Yochai Benkler, HLS vídeo

The Penguin and the Leviathan 

October 19, 2011

Caros navegantes,

Transcrição livre do início da palestra, da fala em inglês e da tradução:

“Vivemos em um mundo construído em torno de modelos enganosos (incorretos/confundindo) por uma motivação humana. Temos quatro décadas de refinamento requintado de sistemas a partir de nossos locais de trabalho, para um sistema bancário, para as nossas estruturas de rede, que são todos construir em torno desse núcleo e fundamental erro. Alan Greenspan permitiu em um momento de verdade capaz de se relacionar, que o erro básico não é que às vezes são nossos interesses-próprio, isso é correto, o erro básico é a idéia de que podemos corretamente modelar e construir nossos sistemas assumindo que faremos isso muito bem (do well enough), e desenhando nossos sistemas se for  construído de acordo com um modelo que assume que parte de nossa racionalidade é interesse-próprio (egoísta), que estaremos nos aproximamos de quem somos, ao dizer que somos mais ou menos uniforme, mais ou menos auto-interessado (egoísta), ou seja, nós não estaremos indo muito errado….”

“We live in a world build around a mistaking model of a human motivation. We have a four decades of exquisite refinement of systems from our work places to a banking systems to our networking structures that are all build around this core fundamental error. Allowed Greenspan on a moment of truth able to relate, and that basic error is not we are sometimes self-interest, that is correct, that basic error as the idea that we can properly modeling and build our systems on assuming that we will do well enough and design our systems if we build them according to a model that assumes that part of our rationality is self-interest, that we approximate who we are by say that we are more or less uniformly, more or less self interested, we will not go too wrong….”


In new book, Benkler makes the case for “prosocial” systems design …

For generations, the assumption that selfishness drives human behavior has shaped the design of social systems in which we live and work. In his new book “The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self… (Crown Publishing Group, August 2011),” Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler ’94 rejects this assumption as a “myth” and proposes an alternative, refreshingly optimistic model that asserts our human traits of cooperation and collaboration.

The study of cooperation is on the rise, says Benkler, an expert on the role of networks in business and society. In “The Penguin and the Leviathan,” he draws together strands of research by neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, management experts, computer scientists, software designers and others—along with vivid examples of prosocial behaviors observed in many cultures and corners of society, from Maine lobstermen to the British blood-banking system—to demonstrate that people already “act far more cooperatively and fairly than the old model would have us believe.”

This “old model” harks back to 1652, when philosopher Thomas Hobbes published “Leviathan,” arguing for rule by absolute sovereignty. Hobbes unleashed a monster, the “iconic image of a controlling state,” says Benkler, which ever since has cast its shadow over social contracts, spreading the dire message that “if left to our own devices, we’ll be at each other’s throats.” Overlaying this Hobbesian model of state control is the market-oriented Invisible Hand metaphor, introduced by economist Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), which assumes that “by each pursuing self-interest, we make things better for all of us,” not because we care for one another but because it is mutually advantageous.

The financial meltdown of 2008 has helped dethrone this view of humanity, demonstrating, as Benkler puts it, “that when you try to build a system wholly on self-interest, you end up with disaster.” Over the last decade a flood of new research in far-flung disciplines—such as practical management, software design, psychology and evolutionary biology—has produced “precise and refined work that tells us what we teach kids all the time: We care about doing what’s right, intuitive and fair.” While such diverse practitioners “don’t tend to cite or read each other,” Benkler notes, independently all are reaching the same conclusions: Designing social systems according to the “carrot-and-stick approach no longer makes sense,” and the “material self-interest focus has run its course.” This is not to say that self-interest should not play a part, but it is too flimsy a scaffolding to support a social system.

Watch video of Benkler discussing his new book at a recent HLS event, which was co-hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Law School Library.

Here’s where the “Penguin” of Benkler’s title waddles in. Benkler has borrowed “Tux,” the ubiquitous mascot of Linux, the free and open-source operating system, as his book’s symbol for massive collaboration. He also cites the example of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can access and edit and improve, which has exploded online from upstart experiment to everyday resource shared by millions. “I spent a lot of time in the first half of the last decade just getting people to accept that Wikipedia and its like are not passing fads,” Benkler says. “Now we need to see that Wikipedia’s underlying human motivations are not unique to the Net.”

