The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportune moment to reflect on the lessons the United States drew from those horrible events. One of the most problematic was the belief that the main threats to U.S. and international security emanated not from powerful states, as in the past, but from weak and failing ones. This questionable conviction led to a sweeping reorientation of U.S. foreign and national security policy that distracted the country from more important sources of danger and reinforced a militarized approach to the very real development and humanitarian needs of the world’s fragile states.
In late summer 2001, the United States was at the zenith of its unipolar moment, with no peer competitor. The ability of al-Qaida to organize and carry out a devastating surprise attack on the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan, one of the most impoverished and least developed countries on Earth, delivered a shock to the national psyche comparable to and arguably greater than Pearl Harbor. Within U.S. policy circles, a new consensus quickly emerged, which then-President George W. Bush articulated in his first National Security Strategy published in June 2002: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones.” The implication of 9/11, the author Thomas P. M. Barnett wrote in his bestselling 2005 book, “The Pentagon’s New Map ,” was clear: “Disconnectedness defines danger.”
This new threat perception quickly became the conventional wisdom among government officials, journalists and analysts—including, for a time, myself. “When development and governance fail in a country,” the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, breathlessly declared in January 2002, “the consequences engulf entire regions and leap across the world. Terrorism, political violence, civil wars, organized crime, drug trafficking, infectious diseases, environmental crises, refugee flows, and mass migration cascade across the borders of weak states more destructively than ever before.” This perspective enjoyed strong bipartisan support. In his first major speech as a Democratic candidate for president in April 2007, Barack Obama proclaimed that “impoverished, weak and ungoverned states…have become the most fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats like terror and pandemic disease and the smuggling of deadly weapons.”
This preoccupation with spillovers from weak and failing states inspired a slew of U.S. policy pronouncements and institutional innovations. After 9/11, the Departments of State and Defense, USAID, the intelligence community and other U.S. agencies turned their attention to the world’s “ungoverned zones.” They drafted strategy documents and developed capabilities to help stabilize fragile and war-torn states, including by bringing U.S. diplomacy, development and defense policies into alignment . The results, to put it mildly, were disappointing. Nurturing effective institutions in these environments, including Afghanistan and Iraq following the U.S. invasions of both countries, proved to be much more challenging than U.S. strategists had imagined . Moreover, the gargantuan Pentagon budget ensured that so-called whole-of-government approaches to the problems facing these states would in practice rely heavily on military instruments of dubious utility for nation-building .
The failed states thesis was alluring, in part because it provided a convenient roadmap for what an effective response to the events of 9/11 should look like.
More fundamentally, as I argued in my 2011 book, “Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security ,” the assumptions motivating this entire enterprise were flawed . It turns out that the linkage between state weakness and transnational threats is far more contingent and tenuous than widely believed. Generally speaking, the world’s weakest nations, measured in terms of their institutional strength, are not the primary source of cross-border threats, in part because they tend to be poorly connected with the rest of the world and, when it comes to malignant actors, provide an unpredictable, insecure operating environment. This is true even for terrorists. As al-Qaida’s own frustrating experiences in Somalia suggest , truly failed states are less attractive to transnational—as opposed to locally focused—terrorists than more capable states with critical governance gaps, such as neighboring Kenya, in this case. Moreover, jihadist terrorists have often found “safe haven” in many highly capable states, including France, Germany, Spain—and indeed the United States.
What of the threat of infectious disease? Many analysts depict weak states as the soft underbelly of global health security, an argument that makes intuitive sense. After all, nations that fail to invest in the health of their citizens and lack the capacity to monitor and respond to disease outbreaks would seem to “place the rest of the world at risk.” The reality is more complicated. Yes, the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016 began in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But the origins and spread of COVID-19—like SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009—show little linkage to state fragility as conventionally understood. The coronavirus originated in China, hardly a weak state, and devastated both the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that ranked high on the major indices of pandemic preparedness .
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the post-9/11 U.S. obsession with weak and failing states was a costly distraction, diverting policymakers’ attention from the two biggest global challenges confronting the United States in the 21st century: resurgent geopolitical competition and accelerating climate change.
Both the Bush and—initially—Obama administrations imagined that China and Russia could be gradually integrated into the U.S.-led, rules-bound international system as “responsible stakeholders ,” allowing the United States to focus on combatting transnational threats and the fragile and war-torn states that ostensibly spawned them. By the end of Obama’s second term, however, it was obvious that neither Beijing nor Moscow shared the U.S. vision of world order , that U.S. efforts to socialize them had failed, and that both were determined to press for regional and global advantage at the expense of the U.S. and its Western and regional allies. President Joe Biden’s recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is at once a rejection of the failed state thesis and a belated acknowledgement that the U.S. faces a decades-long struggle with authoritarian powers. Indeed, Biden frames the clash between autocracy and democracy as the defining contest of our time.
Finally, the failed state fixation—and the global war on terrorism more generally—arguably delayed a more vigorous U.S. response to climate change, which represents a far more profound threat to the country’s long-term security, prosperity and welfare. With the United States mired in endless nation-building exercises and playing whack-a-mole with jihadist networks, its national security establishment and elected leaders ignored the catastrophic implications of a warming planet , rather than spearheading a multilateral effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions. This would have focused not on weak states like Afghanistan, responsible for only about 0.03 percent of global carbon emissions , but on the world’s leading emitters, developed and developing alike. In this respect, the battle against climate change was yet another casualty of 9/11.
The failed states thesis was alluring, in part because it provided a convenient roadmap for what an effective response to the events of 9/11 should look like. With hindsight, it proved to be a costly detour, leading only to a dead end and wasting valuable effort and resources that could otherwise have gone to addressing more serious threats and challenges.
Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday .