The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Vacuum Wars

Failed states cause more than just humanitarian problems and terrorism; they’re potential flashpoints for great power wars as well.

Published on July 1, 2009

Mention “failed states” in an academic seminar or a policy meeting and you will hear a laundry list of tragic problems: poverty, disease, famine, refugees flowing across borders and more. If it is a really gloomy day, you will hear that failed states are associated with terrorism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This is the conventional wisdom that has developed over the past two decades, and rightly so given the scale of the human tragedies in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, just to mention the most egregious cases of the 1990s.

This prevailing view of failed states, however, though true, is also incomplete. Failed states are not only a source of domestic calamities; they are also potentially a source of great power competition that in the past has often led to confrontation, crisis and war. The failure of a state creates a vacuum that, especially in strategically important regions, draws in competitive great-power intervention. This more traditional view of state failure is less prevalent these days, for only recently has the prospect of great power competition over failed “vacuum” states returned. But, clearly, recent events in Georgia—as well as possible future scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as southeastern Europe, Asia and parts of Africa—suggest that it might be a good time to adjust, really to expand, the way we think about “failed states” and the kinds of problems they can cause.

The difference between the prevailing and the traditional view on state failure is not merely one of accent or nuance; it has important policy implications. Intense great power conflict over the spoils of a failed state will demand a fundamentally different set of strategies and skills from the United States. Whereas the response to the humanitarian disasters following state failure tends to consist of peacekeeping and state-building missions, large-scale military operations and swift unilateral action are the most likely strategies great powers will adopt when competing over a power vacuum. On the political level, multilateral cooperation, often within the setting of international institutions, is feasible as well as desirable in case of humanitarian disasters. But it is considerably more difficult, perhaps impossible, when a failed state becomes an arena of great power competition.

The prevailing view of failed states is an obvious product of the past two decades—a period in which an entirely new generation of scholars and policymakers has entered their respective professions. A combination of events—the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prostration of states such as Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Bosnia, and most importantly the terrorist attacks of September 11—created two interlocked impressions concerning the sources of state failure that are today largely accepted uncritically.

The first of these is that weak states have unraveled because of the great powers’ disinterest in them, which has allowed serious domestic problems, ranging from poverty to ethnic and social strife, to degenerate into chaos and systemic governance failure.1 The basic idea here is that the Cold War had a stabilizing effect in several strategic regions where either the United States or the Soviet Union supported recently fashioned states with little domestic legitimacy and cohesion for fear that, if they did not, the rival superpower might gain advantage. Some fortunate Third World neutrals even managed a kind of foreign aid arbitrage, attracting help from both sides. When support from the superpowers ended, many of these states, such as Somalia and Yugoslavia, were torn apart by internal factionalism. The state lacked the money to bribe compliance or to generate a larger economic pie, degenerating rapidly into corruption and violence. The key conclusion: The most egregious and tragic examples of failed states in the 1990s occurred because of great power neglect rather than meddling.

The related second impression that post-Cold War events have created is that the main threat posed by failed states starts from within them and subsequently spills over to others. Failed states export threats ranging from crime to drugs to refugees to, most dramatically, global terrorism.2 The lawlessness and violence of such states often spills across borders in the form of waves of refugees, the creation of asylums for criminals and more besides.

As the number and severity of failed state cases rose, Western powers reacted much of the time by hoping that the problems arising from the failure of states, even those geographically close to the United States or Europe like Haiti and Bosnia, would remain essentially limited so that internal chaos could simply be waited out. Interventions such as in Somalia, Bosnia or Haiti were driven by a Western public shocked by vivid images of suffering and slaughter rather than by a sense that these collapsed states directly threatened U.S. national security. The 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States changed the perception that failed states could be safely ignored. The Hobbesian world of a failed state could be distant, but it was also a breeding ground for terrorist networks that could train their foot soldiers, establish logistical bases and plan attacks against distant countries. Failed states suddenly were not only humanitarian disasters but security threats. As Francis Fukuyama observed in 2004, “radical Islamist terrorism combined with the availability of weapons of mass destruction added a major security dimension to the burden of problems created by weak governance.”3

