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International Security 28.4 (2004) 5-43

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Neotrusteeship and the Problem of Weak States

George W. Bush and his administration came into office with a self-consciously realist orientation in foreign policy. The president and his advisers derided the Clinton administration's multilateralism as mere form without national security substance. They viewed Russia and China as the main potential threats or sources of danger, and regarded Bill Clinton as a naïve idealist for neglecting these great powers in favor of "foreign policy as social work"—humanitarian ventures in areas peripheral to U.S. national security concerns.1 Consistent with a realist suspicion of multilateralism and confidence in self-help, the administration's principal foreign policy project in its first months was the unilateral pursuit of ballistic missile defense.

The Bush team was particularly critical of U.S. participation in quixotic efforts at nation building for failed states. As a candidate, Vice President Dick Cheney created a significant flap in August 2000 when he suggested that the Bush administration would end U.S. participation in NATO's Bosnia mission.2 Condoleezza Rice, who would become Bush's national security adviser, expressed dismayed amazement that U.S. troops were being used to take children to kindergarten in Bosnia.3 The message was clear: The Bush administration would not engage in state-building efforts.4 [End Page 5]

Ironically, the Bush administration has since undertaken state-building projects that are vastly larger and more difficult than anything the Clinton administration ever attempted. The U.S. military is now building kindergartens in Afghanistan, in addition to paving roads and assisting with many other major infrastructure projects in both Afghanistan and Iraq.5 GIs report on instructing Iraqis in how to run a town meeting with an agenda and turn taking—"It's basic P.T.A. stuff," one commented.6 These are local-level complements to the complex, higher-level efforts to build workable national political structures in both countries. And all this is happening without any significant reduction in U.S. involvement in ongoing peacekeeping operations in Kosovo or Bosnia. Indeed, the Bush administration even took on new peacekeeping responsibilities in Liberia, albeit very small ones thus far.7

It can be argued that despite the apparent about-face, the Bush administration has actually kept true to its realist principles. It is attempting to rebuild "rogue" states that the United States attacked and destroyed as perceived threats to national security, rather than states that failed largely on their own. Arguing that chaos in Liberia does not threaten U.S. security, Pentagon officials successfully resisted the strong "CNN effect," as well as international and possibly State Department pressure for a more active U.S. role. In broader terms, the administration claims that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the game, clarifying a new security threat.

We argue to the contrary that the Bush administration's brand of realism has collided with post-Cold War realities that shaped the Clinton administration's foreign policy as well. Even before September 11, the world was changing in such a way that the main security threats and problems now emerge not from great power security competition—Russia and China, for example—but from the consequences of political disorder, misrule, and humiliation in the third world. These threats and problems have the character of "public bads" for the major powers. That is, collapsed states and rogue regimes seeking nuclear weapons impose diffuse costs on the major powers and other states. The total [End Page 6] costs are often large enough that it would pay to address them, but not so large that doing so is necessarily worthwhile for any one state. Given the nature of the problem, the incentives for burden sharing through multilateral arrangements are strong. Furthermore, whether the problem is a failed state or a rogue regime that has been attacked and destroyed, state-building efforts led by major power interveners and international organizations are practically inevitable (to the Bush administration's chagrin).

As a result...


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