Washington's Weak-State Agenda

A Decade of Distraction?

Courtesy Reuters

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

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