However, 9/11 did not alter the conviction that the main threat posed by failed states stems from endogenous problems and not from a great power competition to fill the vacuum created by their demise. At least in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there was a naive feeling that the Islamist threat festering in failed or weak states such as Afghanistan was a menace to the international community writ large, and certainly to great powers like Russia and China, as well as the United States. It was therefore assumed that the great powers would cooperate to combat terrorism and not compete with each other for control over failing or failed states. As Stephen David pointed out in these pages, “Instead of living in a world of international anarchy and domestic order, we have international order and domestic anarchy.”4

The solution stemming from such a view of failed states falls under the broad category of “nation-building.” If the main challenge of failed states is internally generated and caused by a collapse of domestic order, then the solution must be to rebuild state institutions and restore authority and order, preferably under some sort of multilateral arrangement that would enhance the legitimacy of what is necessarily an intrusive endeavor. Great powers are expected to cooperate, not compete, to fix failed states.

U.S. foreign policy continues to reflect this prevailing view. Then-Director of the Policy Planning staff, Stephen Krasner, and Carlos Pascual, then-Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the State Department, wrote in 2005 that, “when chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation, and other forms of organized crime can flourish.” Moreover, “modern conflicts are far more likely to be internal, civil matters than to be clashes between opposing countries.”5

The prevailing view of failed states is, to repeat, not wrong, just incomplete—for it ignores the competitive nature of great power interactions. The traditional understanding of power vacuums is still very relevant. Sudan, Central Asia, Indonesia, parts of Latin America and many other areas are characterized by weak and often collapsing states that are increasingly arenas for great power competition. The interest of these great powers is not to rebuild the state or to engage in “nation-building” for humanitarian purposes but to establish a foothold in the region, to obtain favorable economic deals, especially in the energy sector, and to weaken the presence of other great powers.

Let’s look at just three possible future scenarios. In the first, imagine that parts of Indonesia become increasingly difficult to govern and are wracked by riots. Chinese minorities are attacked, while pirates prowl sealanes in ever greater numbers. Bejing, pressured by domestic opinion to help the Chinese diaspora, as well as by fears that its seaborne commerce will be interrupted, intervenes in the region. China’s action is then perceived as a threat by Japan, which projects its own power into the region. The United States, India and others then intervene to protect their interests, as well.

In the second scenario, imagine that Uzbekistan collapses after years of chronic mismanagement and continued Islamist agitation. Uzbekistan’s natural resources and its strategic value as a route to the Caspian or Middle East are suddenly up for grabs, and Russia and China begin to compete for control over it, possibly followed by other states like Iran and Turkey.

In a third scenario, imagine that the repressive government of Sudan loses the ability to maintain control over the state, and that chaos spreads from Darfur outward to Chad and other neighbors. Powers distant and nearby decide to extend their control over the threatened oil fields. China, though still at least a decade away from having serious power projection capabilities, already has men on the ground in Sudan protecting some of the fields and uses them to control the country’s natural resources.

These scenarios are not at all outlandish, as recent events have shown. Kosovo, which formally declared independence on February 17, 2008, continues to strain relationships between the United States and Europe, on the one hand, and Serbia and Russia, on the other. The resulting tension may degenerate into violence as Serbian nationalists and perhaps even the Serbian army intervene in Kosovo. It is conceivable then that Russia would support Belgrade, leading to a serious confrontation with the European Union and the United States.

A similar conflict, pitting Russia against NATO or the United States alone, or some other alliance of European states, could develop in several post-Soviet regions, from Georgia to the Baltics. Last summer’s war in Georgia, for instance, showed incipient signs of a great power confrontation between Russia and the United States over the fate of a weak state, further destabilized by a rash local leadership and aggressive meddling by Moscow. The future of Ukraine may follow a parallel pattern: Russian citizens (or, to be precise, ethnic Russians who are given passports by Moscow) may claim to be harassed by Ukrainian authorities, who are weak and divided. A refugee problem could then arise, giving Moscow a ready justification to intervene militarily. The question would then be whether NATO, or the United States, or some alliance of Poland and other states would feel the need and have the ability to prevent Ukraine from falling under Russian control.

