Catastrophic Consequences: Civil Wars and American Interests

In This Review

Catastrophic Consequences: Civil Wars and American Interests
by Steven R. David
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
224 pp. $50.00

In the post-Cold War world, war between states has been extraordinarily rare, but civil war and armed conflict within states has been widespread. Indeed, in the last two decades, fully one-third of all countries have endured some form of civil conflict. In this sobering study, David argues that domestic upheaval and state collapse are replacing rising states and great-power rivalry as the chief threats to U.S. interests and global security. In one sense, this book offers an eloquent statement of a widely shared view -- namely, that in the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it is the weakness of states, rather than their strength, that is most threatening. What is distinctive about David's book is its focus on four critical states -- China, Mexico, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia -- in which civil war or political upheaval could "unleash catastrophic harms that transform global politics and endanger vital American interests." In each case, David sketches a portrait of regime breakdown and ensuing chaos. Blazing oil fields, loose nuclear weapons, refugee floods, and great-power collapse are catastrophes that could upend global stability and bring peddlers of violence to the United States' doorstep. Provocatively, David argues that spreading democracy or intervening to build better states are not good options. Rather, civil war must be seen as a problem akin to natural disasters: you assume disasters will occur and prepare for the worst.