The World Isn't As Fragile as the U.S. Thinks

A UN peacekeeper sits atop an armoured personnel carrier on the outskirts of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Photograph by Phil Moore/AFP via Getty Images

As Americans gave thanks over the past few days, one thing they should have expressed gratitude for is how increasingly peaceful the world is. That reality is too little recognized, largely because of the way Americans have long viewed developing countries—either as a threat because they’re successful, or are  a threat because they’re failing. An increasingly stable and prosperous developing world is one with considerable prospects for American business. It’s time we see low- and middle-income countries as potential partners, not potential pariahs.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War provided Washington with a simple framework for evaluating the poorer countries of the world: Were they on our side against communism or not? Nowadays, we (incorrectly) view certain rising powers in the developing world—China, in particular—as challengers to economic dominance. Most of the rest of the former Third World is relegated to another category, as sources of global political and social instability. In the last decade of the 20th century, the terms “failed state” and “rogue state” gained widespread use. After the launch of the global war on terror in the new millennium, the list was extended with reference to “fragile states.” The overriding concern of U.S. policymakers was whether underdeveloped countries might collapse into terror-breeding anarchy.

Africa, in particular, is seen as home to weak governments, radical elements, and strange plagues. And there are some parts of the continent that fully deserve the label failed state. The Central African Republic may be slipping toward a potentially genocidal conflict between Christians and Muslims, while African Union peacekeepers appear at a stalemate in their fight against terror group al-Shabab in Somalia, an organization that has shown itself completely willing to use famine as a weapon of war. Even relatively peaceful corners get caught up in the drama: The Kony 2012 video, with its 99 million views on YouTube, helped cement the idea that Uganda was locked in a war with a rebel who had long since fled to the Central African Republic with a few hundred stragglers.

That may help to explain why the fragile state list is seen to be so long: look at the Failed States Index, produced by the Fund for Peace.  It has 70 countries marked from “very high alert” to “very high warning,” suggesting countries as varied as the Philippines and Guatemala are only a military coup or populist election away from al-Qaeda-backing, nuclear weapons-proliferating rogue status. (The index has high standards: Only Sweden and Finland squeak into their top category of “very sustainable,” with the U.S. two categories down, at “very stable.”)

In reality, fragility is considerably on the wane. African countries took six out of the top 10 spots for fastest economic growth worldwide in the first decade of this century. One way to understand how few developing countries remain charity cases is to compare the size of aid budgets with government spending. In sub-Saharan Africa, government expenditures in 2011 equaled $363 billion, compared with aid flows of $42 billion. Progress across the continent has been equally rapid in terms of health and education. Even in Chad, a country only seven spots away from last place on Transparency International’s global ranking of corruption, the proportion of children who are born only to die before their fifth birthday has fallen from one in four in 1969 to 17 percent today. And while the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the deadliest of the new millennium, the major rebel group, the M23, has been defeated.

That’s all part of a broader trend toward greater development and peace worldwide. Almost everywhere is getting richer—about half the population of the planet lives in a country with a 2010 average income higher than or about the same as Italy’s income in 1960. There were only six ongoing civil wars worldwide that had killed more than 1,000 people last year. Meanwhile, though the threat posed by international terror networks remains real, it’s limited. The annual average worldwide death toll from terror from 1968 to 2007 was just 379, according to research on the RAND-MIPT terrorism database by author Dan Gardner. Although there’s been a rise in terrorism incidents during that time in the Middle East and South Asia, the rest of the world has seen a declining rate of attacks.

Yet for all evidence that the developing world is more peaceful and resilient than ever, Washington’s response to it continues to head in the opposite direction. Foreign aid has been refashioned in fragile and conflict states as a tool of counterinsurgency, with the U.S. Agency for International Development extoling the use of “money as a weapons system” in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has created Africom–a new “geographic combatant command” for the Africa region with a mission to build defense capabilities, respond to crises, and deter and defeat transnational threats. Meanwhile, the State Department has made the process of getting a visa to the U.S. ever more capricious, especially if you’ve lived in or visited “countries of concern,” with mandatory consular interviews that can lead to visa denial without the opportunity of appeal.

That’s a shame, because if the last 10 years should have taught the American foreign policy establishment anything, they should have made clear the limits of relying solely on military solutions to national security challenges. The increasing stability and growth of Africa and other regions often dismissed as fragile suggests that the U.S. could reap huge returns by viewing developing countries as trade and investment partners rather than nests of terror to be avoided and contained. Look at it this way: China isn’t waiting, and already its trade with Africa is twice as large as the U.S.’s. Engagement instead of containment is a vital national security priority.

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