Another example could arise in Iraq. If the United States fails to stabilize the situation and withdraws, or even merely scales down its military presence too quickly, one outcome could be the collapse of the central government in Baghdad. The resulting vacuum would be filled by militias and other groups, who would engage in violent conflict for oil, political control and sectarian revenge. This tragic situation would be compounded if Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers with the most direct interests in the outcome, entered the fray more directly than they have so far.

In sum, there are many more plausible scenarios in which a failed state could become a playground of both regional and great power rivalry, which is why we urgently need to dust off the traditional view of failed states and consider its main features as well as its array of consequences.

The traditional view starts from a widely shared assumption that, as nature abhors vacuums, so does the international system. As Richard Nixon once said to Mao Zedong, “In international relations there are no good choices. One thing is sure—we can leave no vacuums, because they can be filled.”6 The power vacuums created by failed states attract the interests of great powers because they are an easy way to expand their spheres of influence while weakening their opponents or forestalling their intervention. A state that decides not to fill a power vacuum is effectively inviting other states to do so, thereby potentially decreasing its own relative power.

This simple, inescapable logic is based on the view that international relations are essentially a zero-sum game: My gain is your loss. A failed state creates a dramatic opportunity to gain something, whether natural resources, territory or a strategically pivotal location. The power that controls it first necessarily increases its own standing relative to other states. As Walter Lippmann wrote in 1915,

the anarchy of the world is due to the backwardness of weak states; . . . the modern nations have lived in armed peace and collapsed into hideous warfare because in Asia, Africa, the Balkans, Central and South America there are rich territories in which weakness invites exploitation, in which inefficiency and corruption invite imperial expansion, in which the prizes are so great that the competition for them is to the knife.7

The threat posed by failed states, therefore, need not emanate mainly from within. After all, by definition a failed state is no longer an actor capable of conducting a foreign policy. It is a politically inert geographic area whose fate is dependent on the actions of others. The main menace to international security stems from competition between these “others.” As Arnold Wolfers put it in 1951, because of the competitive nature of international relations, “expansion would be sure to take place wherever a power vacuum existed.”8 The challenge is that the incentive to extend control over a vacuum or a failed state is similar for many states. In fact, even if one state has a stronger desire to control a power vacuum because of its geographic proximity, natural resources or strategic location, this very interest spurs other states to seek command over the same territory simply because doing so weakens that state. The ability to deprive a state of something that will give it a substantial advantage is itself a source of power. Hence a failed state suddenly becomes a strategic prize, because it either adds to one’s own power or subtracts from another’s.

The prevailing and traditional views of failed states reflect two separate realities. Therefore, we should not restrict ourselves to one view or the other when studying our options. The difference is not just academic; it has very practical consequences.

First and foremost, if we take the traditional view, failed states may pose an even greater danger to international security than policymakers and academics currently predict. Humanitarian disasters are certainly tragedies that deserve serious attention; yet they do not pose the worst threats to U.S. security or world stability. That honor still belongs to the possibility of a great power confrontation. While the past decade or so has allowed us to ignore great power rivalries as the main feature of international relations, there is no guarantee that this happy circumstance will continue long into the future.

Second, there is no one-size-fits-all policy option for a given failed state. Humanitarian disasters carry a set of policy prescriptions that are liable to be counterproductive in an arena of great power conflict. It is almost a truism that failed states require multilateral cooperation, given their global impact. But the traditional view of failed states leads us not to seek multilateral settings but to act preemptively and often unilaterally. Indeed, it is often safer to seek to extend one’s control over failed states quickly in order to limit the possibility of intervention by other great powers.

Third, the role of armed forces engaged in failed states needs to be re-evaluated in light of the traditional view. If failed states require only “nation-building”, the military forces of the intervening powers will have to develop skills that are more like those of a police force: comfortable with a limited use of force, adept at distinguishing peaceful civilians from criminals, able to enforce law and order, good at managing interactions within the societies and many other tasks as well. However, the traditional view suggests that one must be prepared to apply the full spectrum of military force in case of a direct confrontation with another great power. Sending a weakly armed peacekeeping force into a situation in which such a confrontation is possible could easily prove disastrous.

