One philosophically interesting thing about the state-building policy push is the concomitant realignment of the old left-right repartition of producers of meaning. That would be a good general indicator of the issue's validity - as it is with all political subjects which do not summon the usual opinions along this continuum. The Bush administration came into office waving the small government conservative Big Power politics flag, and then did a 180 on the topic after 9/11 with the National Security Strategy. Liberals tend to be pro anything on the soft end of the transition process from intervention to statebuilding, while realist conservatives prefer the hard end, used sparingly. So, the fault lines are approximately the same as regarding humanitarian intervention.
Now, the classic liberals of the CATO Institute enter the fray about post-conflict reconstruction, transitioning and, concretely, the attempts at administrative preparation for the next time through State's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Development (S/CRS). In a 32-page interesting piece entitled Failed States and Failed Logic (here, in pdf), Justin Logan and Christopher Preble make their case against a "Standing Nation-Building Office". The executive summary:
In July 2004 the State Department opened the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). Its official mandate is to “help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy.” The idea of a standing nation-building office has strong support in the Bush administration, among academics and foreign policy analysts, and from key players in Congress.Logan/Preble make one semi-valid point about the faulty logic of anti-failed states arguments in the name of national security, but miss the larger picture in its insistence on the sanctimony of parsimony in policy choices. A more valid argument is made more implicitly, concerning the stimulation of demand through generous supply (risks of too-frequent use once a reasonably effective mechanism has been established, in other words). In this piece, we have a look at the first of the three subsections of the Cato argument, and then hopefully return to the rest later.
The arguments in favor of creating such an office are rooted in the belief that failed states are threats to U.S. national security. S/CRS’s early projects included postconflict planning for Sudan, Haiti, and Cuba, all countries largely unrelated to U.S. national security concerns. Although failed states can present threats, it is a mistake to argue that they frequently do. The few attempts that have been made to quantify what “state failure” means demonstrate that it is not inherently threatening.
Moreover, attempting to remedy state failure would pose serious problems for U.S. foreign policy. U.S. nation-building projects in the past had a highly dubious track record, and there is no indication that future projects would fare any better.
A standing office devoted to nation building is a cure worse than the disease. Sober assessment of the U.S. national interest and a more judicious approach to intervention abroad would be better guiding principles than assuming that all failed or failing states pose a threat. When interventions are absolutely necessary, existing institutional capacity is sufficient to carry out stabilization and reconstruction missions.
The argument goes: No direct necessary threat from failed states, and quantifying state failure shows this. The two contain a welcome deflation of a recurring claim - on the face of things, at least. Logan and Preble do have a valid point about the direct necessary threat from failed states. In a concrete sense, the usually made argument about failed states as vaccum which attracts and allows terrorists to roam freem and prepare to strike out is clearly too simplistic, and it was probably about time someone said it out loud. Starting out with three different attemps at coding and listing the world's present and potential failed states, Logan and Preble make a reverse argument about what the data are not saying:
If one assumes that state failure in itself represents a threat, then the logical conclusion is that American security concerns for the Ivory Coast would be greater than they are for any of the less-failed nations. But that is obviously not the case. There are much better metrics for assessing levels of threat than the degree of state failure. The lists of “failed states” and “security threats” will no doubt overlap, but correlation does not equal causation. The obvious nonthreats that appear on all lists of failed states undermine the claim that there is something particular about failed states that is necessarily threatening.This point is completely valid and it was probably about time someone made it, because it has been reiterated in every policy report on the subject since 9/11. Yet, what the failed states category can yield is of course exactly correlation and it is thus a useful heuristic device for the security people.
But that the fall out from this analysis must be, that the entire US national security community should by definition be doing everything else than getting better at state-building and post-conflict process administration flies in the face of reason. No, correlation is not causation, but if there is correlation then it could easily be that there is another framework which will solve the security/state stability/development equation. Maybe there is another reason for dealing with failed states, one that while not aligned with clear and present danger may still be very much grounded in valid national security reasons. It would be possible to make several very different arguments about the benefits of long-term policy planning etc., but we'll have to do with just one of them for now.
What is really at stake here, in the way that Logan and Preble pose their question and make the argument is not as much the definition and role of 'failed states' as it is the definition and role of 'national security'. Do we conceive of 'national security' as 'national defense' , i.e. the mostly defensive and very limited notion of homeland defense?
Or do we mean something more forward, outreaching, with the goal of defending and sustaining not merely our territories, but also our way of life, i.e. including sustaining and protecting the globalized economy? While the CATO people would probably love a 'minimal state' version of national security they must have missed most of the last 50 years foreign policy developments if they think it possible. National security IS about a lot more than national defense: that was why the term was invented around 1947, to account for all the stuff that was less than war but more than regular diplomacy, around the time the conceptual chips fell into place after the turmoil of WWII (see Yergin's Shattered Peace).
US 'national security' has always been about more than mere homeland defense - because for as long as the concept has existed, the US has conceived of a much broader challenge and responsibility for itself, as the ultimate defender of freedom. Exactly what this means and entails is evidently open to a lot of interpretation, but one thing it does not mean, in spite of the sometimes recurring calls for it, is that functional isolationism in security especially, but in practically anything, is a proper and possible option.
So, to return the scholastic Logan/Preble argument: What is true in the logic of Economics is not necessarily true in Politics. In fact, politics IS the framework which lets the principle of the free market function. Looking at the very big constitutive spheres of society - a sort of conceptual Lego bricks - Security is one of the essential Politics Lego pieces which serve to support the Economics pieces. An absence of evidence about impact in the short term is not evidence of absence of the importance of failed states for US national security, in neither the middle nor the long term.