the obligations of individual citizens to one another, of provinces and cities to their neighbors, of the large and small private entities in the polity -- corporations, churches, and other institutions -- to society as a whole. Some countries elevate and value community. Some serve the state to the detriment of individual people. And some, like the United States, celebrate individuality to a fault. At least some Americans do, seeing the responsibilities manifest in the actions, sinews, laws, and regulations of government as overreach, an encroachment.

Americans celebrate this independent spirit. Their market ideology is more Charles Darwin than Adam Smith, suggesting somehow that if we value the survival of the fittest, then the casualties of the weak are merely part of nature's grand equation. Even those who don't embrace the most extreme aspects of this frontier fuck-you-ism at home almost certainly do abroad. It is a great American tradition. From George Washington's farewell admonition to avoid foreign entanglements to the isolationism that is by far America's greatest and longest-lasting international policy impulse -- the same inclination that had only 17 percent of Americans in favor of getting involved in the war in Europe even as it raged in the middle of 1940 -- the view of this great nation has more often than not been that the world's problems are not its own.

Sure, Americans went off and fought two world wars. The United States has intervened throughout the past century in every corner of the globe and has put troops on every habitable continent at one time or another. But not only has it done so selectively -- it has helped create international institutions that are only capable of doing so selectively. In the wake of World War II, the United States helped make an international system that had two main purposes: to create the illusion of having one and to help advance U.S. interests. The system's institutions by design are weak, toothless, and possessed of only limited resources.

This approach has clearly failed. Today the greatest problems we face are almost universally the global calamities that demand strong international mechanisms and a global sense of community that do not exist and are anathema to the selfish spirit that was the great contribution of the Peace of Westphalia: global warming, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the cancer of failed and failing states that destabilize their neighbors, spreading refugees and unrest across borders.

This is not abstract. These are the issues of today's headlines. This year, scientists noted that atmospheric carbon dioxide had passed the "red line" daily threshold of 400 parts per million. Syria appears to have passed U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line" threshold of using chemical weapons, and Iran continues, despite the most sophisticated sanctions regime ever conceived, to edge closer to crossing the "red line" of gaining a nuclear weapons capability. In Syria, in parts of Libya, in Mali, and across much of sub-Saharan Africa, failed states and regions fester and promise only conflicts that will deepen and seep across regions like the blood that spills in each daily.

In each instance, we see that the greatest problems facing failed states and more pernicious, pervasive international failures are not somehow endemic to isolated places on the globe. For example, global warming and nuclear weapons proliferation have clear global consequences. But so too would 10 more years of war in Syria, of millions of refugees pouring into places like Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon, of extremist groups establishing themselves as they have in Mali and as they wish to in Syria and northern Nigeria.

In each instance, our narcissistic, head-in-the-sand nation-statism is putting us at risk. Our unwillingness to recognize that our lack of strong international institutions, be they global organizations or multilateral alliances, formal ones or ad hoc efforts, is doing us in. We need the ability to effectively punish states and others that fail to protect or that actively harm the environment, or that make the world more dangerous. We need to endow those organizations with the resources they need and with the sovereign powers we have guarded so jealously that we've actually undercut them. In our zeal to protect national prerogatives, we have made a more dangerous, fragile world -- one from which no single state can protect us.

The problem is made measurably worse by the United States, which used to, at least periodically, reach out and flex its muscles and extend its generosity despite its historical isolationism, but which today seems much less inclined to do so. While book clubs across America debate whether working moms should lean in, nationally the country seems to have made the decision to lean away. Getting involved has had its costs. It has been bungled and abused. And so Americans are washing their hands of it and retreating behind the country's walls.

Which raises the question: Which are the failed states? The ones so weak they can't help themselves? Or the ones that are strong enough to help, yet do not?

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