In early 2002, soon after Foreign Affairs published my essay on failed states, I got a call from a prominent liberal hawk. I thought that he, as an advocate of muscular intervention in Bosnia, would like the case my essay made: that orderly rich states need to do more about the disorder in failed states, since power vacuums threaten their stability. But the official was not altogether supportive. My title, "The Reluctant Imperialist," worried him. The liberal internationalism for which he stood would only be discredited if I stuck an imperialist label on it.

My caller was exactly right, although it took a while for this to become obvious. The imperialist label appeared in countless book titles and articles over the course of the next year, and at first the results seemed mildly positive. Sometimes it was used as a term of opprobrium, but mostly it was deployed in the spirit that I had intended in my own essay: as a way of dramatizing the hole left in the international order by the end of empire. Until the middle of the last century, imperialism provided the orderly world's answer to the threat posed by failed states. But in the post-imperialist age we lack the tools to grapple with this challenge. A combination of foreign aid and democracy training is not sufficiently muscular.

It took the botched postwar effort in Iraq to bring the problem home. Consider the failure to prevent looting, anticipate the consequences of the sudden dismantlement of the military and civilian structures of Saddam Hussein's regime, and put in place employment-generating projects that could have made a quick difference to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. All these mistakes suggested an irresponsible hubris of truly imperial proportions. In less than two years after September 11, 2001, Washington had gone from having no interest in dysfunctional states to something equally perverse: an interest in such states coupled with a glib assumption that it would be easy to fix them. The imperialist label, first deployed as a way of shining the spotlight on a neglected problem, now seemed to connote the overweening arrogance of a sole superpower.

And so, two years later, I regret playing a small part in stoking that talk of imperialism. But what I don't regret is the argument behind my label. As bad as the recent experience in Iraq has been, we can't escape the fact that we will face more challenges like this: state failure does threaten our interests and we have to respond to it. Projects such as the International Reconstruction Fund I proposed in my Foreign Affairs essay no longer seem as far-fetched as they did then. I do not know whether my proposal was right--my thinking has evolved on that front too--but I do know that post-conflict reconstruction is correctly receiving new attention from the Bush administration, in Congress, and in policy circles writ large. We lack the tools and institutions to do what empires once did, and we need somehow to create them.

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  • Sebastian Mallaby is a Washington Post editorial writer and columnist and the author of "The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations."
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