In his essay “The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm” (January/February 2014), Michael Mazarr heralds the end of “the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building,” which he argues lasted from the mid-1990s to around 2010. Washington’s “obsession with weak states,” he writes, “was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine.” But as budget austerity and public opinion shake policymakers loose from this dangerous distraction, he predicts, the United States will finally be able to focus on “grand strategic initiatives” and “transformative diplomacy.” Much of Mazarr’s argument rings true. Mazarr is right that the threats incubated by weak or failing states have turned out to be less urgent for U.S. national security than many observers feared, that the ambiguous definition of failing states has made it difficult to take meaningful action, and that policymakers have found it hard to blend the political and technocratic dimensions of state-building endeavors. Other parts of his narrative, however, rest on shakier ground.

First, Mazarr suggests that Washington embraced the mission of renovating weak states in the wake of the Cold War to justify continued U.S. primacy. Yet by the late-1980s, U.S. policymakers were more concerned with disentangling Soviet-era confrontations. To achieve a modicum of stability, Washington outsourced that work to overstretched and underfunded United Nations peacekeepers in such countries as Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mozambique, Namibia, and Nicaragua. In some cases, the missions were successful. But as Soviet and Western sponsorship waned, dictators such as Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre and Chad’s Hissène Habré lost their grip on power. Other strongmen, meanwhile, felt free to act more capriciously, as was the case when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Washington played a more prominent role, of course, in Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Yet even in these cases, a missionary zeal for state building was hardly the key motivator. In the early 1990s, political turmoil in Haiti led thousands of desperate refugees to head for Florida beaches. Were Haiti located off the coast of, say, southern Africa, a massive exodus of desperate refugees would not have triggered U.S.-led action on the scale of the 1994 intervention. Although the mission’s code name, Operation Uphold Democracy, suggested a state-building aspiration, Haiti’s proximity was always what captured the attention of U.S. policymakers and their congressional overseers. In the Balkans, the key challenge was securing Europe’s uncertain passage to post–Cold War stability. After three years of spiraling violence, Yugoslavia’s fragmentation had become an untenable problem for transatlantic relations and threatened a number of unsteady post-Soviet transitions nearby. U.S.-led NATO bombing campaigns in Bosnia and, later, Kosovo thwarted Serbia’s irredentism, reassured anxious neighbors, and eventually paved the way for peace settlements, shaky though they remain. As for Afghanistan in 2001, the United States embarked on a war of necessity, not choice, in the wake the September 11 attacks. Each of these interventions, then, reflected specific security imperatives -- not some larger vision for global engagement through the remediation of weak states.

Then there was Iraq in 2003. For key officials in the George W. Bush administration, the intervention’s underlying rationale was to conclude the 1990–91 Gulf War after an unsatisfying 12-year intermission. Saddam was very close, many thought, to acquiring weapons of mass destruction. As for state building, few expected that Iraq would need much assistance; the country already had a viable economy, functioning government ministries, and one of the most highly developed educational systems in the region. All Washington needed to do was topple the dictator, fix a few bridges, provide some relief aid, and leave -- or so it was widely thought. Mazarr also argues that U.S. policymakers embraced interventionist state building with “misplaced confidence.” Yet following the 1993 humanitarian aid mission in Somalia, which resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers, the Clinton administration evinced quite a bit of caution, steering clear of Rwanda when genocidal violence broke out in 1994. The United States also relied heavily on France, the United Kingdom, and key African partners to help calm political turbulence in West Africa and kept a low profile as Australia and a number of Southeast Asian nations led efforts to stabilize a newly independent East Timor.


Mazarr claims that Washington’s obsession with weak states was a costly distraction from larger geostrategic priorities, such as reducing tensions in Northeast Asia and cultivating relations with rising regional powers such as Brazil, India, and Turkey. On one level, Mazarr is absolutely right. Policymakers have limited bandwidth. Maintaining a reasonable balance between managing interstate tensions in, say, the East China Sea and navigating the twists and turns of Afghan and Iraqi politics can be hugely challenging.