The challenge is to incorporate prosocial—i.e., caring about and acting for the common good—motivations into human systems design. What does this entail? The last chapter in Benkler’s book summarizes the main elements—among them communication, unsurprisingly, as well as “framing” and authenticity. Empathy and solidarity are requisites for recognizing the humanity of others and expanding one’s sense of identity to include them. The right kind of leadership, too, is essential to adapt to a cooperative focus. (He cites the example of Robin Chase, founder and former CEO of Zipcar, the car-sharing company, whose communitarian views shaped Zipcar from its business model to its communications.) Also important: taking into account values, notions of fairness, and social “norms” for how people perceive things should work.

Pockets of sound prosocial design already exist all over, Benkler points out, and enlightening examples populate his book: Toyota’s famous NUMMI plant in Fresno, Calif., with its revolutionary cooperative management and production processes; Southwest Airlines, which has turned teamwork and egalitarianism into consistent profits in a beleaguered industry; the online community of volunteers, activists and donors at My.BarackObama.com, who propelled the Obama presidential campaign to victory; Radiohead’s pay-as-you-wish downloading platform that put faith in their fans’ readiness to compensate fairly—the list is long.

Packed with stories and crisply summarized evidence, “The Penguin and the Leviathan” leapfrogs disciplines, connecting the dots from Hobbes to John Seely Brown. This little book starring the Penguin reaches out to general readers to urge a better, more complex and therefore more fully human design for the systems we all inhabit.

The above article, “Escaping the Leviathan’s Shadow,” by Julia Collins, first appeared in the Summer 2011 Harvard Law Bulletin. Benkler’s book was also recently reviewed inThe Atlantic, Can the Internet Bring the Beginning of the End of Selfishness?,” by Walter Frick,

Mark Twain e a ignorância, a minha e a sua


Só dez por cento é mentira,…, todos os caminhos levam a ignorância,…, só a poesia é verdadeira” (MANOEL DE BARROS)¹.

Caros geonautas,

Mark Twain foi um ícone, um dos grandes escritores americanos, e antes de clicar como a maioria nas redes sociais, em curtir na frase acima, vou contextualizar, um pouco de história da tecnologia, como gancho para uma reflexão-provocação da frase, porque como diz outra frase dele, “É mais fácil enganar as pessoas do que convencê-los de que elas foram enganadas”, portanto gostaria de deixar claro, não tenho como propósito, ou esperança, convencê-los, é uma mera reflexão, e não estou certo e seguro sobre, e o que vai sair.

Ao longo da história humana, a estratégia e o controle é uma atividade antiga, desde bem antes das bases de nossa civilização ocidental grego-romana-judáica-cristã, como o mais antigo livro sobre estratégias militares, do chinês Sun Tzu, “A arte da Guerra”, que data mais de meio milênio antes da era cristã (500 A.C.).

No século XX, essa ideia pode ser sintetizado na filosofia americana desde antes e do depois do pós guerra, militar e/ou de empresas, expressa e conhecida pelo termo, C3I: Comando, Controle, Comunicação e Informação.

Assim foram desenvolvidos a maioria dos grandes projetos militares empresariais americanos, seja a logística da segunda guerra, seja a corrida espacial, o GPS, ao desenvolvimento inicial da rede ARPANET dos anos 1960, chegando em nossos dias na internet e nas redes sociais.

Mas sabe-se hoje que, pelos estudos da antropologia, sociologia e psicologia, quando você muda o entorno de convivência das pessoas, o meio em que as pessoas vivem e interagem, você muda seu comportamento, ou seja, a filosofia e a ideologia que vem junto com a evolução da tecnológica das redes sociais, na qual bilhões de jovens participam hoje, e cada vez aumenta mais, estão tornando-os mais politizados sem que eles saibam, se dêem conta do fato, pois a informação corre por todos os lados, em rede, e não somente de forma hierarquizada, selecionada a dedo e  de cima para baixo. Esse certamente não era o objetivo inicial da filosofia da tecnologia pensados lá atrás, e sim controlar as pessoas, o “C3I”.

Um dos hábitos – ferramentas – das redes sociais, à maneira mais comuns de se comunicar com os colegas e amigos nas redes sociais, seja Facebook ou Linkedin, é colocar uma ideia para circular, e você receberá muitos “curtir” e as vezes, alguns comentar.

Mas a reflexão exige mais do que “clicar”, é como a diferença entre falar e ler. A linguagem humana data de 100 mil a 160 mil anos atrás, mas a escrita é mais recente na história, data de alguns mil anos, ou seja, todos falamos mas nem todos temos o hábito de ler, refletir e debater.

Eu diria que, o DNA do “ler” exige um aprendizado e uma prática maior do que o DNA do “falar”. O caso clássico é a do filósofo, guerreiro e sapateiro, Sócrates, que se posicionou absolutamente contrário a escrita no seu tempo, argumentando que ela iria acabar com a capacidade da memória oral. Embora ele tenha certa razão no argumento, a história mostra que foi voto vencido.

A invenção revolucionária da tecnologia da escrita está para Sócrates, o que está para nós, a revolução da tecnologia do nosso tempo, desde a corrida espacial as redes sociais.

O mundo que vem aí pela frente, de tecnologias e possibilidades infindáveis, desvendados por Assange e Snowden – outros virão – é o começo de uma nova era, em outras palavras, foi o que disse Scott McNealy, CEO da SUN Microsystem. em 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (tradução livre: Você tem zero de privacidade, supere isso). Agora somos, ou podemos ser, caças e caçadores.

Como diz mestre Antonio Candido (Doc. 3 Antonios e 1 Tom): “Se a 20 anos atrás me pergunta-se o que valia mais, se o autor ou se a ideia, eu responderia sem excitar que o autor, agora já não sei mais, vivo incerto, o homem é coisa sublime, porém se as ideais prevalecesse sobre os homens, já de muito que a paz teria pousado sobre essa terra”.

Essa foto, montagem de Matt Ridley, que associa duas peças que foram fabricadas com um milhão de anos de diferenças, a tecnologia do homem da pré-história, a “pedra-lascada”, literalmente, e a tecnologia do homem do nosso tempo, o mouse. Depois de um milhão de anos de aprimoramento de tecnologia, do pré-humano ao ser humano que somos hoje, o formato da peça para caber na palma da mão, é praticamente o mesmo.

(Matt Ridley: Quando as idéias fazem sexo, TED 2010)

Voltando no gancho da frase de Mark Twain e a ignorância citada acima, ela pressupõe, ela tem como base o pensamento iluminista da ciência da certeza, onde tudo seria possível, o mundo das ciência exatas e da filosofia da certeza, desde Galileu, ao mundo newtoniano, de onde partiu o filósofo Emmanuel Kant, transformar o mundo numa máquina de controle do homem, com diversos botões.

A frase que ouvi no início do meu curso de engenharia, e lá se vão décadas, a definição da palavra engenharia: “a engenharia é a arte de dirigir as grandes fontes de energia, para uso e conveniência do homem”, primeira Enciclopédia Britânica, fins do século XVIII e início do século XIX. Definição que não é uma frase de engenheiros, ou só, mas sim uma frase que traz na sua formação e construção, as ideias do pensamento iluministas dos últimos séculos.

A concepção de ignorância da frase de Mark Twain, com sua pressuposição da ciência da certeza, traz consigo uma falsa correlação de ideia, que está em nosso piloto automático do dia a dia, em nossa concepção de mundo e de valores, a concepção de que o conhecimento é uma vaso que precisa ser preenchido, a de que quanto mais eu sei, menos ignorante eu sou, e isso é um erro grasso, um lego engano. Pois ao mesmo tempo que eu julgo o outro com meus valores morais de ignorante, também posso ser julgado pelo outro, com os valores morais e éticos do outro, como um ignorante também.

Paulo Freire, um educador reconhecido mundialmente, o intelectual brasileiro com mais títulos “Honoris Causa” conquistados pelo mundo em toda nossa história (36), nos diz em sua Pedagogia da Autonomia: “Não há saber mais ou saber menos, há saberes diferentes.”

O filósofo do mundo digital e um ídolo dos jovens das redes sociais, Pierre Levy, também nos traz uma reflexão sobre ignorância:

(…)  “o saber não é nada além do que as pessoas sabem, …., O juízo global de ignorância volta-se contra quem o pronuncia. Se você cometer a fraqueza de pensar que alguém é ignorante, procure em que contexto o que essa pessoa sabe é ouro”. Pierre Lévi, A Inteligência Coletiva, pág. 29, 1999.

Gostaria de concluir com Albert Einstein e o filósofo grego, Sócrates.

A nossa ignorância é infinita. O senso comum tende a pensar que conhecimento e ignorância é uma relação inversamente proporcional, ou seja, quanto mais conhecimento se adquire, menos ignorante ficamos. Como mencionado acima, é um ledo engano, é uma relação diretamente proporcional, “quanto mais cresce nosso círculo de conhecimento, cresce proporcional nossa circunferência e experiência com a ignorância” (Albert Einstein, Círculo do Conhecimento).

Sócrates, o pensador grego, o exemplo mais vivo e conhecido no mundo ocidental: “Só sei que nada sei” (quanto mais sei, mais descubro que nada sei, ou seja, nossa sabedoria é limitada à nossa própria ignorância).

