Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Interview with Dr. Susan Rice

In Journalism on March 31, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Several years ago, I conducted this interview with the Brookings Institution’s Dr. Susan Rice, formerly Undersecretary of State for Africa in the Clinton Administration, now the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, for Newsweek International. The commissioning editor then told me that the incoming editor, Fareed Zakaria, had decided only to the feature “newsmakers” not “specialists” on the back page and so the article was rejected.

Failed States and Super-Failed States: An Interview with Dr. Susan E. Rice of the Brookings Institution

Americans are used to powerful enemies. During the Cold War we grew comfortable facing off against strong, antagonistic states, bristling with weapons, across defined borders. But in the past decade a new type of threat has taken shape, the “failed state.” Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and now Liberia have taken up residence in that hole where the USSR and East Germany used to lurk. The Bush White House, following the lead of the Clinton administration, has recognized and defined the danger of failed states in its National Security Strategy.

Dr. Susan E. Rice of the Brookings Institution, however, believes that strategy lacks comprehensive measures for neutralizing those threats, measures that include international cooperation and nation building. In a Policy Brief titled “The National Security Strategy: Focus on Failed States” Rice credits the Administration with recognizing the importance of these states and the threats they pose but faults it for neglecting to face up to the policy implications they demand.

Question:

When did the concept of a failed state first arise?

Rice:

I think once the Cold War ended we became more conscious of conflicts in those parts of the world that were not defined as superpower rivals. They might have been exacerbated by Cold War conflict, such as Angola and Somalia, but these were conflicts that essentially emerged in the wake of the Cold War on their own. But it came into even sharper focus after 911 when policy-makers began to realize the cost of places like Afghanistan.

Question:

What constitutes a failed state?

Rice:

The basic element is the lack of effective central government control over the totality of a state territory. And that can arise for a variety of reasons. Conflict is the most common. When the state descends into conflict, usually civil conflict, you often have large blocks of territory that are not controlled by the central government; maybe under rebel control, maybe under mixed control, or are simply anarchic. Another example might be a failed or weakened government where the central government is unable, for any number of reasons, from incompetence to corruption to lack of adequate institutions, to control effectively all of its territories.

Question:

What does the effect of a failed state have on its neighbors? Does it spread, like a virus?

Rice:

Yes. And I think that’s one of the reasons why this is such a big phenomenon. Liberia has been for many years arguably a failed state, (due to) a large civil conflict and also bad government. The cancer that has been the conflict in Liberia has effectively spread throughout much of the sub-region. Dictatorial Liberian President Charles Taylor essentially exported instability to neighboring Guinea, the Ivory Coast, at great cost to other countries in the regions such as Ghana and Nigeria and Senegal. So, what you have in West Africa is what I call the super-failed state. It’s an arc of conflict in that region, which has (produced) instability.

Question:

How are the threats from failed states different from those of powerful states?

Rice:

States that are powerful have the potential to project force and aggression externally, to invade their neighbors, to proliferate weapons, to destabilize their region through affirmative or deliberate steps. Failed states are more like sinkholes that begin to fail, and fall in on themselves and suck in more and more territory around them. The worst consequences of state collapse spread like a cancer throughout a larger region and so, when you don’t have effective governments, where you have conflict and instability, you find that the criminals, the terrorists, the arms dealers, the drug traffickers, look to these areas and see very attractive places to operate, to hide their weapons and money.

Question:

What should an overall policy toward failed states look like?

Rice:

There isn’t a one‑size‑fits‑all approach, but there are some broad strategic elements that should comprise a tool kit.

We need to recognize that these failed states require the international community’s active diplomatic involvement. The United States can’t afford to engage selectively in conflict resolution. We’ve got to be all over this problem diplomatically. We also need to be far more willing to deploy peacekeepers, typically under UN or regional auspices and, on rare occasions, our own, to stabilize failed states and reinforce peace agreements. We also have to be willing to invest substantial resources, along with the United Nations and others in the international community, to help rebuild those nations.

The United States faces in this day and age far fewer threats of a traditional sort than in the Cold War. We’re threatened by terrorism, which is not linked to individual states. We’re threatened by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction which can come from almost anywhere. We’re threatened by disease that can come from very remote parts of the globe and end up in population centers in our country. There are a whole number of transnational threats – drugs, crime, even environmental degradation – which can originate in almost any part of the planet, and eventually reach our shores and have a negative security impact here at home.

Question:

Can failed states, like Afghanistan for instance, in fact be rebuilt?

Rice:

Yes I think it is possible to help failed states rebuild but it is a costly and long-term and we have to have the follow-through. But we can work with other countries, with the UN, with organizations like the World Bank. We have examples of rather sucessful efforts – Mozambique, the Balkans, East Timor. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult. Given the resource requirements and differing states of readiness of failed states, we don’t need to treat them all simultaneiously. But we need to aknowledge this as a national security imperative and we need treat it accordingly.

Question:

Is it feasible for regional powers to take the responsibility for failed states in their areas? For instance, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States)?

Rice:

Diplomatic efforts conducted by regional parties can sometimes be sufficient, but they look to others in the international community to back up those diplomatic efforts. But when it comes to peacekeeping and reconstruction, the nations in the neighborhood are often poor and fragile also, so the resources of the international communty are necessary and it may be neccessary sometimes to include peacekeepers. It doesn’t need to be exlusively or even primarily the United States — in the Balkans it was NATO, In Timor it was the Austrialian, In Cote D’Ivoire France, and in Sierra Leone Britain. We have been called to take on Liberia but our answer remains in question.

Question:

Regarding the process of a state failing, does the relative newness in some parts of the world of the notion of a nation-state explain some of the failure? What about that old bugbear “colonialism” which gets blamed for many of the ills of the third world, especially in Africa?

Rice:

Newness is not at fault. There have been more successful states than failed states. In some instances there is an indirect linkage to colonialism that has accelarated state collapse. An example is in Rwanada, how the Belgians played the two ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis, off against one another. This contributed to the later violence. But generally speaking, it is harder and harder to indentify colonialism as a primary factor in state collapse.

Question:

Was it 911 when we had undeniable physical proof of what happens with failed states and the need to engage in nation-building?

Rice:

I think when it comes to nation‑building, I don’t think it even 911 was a sufficient wake-up call. I think it was realizing that once you break something, you can’t just leave it broken. You have to fix it. And you may be breaking things for the right reasons, particularly in Afghanistan, but it’s not sufficient to simply displace the government. One has to have some responsibility for building something back in its stead that is sustainable and will obviate the need for subsequent military intervention. And so I think by necessity they realized that this has got to be, whether we like it or not, an integral part of our foreign policy and national security policy.

Photo from New American Foundation

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