Under President Obama, Will Failed States Like Somalia Merit New Attention?

Threats like piracy and terrorism emanate from places like Somalia, but U.S. attention has been spotty.


This year, when Somali pirates seized both a Saudi tanker toting $150 million in crude oil and a freighter full of Russian battle tanks, it was a vivid reminder not only of the perils of piracy but also the of kinds of threats that can spill over from failed states. Somalia, after all, is something of a poster child for failed states, having lacked a stable, functioning government for decades.

In many ways, piracy is one of the more manageable threats emanating from failed states, one that can be mitigated by better security procedures by shippers and a greater naval presence. Failed states also are sources, incubators, and facilitators of terrorism, weapons proliferation, organized crime, infectious diseases, environmental destruction, and violence that often spill over national borders. A recent civil war in Congo, for example, ended up drawing in nine of its neighbors before it was over. Indeed, the Bush administration revised its national security doctrine to label failed states as posing the same level of threat to the homeland as hostile powers.

Yet, the United States still lacks both an official definition of what constitutes a failed state and a comprehensive strategy for dealing with such countries. Managing failed states will undoubtedly be a central challenge for Barack Obama's foreign policy team. Past efforts have had decidedly mixed results. These states have been addressed in an ad hoc manner, if at all, with goals that are notoriously ill-defined, whether it was peacekeeping operations in Haiti, the disastrous military foray into Somalia in the 1990s, or the simultaneous conflict and stability efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The roll of the world's failed—and failing—states is well known: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Haiti, to name a few. Then there's a threat from countries that are not "failing" in the conventional sense but swerve perilously close to the brink—countries like Pakistan and North Korea, each of which boasts nuclear arsenals.

It's Pakistan that is the national security community's greatest nightmare—a hotbed of radicalized anti-Americanism, the home of al Qaeda, a bellicose history with neighboring India, and a weak central government clinging to both its hold on power and the launch codes for an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, after the 9/11 attacks, which were planned from the second-poorest nation on the planet, the Bush administration wrote in its 2002 National Security Strategy that failed nations "pose as great a danger to our national interest as strong states." The dangers of failed nations is a reality not lost on the incoming administration. In his stated foreign policy goals, Obama has pledged to "embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty and hunger around the world in half by 2015" and to "double our foreign assistance to achieve that goal." Such aid, he says, will "help the world's weakest states build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth."

Susan Rice, a longtime Obama foreign policy adviser and his nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, coauthored a major study of failed states last year for the Brookings Institution. It offered a series of recommendations, from the need to alleviate global poverty to the importance of multilateral efforts to promote regional stability.

"U.S. officials now understand that weak states deserve particular attention because they can incubate transnational security threats," Rice wrote. Strengthening those states and helping those governments help their own citizens "must become a significant component of U.S. national security policy." The Bush administration did take some steps toward at least mitigating the impact of failed states in some cases. One notable step was its creation of an Africa Command for the U.S. military in 2007, an acknowledgement that a military presence—for combat, peacekeeping, or humanitarian missions—will likely be needed on the continent to address a variety of military and humanitarian missions.