Fall 2017

Civil Wars & Transnational Threats: Mapping the Terrain, Assessing the Links

Stewart Patrick
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Among the primary strategic rationales for U.S. policy engagement in war-torn states has been the assumption that internal violence generates cross-border spillovers with negative consequences for U.S. and global security, among these transnational terrorism, organized crime, and infectious disease. Closer examination suggests that the connection between internal disorder and transnational threats is situation-specific, contingent on an array of intervening factors and contextual conditions. Taken as a cohort, war-torn states are not the primary drivers of cross-border terrorism, crime, and epidemics, nor do they pose a first-tier, much less existential, threat to the United States. Of greater concern are relatively functional states that maintain certain trappings of sovereignty but are institutionally anemic, thanks to endemic corruption and winner-take-all politics. Ultimately, the most important U.S. stakes in war-torn countries are moral and humanitarian: namely, the imperative of reducing suffering among fellow members of our species.

STEWART PATRICK is the James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World(2017), Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security (2011), and The Best Laid Plans: The Origins of American Multilateralism and the Dawn of the Cold War(2009).

For all the differences between the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, one theme that united them was the conviction that global security was only as strong as its weakest link. One year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush issued his first National Security Strategy, which famously declared that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”1 Fifteen years later, in his last State of the Union address, Obama echoed his predecessor, declaring that the United States was endangered “less by evil empires and more by failing states.”2 This was nowhere more apparent than in the turbulent Middle East, which was likely to be mired in a painful, violent transition for a generation or more, providing safe haven to the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups.

In the decade and a half after 9/11, this broadly shared thesis altered the U.S. national security state, shaping the doctrines, budgets, and activities of mul . . .


  • 1The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: The White House, 2002), http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/63562.pdf.
  • 2“State of the Union 2016: Full text,” cnn,January 12, 2016,http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/12/ politics/state-of-the-union-2016-transcript-full-text/; and Stewart M. Patrick, “States of Failure and Disunion, at Home and Abroad,” The Internationalist, January 13, 2016, https://www .cfr.org/blog-post/states-failure-and-disunion-home-and-abroad.