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Weak States Are “Sleeping Giants” for US Security
by Jim Lobe
June 11, 2004

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Almost three years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the United States is still falling short in its ability to deal with weak, failing or failed states, which increasingly threaten U.S. national security, says a major report released here Tuesday by a bipartisan commission.

Washington must do far more both to prevent countries from collapsing and to help them, hopefully in concert with other powers, to stabilize and recover, according to the 76-page report, "On the Brink: Weak States and U.S. National Security."

"Terrorist organizations, transnational crime networks, disease and violence flourish in these countries," said the commission's co-chair, former Republican Representative John Edward Porter, who called the 9/11 attacks a "wake-up call" to the new realities of international threats to the United States.

"Not only do the citizens of these nations suffer, but the world community is imperiled by this general instability and the opportunity for safe haven it provides for those who wish to destabilize other fledgling democracies and the industrialized world," he added.

The report, whose recommendations stress the importance of prevention through sound development policies, upgrading U.S. expertise in quickly stabilizing and reconstructing countries; and enhancing international co-operation in peacekeeping and nation-building, was produced over nine months and signed by nearly 30 commission members.

It appeared designed to re-frame the debate over how best to carry out the "war on terrorism" in ways that encourage policy makers to stress the importance of economic development as opposed to the almost exclusively military and security approach taken by the administration of President George W. Bush.

"It is news to no one that the U.S. is vulnerable", said Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development (CGD), which organized the commission.

"The flash is that the 'sleeping giant' of threats exists in the form of countries like Bolivia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Kenya – places (which) ... for various reasons now find themselves weakened to the point where their instability threatens to derail political and economic progress and, in some cases, they have become attractive to the entities, some known others unknown, who would wish to see harm visited on the United States and other nations of the developed world."

The commission included two former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrators – J. Brian Atwood, who served under former President Bill Clinton and M. Peter McPherson, who worked with President Ronald Reagan (1981-89).

"For far too long, the United States has allowed weak states – such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Somalia – to be on the periphery of U.S. foreign policy concerns," said Stuart Eizenstat, another commission co-chair, who served in top economic positions under Clinton and President Jimmy Carter (1977-81). "As a result, we have had to ultimately engage in military intervention and costly 'nation-building' activities."

"The U.S. needs a fresh strategy that identifies weak states before they fail, organizes the U.S. government to address the challenges and opportunities these weak states pose, and utilizes on a sustained basis the entire panoply of development, diplomatic, and political tools necessary to succeed," he added.

The report said three gaps distinguish troubled or weak states from those that are simply poor. If a state cannot control its own territory or protect its citizens from internal or external threats, it suffers a security gap that can easily be filled by terrorists, criminal groups or insurgents.

Similarly, if a state cannot meet the basic needs of its people, it can be said to suffer from a capacity gap that leaves its people vulnerable to epidemics and other humanitarian crises.

Finally, a legitimacy gap – where the state fails to maintain institutions that protect the basic rights of its citizens – will likely invite violent political opposition and corruption that are both destabilizing, according to the report.

These gaps are best addressed through healthy economic, social and political development, it adds, noting that traditional U.S. foreign-policy architecture was created for a world in which development was not in and of itself considered a strategic imperative for U.S. security but was instead largely seen as expendable goals compared to the overwhelming objective of thwarting military threats from other states.

"The view of this commission is that U.S. leaders must commit to using their political capital and channeling the nation's institutional power so that the development challenges of weak states can be effectively managed before they produce security crises," says the report.

Its recommendations include actions in four areas.

First, preventing failed states means promoting increased access to the U.S. market for developing-country exports, greater debt relief, support for U.S. direct investment; promoting sound development policies, including government transparency and democratic reform; and greater U.S. assistance to police and military forces.

Second, Washington should bolster its ability to provide help to states on the brink of collapse with: special aid accounts and civilian expertise that can be made deployed immediately without going through normal bureaucratic channels; a greater commitment to building regional peacekeeping capacities for early intervention; and with more "active and sustained" diplomacy in the field for orchestrating complicated political responses to crises.

Third, U.S. government institutions for gathering information, moving analysis to key decision makers and developing comprehensive strategies for dealing with failing states need to be updated, the report said. To do so, the government should establish both a cabinet-level development agency and a directorate within the National Security Council to deal specifically with the problem.

Finally, the United States can no longer afford to act on an ad hoc and unilateral basis but should recognize the importance of coordinating with other nations, beginning with the Group of Eight most industrialized countries, as well as major developing countries, such as the Group of 20, whose own resources and attention can be leveraged toward a common goal.

At the same time, Washington should work actively to improve the capacities of other existing international institutions, notably the United Nations and the World Bank.

"I hope this report marks the beginning of the end of the 'dissing' of international institutions," said Senator Joseph Biden who appeared at the release. "Without allies, without friends, without the added resources (they bring), I don't believe the U.S. can succeed."

Biden, the ranking Democratic Party member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is considered a favorite to become secretary of state if Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry defeats Bush in the November elections.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Administrator Mark Malloch Brown said the report's release signals, "clearly something is changing" on the issue of how Washington should deal with "failed states" and the causes of terrorism. Echoing Biden, Brown said, "the real lesson of Iraq is that you cannot do most of this bilaterally."

Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at:

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