Thus the United States should not focus only or overly much on preparing for low-intensity conflicts and counterinsurgency operations to the detriment of preparing for a major war involving another state. Rather, it should maintain and improve its ability to deny other powers access to regions at stake and increase its readiness for a direct confrontation.

Finally, on the political level, nation-building under the aegis of the United Nations or even NATO may not be the solution to failed states. If they are problems not just of foreign aid and law enforcement, but also of great power conflict and bilateral diplomacy, we should expect a reversion to an atavistic set of state actions that were supposed to have been made obsolete by the triumph of liberal internationalism.

As to the outcomes of vacuum wars, finally, history suggests four basic possibilities: non-intervention by all powers; partition; unilateral preventive intervention; and war.

If a failed state was too distant and ultimately strategically irrelevant, great powers simply ignored it, sensing that an intervention would not increase their own power. In many ways the irrelevance of a failed state leads to the most stable situation, one in which the prevailing view is most applicable. But there are ever fewer areas of the world that fall into this category. Interconnectedness combined with the growing power-projection capability of powers such as China creates incentives to intervene in even the most remote areas. The possible scenarios of Indonesia or Sudan are good examples of this.

So we are left with the other three options. Great powers have employed partition or division into spheres of influence to avoid a massive confrontation. The partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century are a classic example.

The next option is unilateral preventive intervention. Basically, this involves a rapid intervention by one power to establish its dominance over the area in question, preventing the other interested parties from projecting their power there. In brief, one power arrives first at the carcass of the failed or failing state and preempts conflict by making it too costly for others.

The last option, which is not mutually exclusive of the others, is war. The inability to reach an agreement to divide or unilaterally control a failed state can lead to a violent clash. The exact features of such a war may range from battles between mass armies to attempts at subversion and insurgency. But the underlying characteristic is the direct involvement of two or more powers.

The 1982 war between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, and the subsequent vying for influence over that politically collapsed state, is one example. The cases of Georgia and the 1999 standoff at the Pristina airport in Kosovo between NATO and Russian forces, fall somewhere in between, characterized by neither a negotiated settlement nor a direct war between the interested powers—near misses, perhaps.

I am not predicting an eruption of another world war over Sudan or Kosovo. But the current concentration on issues of humanitarianism and terrorism within a failed state, and the accompanying fascination with nation-building, seems shortsighted in the light of history. Failed states are as old as the establishment of the first polity, and great power confrontations over them are a recurring problem. One need only look to 18th-century Poland, or even Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War, to see that the problem will never go away. Both were sources of great power confrontations no less significant than Yugoslavia in the late 20th century—and no less than Georgia or Ukraine continue to have the potential to be in the 21st. This will demand a greater appreciation for the complexity of failed states and an awareness of the possibility that humanitarian tragedies may have a tendency to turn into larger wars.


1See Susan L. Woodward, “Failed States”, Naval War College Review (Spring 1999).
2See, for example, Princeton Lyman and J. Stephen Morrison, “The Terrorist Threat in Africa”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2004); R.W. Johnson, “Tracking Terror through Africa”, The National Interest (Spring 2004).
3Fukuyama, State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (Cornell University Press, 2004), p. xi.
4David, “On Civil War”, The American Interest (March/April 2007).
5Krasner and Pascual, “Addressing State Failure”, Foreign Affairs (July/August 2005).
6Nixon to Mao, February 21, 1972, in William Burr, ed., The Kissinger Transcripts (Free Press, 2000), p. 63.
7Lippmann, The Stakes of Diplomacy (Henry Holt & Co., 1915), p. 127.
8Wolfers, “The Pole of Power and the Pole of Indifference”, World Politics (October 1951).

Jakub Grygiel is George H. W. Bush Associate Professor of International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University and author of Great Powers and Geopolitical Change (2006).