But it is difficult to see how fragile states act as much of a distraction from those problems. In any given week, the likelihood that the United States’ top leaders will meet to ponder how to fix fragile states is incredibly small. If a weak state’s dysfunctions aid and abet more pressing threats, such as possible terrorist attacks, that state will surely get scrutinized; if not, the task of coming up with plausible ways to shore up its stability quickly falls to officials at lower levels.
There is a bit of irony, then, in Mazarr’s citing of President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Presidential Decision Directive 56 as an early harbinger of a distracting obsession with weak states. One of its underlying goals was to free up top officials by encouraging them to delegate most day-to-day work on so-called complex contingency operations to lower-level officials. In the majority of cases after 1997, such as the multilateral interventions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, agency deputies ended up handling key decision-making and oversight duties. And they still found clever ways of dealing with potential problems before they swamped the president and his cabinet-level principals with endless meetings.

The failed-state paradigm had an alluring quality -- as Mazarr rightly observes, it was a politically adroit way of bridging security, development, and humanitarian interests. But Mazarr overestimates the influence of the concept on actual policy choices; after all, the kind of interconnected security challenges the United States faces will persist regardless of the frame Washington uses to think about or describe them. Such challenges, one hopes, will not trigger massive U.S. troop deployments anytime soon. But as the United States reorients its post-2014 defense budget, it needs to retain the wherewithal to respond quickly to the unexpected.

JAMES A. SCHEAR was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations from 2009 to 2013.


In his thoughtful response to my article, James Schear admits that “the threats incubated by weak or failing states have turned out to be less urgent for U.S. national security than many observers feared” and concurs that the United States should avoid massive troop deployments in response to those threats. These two points constitute the essence of my argument, and they point to the double agenda I laid out in my original essay: refocus the United States’ strategic attention on the leading geopolitical, socioeconomic, and environmental challenges of the day and develop lighter-footprint approaches to dealing with state-building missions. On the most important issues, then, I’m not sure that we part company.

Schear does question my claim that the failed-state obsession emerged from a desire by U.S. policymakers to maintain their country’s geopolitical primacy. I remain convinced of a connection, although motives are hard to judge. I’m more concerned with how policymakers defined U.S. interventions in places such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq once they were undertaken. And there can be no doubt that the United States, both rhetorically and in specific policy decisions, conceived of many such adventures in transformative terms, aiming to reshape states and societies.

The weak-state agenda was dangerous not merely because it overstated the security risks of weak states but also because policymakers dealt with those risks in elaborate, unsustainable, and often counterproductive ways. Such approaches were grounded in the assumption that the United States could move just about any weak state well along the road to becoming a Western-style democracy. As just one example, the planning documents for Iraq allow no other interpretation -- the George W. Bush administration’s neoimperial yearnings were spelled out right down to the ethnic composition of a presumed future national assembly. The fact that some thought the job would be easy, as Schear correctly notes, doesn’t mean U.S. ambitions weren’t excessive. The United States needs a humbler, more discrete set of options for future contingencies, a conclusion Schear likely agrees with.

A problem of definition also lurks in Schear’s argument. Most of the cases to which Schear refers -- the Balkans, East Timor, Sierra Leone -- constituted classic peacekeeping operations. They were not the occupy-and-socially-transform endeavors more closely associated with Washington’s weak-state agenda. It is true that peacekeeping missions have smaller costs and that lower-level officials can manage their risks without overloading the attention of top leaders. But Schear never disputes the more fundamental point: that any nation’s ability to transform another is a fantasy. True, it occasionally makes sense for Washington to participate in real peacekeeping -- separating warring factions so that local institutions can begin rebuilding the society. But that is where the United States must draw the line.

Schear doubts that Washington had misplaced confidence in state building after Somalia. But there is no other way to explain the wishful thinking -- which Schear rightly notes -- that preceded the invasion of Iraq or the elaborate state-building ambitions displayed at the 2001 Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan. If the Bush administration managed to write off the state-building problems of the past, including those the United States encountered in the Balkans, there is every reason to expect future administrations to indulge in the same self-serving delusions.

Finally, Schear argues that state-building missions do not distract policymakers much. But based on the available sources, ranging from conversations with senior diplomats to the memoirs of officials, his claim seems extraordinary given the degree to which Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations. More recently, concerns about state failure in Congo, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen have consistently pressed their way to the top of senior leaders’ schedules, both in the United States and abroad. Washington’s obsession with weak or failing states may be flagging, but the United States remains poorly prepared to deal with the challenges posed by China, Russia, climate change, and a half dozen other leading security issues -- thanks to the thousands of hours lost to deliberations on weak and failing states. On this point, too, I cannot help but think that Schear and I largely agree.

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  • JAMES A. SCHEAR was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations from 2009 to 2013. MICHAEL J. MAZARR is Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College.
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