Too often, the Beltway conventional wisdom emerges without careful scrutiny, before the hard questions have been asked. We are convinced this is the case with the thesis that the United States must reform failed states, represented most recently in Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger's article, "In the Wake of War" (Fall 2005).
The conventional wisdom asserts that failed states pose a grave danger to the United States, and the threat has grown more acute in the post-9/11 environment. In Scowcroft and Berger's formulation, "action to stabilize and rebuild states emerging from conflict is not 'foreign policy as social work', a favorite quip of the 1990s. It is equally a national security priority."
But failed states should be a priority only to the extent that such states pose a threat. The lesson of Afghanistan--that failed states can represent threats--should not be extrapolated onto failed states writ large. Although there has been precious little attempt (none by Scowcroft and Berger) to define what "failed state" means, a few states regularly appear at the top of any list: Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Haiti, Sierra Leone--are these the states where Scowcroft and Berger propose we "get serious about nation building"? If not these states, which? And why? To advocate nation building without a better sense of the criteria governing when and where to intervene sounds to us like a recipe for squandering national power to no good end.