The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm

Requiem for a Decade of Distraction

A broken globe in an abandoned school in Ukraine. Fiona McAllister / Flickr

For a decade and a half, from the mid-1990s through about 2010, the dominant national security narrative in the United States stressed the dangers posed by weak or failing states. These were seen to breed terrorism, regional chaos, crime, disease, and environmental catastrophe. To deal with such problems at their roots, the argument ran, the United States had to reach out and help stabilize the countries in question, engaging in state building on a neo-imperial scale. And reach out the United States did -- most obviously during the protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of conflict and effort with precious little to show for it, however, the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building is drawing to a close. And although there are practical reasons for this shift -- the United States can no longer afford such missions, and the public has tired of them -- the decline of the state-building narrative reflects a more profound underlying truth: the obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine. Its passing will not leave the United States more isolationist and vulnerable but rather free the country to focus on its more important global roles.


In the wake of the Cold War, contemplating a largely benign security environment, many U.S. national security strategists and practitioners concluded that the most important risks were posed by the fragility of state structures and recommended profound shifts in U.S. foreign and defense policy as a result. In an interconnected world, they argued, chaos, violence, and grievances anywhere had the potential to affect U.S. interests, and weak states were factories of such volatility. Experiences in Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia helped fuel the concern, and by 1994, the CIA was funding a state-failure task force to get a handle on the problem.

In 1997, the Clinton administration released Presidential Decision Directive 56, “Managing Complex Contingency Operations,” which began with the assertion that “

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