Just over two decades ago the United States witnessed the collapse of it’s half century great power rival, and seized upon it’s regional hegemony status to dominate the international security arena. In the absence of great power rivals, U.S. national security experts began identifying weak and/or failing states, as the greatest threat to the United States. These particular states were seen as the origins of terrorism, regional chaos, organised crime, disease and environmental catastrophe, and, as globalisation intensified, it was argued that this violence and chaos had the capacity to affect U.S. interests.  To ameliorate the plight of these particulars nations, the United States was required to provide stability and engage in state-building on what Michael Mazarr describes as a “neo-imperial scale”.

While the United States has prevailed through the last twenty years as the exclusive regional hegemony, the era of U.S. adventures abroad concerning the stability of other nations, is concluding. The United States public has tired of these missions (not to mention the military itself), and in an age of fiscal austerity, propping up another nation does not bode well for voters who are still in some parts of America, experiencing recession like conditions. And this is before examining the various results of numerous attempts abroad to stabilise foreign countries. It has however, been argued that the decline is only ‘veiled’ in simple explanations such as an uninterested electorate. The bona fide justification for the diminished attention given to state-bulding is that it has finally revealed itself to be more of a compulsion, an infatuation that has held the U.S. in its grasp now for too long. Any claim that state-building actually falls within the periphery of sound strategic doctrine is unambiguously incorrect.

The problems:

1) Less urgent and more complex than originally considered

American incursions into both Iraq and Afghanistan have bestowed upon us, the real world quandaries that nation-building cultivates. Excessive requirements in both duration, treasure and a limitless commitment to what inevitably transforms into a perplexing exploit, compel me to conclude that future nation-building endeavours will be at the least, much more constrained in their objectives. The Failed States Index for 2013, maintained by Foreign Policy, provides a list of the twenty weakest states around the globe. All but three, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, at present show no real geostrategic importance.

2) A lack of definitional rigour, there has never been a coherent set of factors defining a failed state

A deficiency in “definitional rigor” presents as another issue with state-building. Political Scientist Charles Call argues that the state-buidling concept has culminated in the “agglomeration of diverse criteria” that worked to “throw a monolithic cloak over disparate problems that require tailored solutions”. This generic response by foreign powers to what are very discrete circumstances has the ability to deform state-building for decades. The other point of contention is that the particular perils outlined above are not exclusive to failed states. Terrorism, as one example, tends to procure its disciples from middle class, developed states, including, but not limited to: Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United Kingdom. It is undeniable that it is failed states who have historically yielded their territory, whether with consent or not, to the preparation and training of terrorist organisations. However, terrorist groups and their bases of operation have proved to be relentlessly mobile. As the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan following the U.S. led invasion in 2001, al-Qaeda and its offshoots have shown to be present and active in: Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and more. Stewart Patrick, a scholar, in 2006 noted that “What is striking is how little empirical evidence underpins these assertions and policy developments. Analysts and policymakers alike have simply presumed the existence of a blanket connection between state weakness and threats to the national security of developed countries and have begun to recommend and implement policy responses.”

3) Misplaced confidence regarding the possibility of the mission’s feasibility

Foreigners have been reminded in the most tragic way, that legitimate state-building has no prospect for continual success when driven assertively by those not belonging to the state in question. The path to strength lies within the state itself, sponsorship from alien nations is much less important than the cooperation of local leaders. From Chile to South Korea, the internal process is firstly, a grass-roots exercise that has the ability to respect and incorporate the idiosyncratic culture, social, economic, political and religious contexts of each nation. Outsiders can attempt to champion and assist, but cannot impose. Michael Wesley, an Australian Political Scientist, argued in 2008 that state deficiency is habitually political, and yet state-building is engineered in an apolitical manner. Wesley goes on to state that “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic”

4) Distorted the United States’ sense of central purpose and role in global politics

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States has vigorously toiled in assembling alliances to protect allies and deter enemies, and assisted in constructing an international framework facilitating the flow of trade and finance on an unprecedented scale, all in the interest of underwriting global stability. The preeminent hazard today is that the international system fragments into geopolitical chaos; escalating regional ambitions, bitter historical memories or flourishing nationalism the catalyst, not weak states. The United States is pivotal in both its leadership and dominant military position providing the ability to counteract any systemic disintegration. Reorganisation of the global landscape has gone without pertinent response from US officials. Rising regional powers from Brazil to India to Turkey have received attention unbecoming of the economies those states now command. A transformation in our media presentation has allowed for the smaller, less significant situations to appear on the daily agenda of our leaders. This, combined with the United States’s perceived global portrayal as an indispensable nation, created political pressures on our leaders to act, sometimes becoming embroiled in conflicts far from serving U.S. core interests. This, Mazarr argues, has skewed both the United States’s ability to properly identify global threats and their responsibility to response. Mazarr goes on to comment, “A great power’s reservoir of strategic attention is not infinite. And the United States has become geopolitically hobbled, seemingly uninterested in grand strategic initiatives or transformative diplomacy, as its attention constantly dances from one crisis to another.”

“A great power’s reservoir of strategic attention is not infinite. And the United States has become geopolitically hobbled, seemingly uninterested in grand strategic initiatives or transformative diplomacy, as its attention constantly dances from one crisis to another.”

5) To perform its global stabilising role, the United States needs appropriately designed, trained and equipped armed forces. The state-building mission has skewed the operations, training etc. in ways that detract from these responsibilities

This problem is a direct consequence of the fourth. The United States has, as a consequence of the nature of battle experienced over the last decade, invested consequential funds and study into state building operations and counterinsurgency. Mazarr argues that this has resulted in “the weakening of the U.S. military’s ability to play more geostrategic and, ultimately, more important roles.” Mazarr goes on to comment more fully about the ramifications of shunning traditional warfare investment by commenting that “the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, lost much of its proficiency in full-spectrum combat operations. Simply put, the U.S. military would be far better positioned today — better aligned with the most important roles for U.S. power, better trained for its traditional missions, better equipped for an emerging period of austerity — had the state-building diversion never occurred.”

Weak and/or failing states are a concern. The priority accorded to them by Washington does however, need to be adjusted. Counterterrorism will continue to be a poignant feature of US military operations abroad but as noted in ‘The January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance’, for example, “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations”. It was also announced that an intention to pursue “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieving objectives” The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, went even further: “I simply don’t know where the security interests of our nation are threatened enough to cause us to lead a future major, extended COIN campaign.” Mazarr advocates that future approach should more resemble “The United States relying on gradual progress through patient, long-term advisory and aid relationships, based on such activities as direct economic assistance tailored to local needs; training, exchanges, and other human-capacity-development programs; military-to-military ties; trade and investment policies; and more.” Beginning to leave behind the civilising mission of state-building will ultimately allow the U.S. to shift it’s focus to a more effective national security policy, prioritising and concentrating on roles that will cultivate long-term peace and security.

This post was written using the knowledge and opinion of Michael Mazarr from the article titled “The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm” printed in the January/February 2014 edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine