Gringo Lost

Words about things and stuff

Who competes over failed states?

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Jakub Grygiel in this American Interest article argues that failed states are power “vacuums” that could lead to Great Power confrontation.  *Hopefully, this will not happen in California.

According to Grygiel, “[t]he 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.”

Grygiel uses the term “nation-building” but that is primarily a lexicon used by the U.S. to describe its robust  involvement with governments in troubled or post-conflict regions.  The principle U.S. government apparatus overseeing these operations is the Department of States’ Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS).  This Office’s operations are augmented with support from the  DoD, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, amongst others.  Altogether these agencies work to “help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy.”

This is the U.S. approach to “nation-building” but Grygiel argues that these operations are part of a larger strategy to claim neo-colonial possessions before other equal or growing powers do so.  Thus, if we were to combine this theory with practice, we could look at where the S/CRS nation-builds and see if there is competition from other foreign powers for regional clout.  Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan provide three cases of S/CRS assistance. With the most obvious example of Great Power “competition” over clout within these states coming from China.  To be sure, there are plenty other states where competition to fill power vacuums could occur but these three examples are a good test of Gyrgiel’s theory.

To keep this post short, we’ll take at face value that U.S. assistance in these states is, at least in part, conditional; meaning aid-receiving governments must comply with a certain level of American influence on their political system. Now in comparison, China’s support (foreign direct investment) is mostly unconditional.

Contrary to the U.S., China’s primary reason to become involved with these states is economic instead of security-oriented.  Seemingly, this is why China cares less about the character of the political system and more about absolute resources gains.  In essence, China pursues a moral-free foreign policy agenda while the U.S. sees its interests as more comprehensive entailing free markets, stabilization, and regional security.

Returning to the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan examples, we can see how China’s involvement is less competitive with the U.S. in a security sense.  This is not to say that competition over resources will never occur, but that resource competition is more likely to occur between countries such as Russia and China or India and China, than it is to occur between the U.S. and other great or growing powers.

  • Iraq: China’s National Petroleum Corporation won the first petrol licensing bid worth $3 billion.
  • Afghanistan: The China Metallurgical Group win’s the largest bid in Afghanistan history (worth $3.5 billion) to develop the Aynak copper field.
  • Sudan: Despite the ICC arrest warrant for Omar Bashir, China still engages in an arms trade with Sudan and develops its oil fields.

These Chinese investments are clearly intended to resource China’s growth needs.  And despite the exuberant investments, there has been no competition between China and the U.S. that could be called destabilizing to international security.  Of course, who knows what the future holds and if competition would arise eventually.  But it’s a leap to say power vacuums will automatically lead to competition between all Great Powers.


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