The Vegas Dilemma and Failed States
Why is the challenge of failing states so crucial for the health of the global community?
May 15, 2009
What happens in Las Vegas may stay in Vegas, as the old advertising mantra goes, but what happens in nation-states doesn't stay inside those states.
Just think of the swine flu. It started in Mexico but has spread not just to the neighboring United States, but also globally, even as far away as New Zealand.
Or take the political instability in Pakistan. It continues to impact Afghanistan, but with the no longer implausible specter of the first nuclear armed failed state, it has a global impact. Or consider the long failed Somali state from which marauders turn from local violence to piracy on the high seas.
In these and other cases, the "Vegas dilemma" is that the profound weakness of some countries poses a viral threat — and perhaps one greater — than traditional concerns about countering state strength.
Meanwhile, most observers are still glued to thinking about scenarios where some states seek dominance over others. While still to be defended and deterred against, we have not recognized yet that these classic cases are less defining of our era than are transnational forces.
It increasingly the latter which has major disruptive effects, and potentially devastatingly destructive consequences — both internationally and within domestic societies.
This shift in the central security dynamic is not coming out of the blue. SARS created global pandemic fears in 2003-04, and the avian flu in 2005. This time, though, the disease spread rapidly across borders.
Signs of Pakistani instability had long been there. Now, though, with the Afghan Taliban flowing so freely back and forth across the border with Afghanistan, Al Qaeda re-ensconced, and Pakistan's own Taliban on the march, the situation is more imminently dire.
Somali pirates, as well as other nationalities, had been taking foreign merchant sailors hostage and disrupting maritime commerce for quite awhile. This time, it was an American captain and American ship.
As with other threats, we can do a certain amount through our own policies and power. Our public health system — starting with the New York City school nurse who reported students' swine flu symptoms through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — quickly kicked into gear.
The Obama administration has raised the priority of, increased resources to, and shifted strategy for the "Af-Pak" problem. The U.S. Navy deployed its big ships and little guns, albeit skilled sharpshooter ones, to free Captain Richard Phillips from his pirate captors.
A certain amount also can be done working with international partners. The World Health Organization helps with multilateral information sharing, containment and eradication. The World Bank and IMF are providing Pakistan with economic support, and NATO allies and potentially others are stepping up their roles.
Other states with significant maritime interests at stake are adding their navies to the flotillas, with the International Maritime Organization helping with coordination.
But there's only so much that can be done, unilaterally or multilaterally, if we keep waiting to the 11th hour. Producing sufficient swine flu vaccine for the American populace would take until next year — and years longer to meet global demand.
The Pakistan strategy may be too little too late. As long as Somalia has a void of political authority and absence of economic opportunity, there'll be a steady supply of pirates.
The key is to finally start taking prevention seriously as a broad-based strategic doctrine. That means sustained and comprehensive strategies, not just crisis response and piecemeal approaches.
For swine flu and other global pandemics, a strategic approach has to include building local public health systems with early warning and action capacity in seemingly far-away places such as Mexico, Thailand, Bulgaria, Kenya and elsewhere — where outbreaks tend to occur.
That's where the front lines are. Unless we meet the threat there, we'll continue to be left with largely rear-guard actions.
In Pakistan, the U.S. record has been to deal with immediate crises in ways that contributed to longer-term ones. Yes, we got the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but we abetted Islamization. We supported Musharraf in the name of 9/11, with some short-term benefits in the initial Afghanistan war — but with profoundly counterproductive effects over time. Instead of relying on ad-hoc approaches, we need to meet the current crisis in ways that build sustainable security.
In Somalia, we've tried intervening. And we've tried ignoring. Neither has worked.
State-building is easier to talk about than do. But unless a modicum of order based on legitimate authority and economic progress can be achieved, the question won't be whether there'll be more Vegas dilemma effects, only what form they will take.
It's not just these issues on which the tendency to be more reactive than preventive has repeatedly left higher costs (monetary and human), fewer and worse options, and lower probabilities of success.
Think about the global environment, ethnic conflict, and others. For these and other reasons, prevention needs to become a more central part of strategic doctrine, organizational structure and decision-making.
The difficulties of prevention must not be underestimated. But we should also not underestimate its necessity.
Vegas may be Vegas, but the rest of the world is not.
There's only so much that can be done, unilaterally or multilaterally, if we keep waiting to the 11th hour.
The "Vegas dilemma" is that the profound weakness of some countries poses a viral threat — and perhaps one greater — than traditional concerns about countering state strength.
This shift in the central security dynamic is not coming out of the blue. SARS created global pandemic fears in 2003-04.
The key is to finally start taking prevention seriously as a broad-based strategic doctrine.