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Weak Nations Pose Greatest Threat

Michael Kraig
Star Tribune
April 2009

Though short-lived, this week's seizing of a U.S.-flagged ship and its American crew by Somali pirates underscores a new fundamental truth: The world's weakest nations pose the greatest global security threats.

It was the sixth hijacking in recent days despite a new international effort to patrol the waters off Somalia, the east African nation that's become a glaring example of a failed state.

The world has undergone a great transition from Cold War competition between two ideological, economic and military blocs to a more complex security equation. We are experiencing a global surge in transnational, stateless and nontraditional threats, often emanating from failed or fragile states such as Somalia or Pakistan.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently testified to Congress that the leading threat to America is no longer terrorism but rather the economic crisis, which is leading to unrest, violence and instability in a number of countries. "In recent years, it seems we've had more security problems from states that have been in trouble than we have from strong states that have been an adversary to us in the traditional way," Blair said.

The term "fragile state" includes the coexistence of weak central governments with opposing militias, drug lords, tribal affiliations or other "centrifugal forces" on the nation's territory. It can include endemic civil violence over natural resources and commodities such as oil, and chronic religious or ethnic strife.

This problem is not confined to any one region, culture or nationality. It is a systemic ailment that threatens the foundation of a healthy globalized order.

The danger that fragile states pose was also demonstrated in November in India's business capital of Mumbai, when a small group of gunman, acting with brutal efficiency and wielding the latest in small arms, wrought destruction in one of the world's most important trading and financial hubs. India is viewed as a future major power in Asia. Yet the small group that held one of its biggest cities hostage was financed and trained in a fragile Pakistani state.

The potential for future attacks is much greater than is the potential for traditional wars between nations like the United States and China. Yet, state weakness is something that the United States and its allies are still largely unprepared to either prevent or manage.

The United States assumes that most transnational problems like terrorism or piracy can be linked back to an enemy state with an irredeemable ideology. This thinking -- focused on strong regional powers rather than on weak states -- ultimately means the United States puts most of its budgetary and policy attention on the buildup and projection of military forces in key regions.

This was the Cold War script that prompted conventional and nuclear deployments in Europe and Asia and strong alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This thinking led the United States into Vietnam; resulted in nuclear buildups in the Kennedy and Reagan years, and led to U.S. support for all stripes of dictators in the name of defeating communism across the globe. For better or worse, it was the basic approach to global security for 50 years.

The same script has been followed in the Middle East, by ousting Saddam Hussein and attempting to court "moderate" Arab regimes and a strong ally, Israel, to isolate and weaken Syria and Iran.

Unfortunately, military actions have the effect of increasing a nation's probability of state failure. That's the long-term cost paid for short-term gains against existing terrorist cells. The ultimate effect is to make disorderly regions of the developing world even more disorderly, increasing the chances of economic chaos, terrorism, and illicit trafficking in material goods and human beings.

We've heard the new administration talk of "smart power" and the need for multilateral action. That's a start, but we'll need to get beyond buzzwords. It will require serious adjustments to military training and deployments, foreign-aid programs, and diplomacy. But first, the right questions must be asked.
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