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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David Rothkopf

Scared Tactics

Why America will be paying for decades for a foreign policy based on fear.

Behind closed doors but with language and intonation that ensured his remarks would be heard around the world, Bill Clinton last week said that U.S. President Barack Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by letting politics and a search for ideal solutions keep him from taking action to stop the slaughter in Syria.

Days later, speaking before a congressional committee on June 18, Gen. Keith Alexander, top man at the National Security Agency, and a phalanx of other top administration terror-fighters argued that the unprecedentedly sweeping measures undertaken by the U.S. government to gather telephone metadata, email communications, and Internet records had resulted in thwarting over 50 terrorism threats against the United States.

The two sets of statements might appear at first glance to be unrelated. But they hint at a shift that has taken place in U.S. policymaking in the years since the 9/11 attacks. The country has crossed the fine line that separates national security from national insecurity. Fear now seems to drive more of the country's policies than the vision, self-awareness, and courage that used to be the recipe for protecting and advancing U.S. interests internationally.

That is not to say that U.S. soldiers in the field or American law enforcement officers or the members of the intelligence community do not individually and collectively regularly display extraordinary courage. Nor is it to say that fear plays no role in sound policymaking. Sound risk assessment and management are as essential to getting approaches right as bravado and overconfidence are deadly.

But at the highest level, throughout George W. Bush's administration and continuing in a number of key instances during the Obama years, we have too often seen policy promulgated as a consequence of our fear of overstated risks and worst-case scenarios, and, most disturbingly of all, as Clinton alluded to, as a result of the fear of politicians that they might suffer in opinion polls or at the ballot box as a consequence of a misstep or unpopular action.

From the invasion of Iraq to the Patriot Act to the embrace of torture to the expansion of domestic surveillance programs to the failure to intervene earlier in Syria to the constant shifting of "red lines" in that country or Iran to the bumbling and lack of follow-through in Libya to the failure to stand up to abuses by "allies" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq or by rivals like Russia or Iran, fear has warped Americans' perspectives, justified alternatively both overreaction and inaction, and enabled the United States to rationalize bad policies into prudent ones on an ongoing basis for over a decade.

Against the existential threats of Nazism and Soviet communism, the United States faced oblivion squarely in the eye and did not flinch, recognizing that steadfastness, clear goals, and the willingness to undertake both political and military risks were crucial to defending the American way of life. There were times in those eras when Americans did let their fears drive them, however, and in every instance -- from internment camps for Japanese-Americans to the incineration of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, from McCarthyism to the miscalculations in Vietnam -- the United States harmed its national standing and took actions that are debated to this day.

In some cases, as with the overreach by U.S. surveillance agencies, the country falls into the trap that led to the internment camps for Japanese-Americans. A threat is overstated to the point that it forces the country to compromise its values and justifies taking sweeping actions that likely could have been avoided by other approaches -- whether more legwork (good old-fashioned police investigations) or paperwork (using existing legal procedures and guidelines). Furthermore, of course, it is also likely that options existed for additional investments in manpower or that new programmatic initiatives could have reduced what real risks existed in systematic and effective ways that did not violate the ideals the United States was theoretically trying to defend.

It should also be observed that an element of political calculus almost certainly drove the Obama team to embrace and expand the Bush-era surveillance programs -- the anxiety that if an attack did take place and the programs had been rolled back, they would have a higher level of culpability.

Of course, as Clinton suggested in his remarks before the McCain Institute, fear of culpability carries its own risks. Thus far, the administration has failed to successfully mobilize its allies to take action to contain the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and effectively weaken Bashar al-Assad's regime because it has noted the absence of a clear, coherent, virtuous opposition to which the United States could be allied. The irony that this is America's stance in a country that borders Iraq and is in the same neighborhood as Afghanistan and Libya (where the United States placed bets on the most dubious sorts of "frenemies") is pointed. That said, the risks of inaction should the crisis spill more dangerously into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, or Turkey also pose a risk for Obama. In short, the absence of an easy answer does not obviate the need for an answer -- some effective way to contain the real risks to national interests posed by spread of chaos in Syria, its spillover to the region, a possible future government in Damascus hostile to a Washington seen as abetting that chaos, and U.S. failure to take advantage of the potential to seriously limit Iranian influence in a vital part of the Middle East.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once observed "you break it, you own it," but he should have added a corollary: If failure to act invites a greater calamity, you own that too. As few have observed more persuasively than Samantha Power, America's next ambassador to the United Nations and the author of the profound A Problem from Hell (one of the 10 greatest books on international relations I have ever read), we have a century of genocides for which our inaction was partially responsible that should be on our consciences -- even if they are not. Clinton, of course, when speaking at the McCain event, noted that these issues certainly still weigh heavily on his mind given his own inaction in Rwanda. It should be interesting to see how Obama addresses this point when he visits Africa this month.

Prudence is a term often invoked by the fearful for doing too much or too little. But it shouldn't obscure what is really happening. Our insecurity rather than our goals is too often playing too great a role in driving our actions. Whether this is a momentary anomaly or longer-term symptom common to declining nations that have lost confidence in important aspects of themselves remains to be seen.

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