Strengthening Weak States: A 21st Century Imperative

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

August 1, 2006

A Changed Security Paradigm

Throughout the cold war period, successive U.S. administrations defined the vital national security interests of the United States in narrow strategic and geographic terms. Our aim was clear: to avert the existential threat of nuclear annihilation through deterrence and containment and to counter Soviet and communist influences in key regions – chiefly Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Only to the extent that superpower competition spread to more distant battlefields did the U.S. evince much strategic interest in parts of Africa and Latin America. Major threats were those that risked the very survival of our country, and such threats emanated almost exclusively from other states – the Soviet Union and its communist proxies.

The post-cold war world is fundamentally different; so, too, is the nature of the threats we face. The Soviet Union is gone. The proxy wars fought across the globe have ended. The United States stands unrivalled in military and economic power. The risk of nuclear annihilation is reduced, though by no means eliminated. The world is fundamentally a safer place.

Yet, ours is still a dangerous world. It is more complex and less predictable. Real threats persist, but their origins and consequences are more diffuse. Today, fewer of the principal threats to U.S. national security are existential in the cold war sense, with the crucial exception of nuclear terrorism. Few, as well, derive primarily from states. Certainly Iran, North Korea and possibly China are states with growing potential to threaten the U.S. in fundamental ways. Yet, despite botched U.S. policies toward Iran and North Korea, these countries’ future as major challenges to U.S. security is not inevitable.

Current risks to U.S. national security extend well beyond the handful that are state based or that have potentially existential consequences. Foremost among the challenges we face are transnational security threats – those that cannot be limited to individual states. They include terrorism, weapons proliferation (of both small arms and weapons of mass destruction), conflict, infectious disease, international crime and narcotics flows, and environmental degradation.

These transnational phenomena threaten U.S. national security because they have the potential to kill significant numbers of Americans – whether swiftly or over an extended period of time. If there was once doubt that the definition of a threat to U.S. national security had changed after the cold war, September 11, 2001, effectively ended that debate. When we lost three thousand Americans in four heinous acts of terror committed by a transnational terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, the United States declared “war on terrorism.” Our goal was both to avenge our compatriots’ deaths and to eliminate Al Qaeda’s ability to execute comparable or more deadly acts of terror in the future. The U.S. government determined that the loss of three thousand American lives at the hands of a hostile foreign agent is a threshold constituting casus belli. Americans broadly supported that determination and a robust military response, whether in the name of prevention, preemption or retaliation.

So what is the appropriate minimum threshold for decisive U.S. action to avert or respond to a loss of American lives resulting from non-hostile external agents – disease, natural disasters exacerbated by environmental degradation, international criminal acts or narcotics trafficking? This question warrants careful consideration, as we weigh the adequacy of steps taken to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic or to rebuild the levees in New Orleans. The transnational security threats we presently confront may take various forms, but all have the potential to result in thousands of American deaths. Countering these new threats is more complex than addressing their cold war antecedents, because none is wholly amenable – and some are not even partially amenable – to the threat or use of force.

No longer, moreover, are Europe, the Middle East and Asia the principal theaters of enduring strategic relevance. Transnational security threats, by definition, can emanate from any part of the world. Often, in fact, they emerge from relatively remote and poor regions of the world. They thrive particularly in conflict and lawless zones and where corruption is rife.

In a swiftly globalizing world, characterized by the rapid, international movement of people, goods, funds and information, threats can traverse the planet with dangerous speed. Today, more than two million people cross an international border each day. Between 1950 and 2003, air traffic volume surged from twenty-eight billion passengerkilometers flown to 2.99 trillion passenger-kilometers. Over the past four decades, total seaborne trade is estimated to have more than quadrupled, from less than six trillion tonmiles in 1965 to twenty-five trillion ton-miles in 2003. These factors combine to render Americans more vulnerable to seemingly far away phenomena: an avian flu epidemic in Cambodia or Burkina Faso or an outbreak of Marburg virus in Angola; the theft of biological or nuclear materials from poorly secured facilities in the former Soviet Union; narcotics traffickers in Tajikistan and criminal syndicates from Nigeria; and, eventually, flooding and other effects of global warming exacerbated by long-term deforestation and tree burning in the Amazon and Congo River basins. At a minimum, such forces could inflict major damage on the U.S. economy. In a worst case scenario, such as a deadly pandemic, they could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of American lives.