Rebuilding Weak States

CRITICAL CONDITION

"Postconflict reconstruction" has become the foreign policy issue du jour in Washington. Multiple think-tank studies, a new State Department office, and no fewer than ten proposed congressional bills all tackle the subject. This flurry of activity to rectify a long-ignored deficiency is a welcome development: recent U.S.-led endeavors in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that the planning, financing, coordination, and execution of U.S. programs for rebuilding war-torn states are woefully inadequate.

But the narrow focus on postconflict misses a larger point: there is a crisis of governance in a large number of weak, impoverished states, and this crisis poses a serious threat to U.S. national security. The foreign policy architecture of the United States was created for the threats of the twentieth century--enemies whose danger lay in their strength. Today, however, the gravest danger to the nation lies in the weakness of other countries--the kind of weakness that has allowed opium production to skyrocket in Afghanistan, the small arms trade to flourish throughout Central Asia, and al Qaeda to exploit Somalia and Pakistan as staging grounds for attacks.

Terrorism, conflict, and regional instability are on the rise throughout the developing world, and the repercussions will not just be felt locally. Weak and failed states and the chaos they nurture will inevitably harm U.S. security and the global economy that provides the basis for American prosperity. Yet the United States is doing too little to respond to this gathering storm. In fact, Washington's past efforts at nation building--some well intentioned and others ignorant of long-term implications for development and stability--have often eroded the legitimacy and capacity of the states they purported to help.

The United States needs a new, comprehensive strategy to reverse this trend and turn back the tide of violence, humanitarian crises, and social upheaval that is sweeping across developing countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe--and that could engulf the rest of the world. An effective strategy will embrace a four-pronged approach focused on crisis prevention, rapid response, centralized U.S. decision-making, and international cooperation.

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