On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

4 thoughts on “On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I completely agree with you vis a vis the REAL thing to be scared of is the USA’s own self. I’m feeling like all this weak state talk is just an excuse for the military-industrial complex to maintain its bloated budget.

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