De uma maneira ou de outra, ignorante somos todos, depende do ponto de vista de cada um, como alguém disse, e eu acredito, “quanto mais se julga, menos se ama”. Na evolução da jornada humano, a ignorância é uma bem-aventurança – Ignorance is bliss

(1): Manoel de Barros – Documentário ‘Só dez por cento é mentira’

(*) The Economist – Ignorance is bliss Forensic scientists know toomuch about the cases they investigate Jan 21st 2012 . From the print edition: (http://www.economist.com/node/21543121

(**) Stuart Firestein: The pursuit of ignorance FILMED FEB 2013 • POSTED SEP 2013  TED2013


(***) Amazônia no Mundo em ‘Grande Transformação’: Conhecimento e Ignorância, Ciência e Poder. 2012, Conti-Bosso:


(****) Yochai Benkler fala sobre a nova economia de acesso livre

The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm

The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm

Requiem for a Decade of Distraction
A broken globe in an abandoned school in Ukraine.
A broken globe in an abandoned school in Ukraine. (Fiona McAllister / Flickr)

For a decade and a half, from the mid-1990s through about 2010, the dominant national security narrative in the United States stressed the dangers posed by weak or failing states. These were seen to breed terrorism, regional chaos, crime, disease, and environmental catastrophe. To deal with such problems at their roots, the argument ran, the United States had to reach out and help stabilize the countries in question, engaging in state building on a neo-imperial scale. And reach out the United States did — most obviously during the protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of conflict and effort with precious little to show for it, however, the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building is drawing to a close. And although there are practical reasons for this shift — the United States can no longer afford such missions, and the public has tired of them — the decline of the state-building narrative reflects a more profound underlying truth: the obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine. Its passing will not leave the United States more isolationist and vulnerable but rather free the country to focus on its more important global roles.


In the wake of the Cold War, contemplating a largely benign security environment, many U.S. national security strategists and practitioners concluded that the most important risks were posed by the fragility of state structures and recommended profound shifts in U.S. foreign and defense policy as a result. In an interconnected world, they argued, chaos, violence, and grievances anywhere had the potential to affect U.S. interests, and weak states were factories of such volatility. Experiences in Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia helped fuel the concern, and by 1994, the CIA was funding a state-failure task force to get a handle on the problem.

In 1997, the Clinton administration released Presidential Decision Directive 56, “Managing Complex Contingency Operations,” which began with the assertion that “in the wake of the Cold War, attention has focused on a rising number of territorial disputes, armed ethnic conflicts, and civil wars that pose threats to regional and international peace.” A new focus of U.S. policy, accordingly, would be responding to such situations with “multi-dimensional operations composed of such components as political/diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence, economic development, and security.”

Critics of a realist persuasion objected to the emerging narrative, arguing that the Clinton administration’s forays into state building in peripheral areas represented a strategic folly. And during his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush ran as the candidate of foreign policy humility, arguing in part that nation building was a dangerous distraction. His adviser Condoleezza Rice grumbled that U.S. troops should not be asked to escort toddlers to school; his vice presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, suggested that a Bush administration would end U.S. participation in Balkan operations; and the day before the election, Bush himself declared, “Let me tell you what else I’m worried about: I’m worried about an opponent who uses ‘nation building’ and ‘the military’ in the same sentence.”

But the 9/11 attacks swept these hesitations aside, as the practical implications of an interventionist “war on terror” became apparent. The first page of the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy argued that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.”

The new consensus was bipartisan. The Democratic foreign policy hand Susan Rice, for example, wrote in 2003 that Bush was “wise to draw attention to the significant threats to our national security posed by failed and failing states.” Where the right emphasized security and terrorism, the left added humanitarian concerns. Development specialists jumped on the bandwagon as well, thanks to new studies that highlighted the importance of institutions and good governance as requirements for sustained economic success. In his 2004 book, State-Building, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote, “Weak and failing states have arguably become the single most important problem for international order.” The Washington Posteditorialized the same year that “weak states can compromise security — most obviously by providing havens for terrorists but also by incubating organized crime, spurring waves of migrants, and undermining global efforts to control environmental threats and disease.” This argument, the paper concluded, “is no longer much contested.” A year later, the State Department’s director of policy planning, Stephen Krasner, and its newly minted coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, Carlos Pascual, argued in these pages that “in today’s increasingly interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute risk to U.S. and global security. Indeed, they present one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the contemporary era.”

From one angle, the concern with weak states could be seen as a response to actual conditions on the ground. Problems had always festered in disordered parts of the developing world. Without great- power conflict as an urgent national security priority, those problems were more clearly visible and harder to ignore. From another angle, it could be seen as a classic meme — a concept or intellectual fad riding to prominence through social diffusion, articles by prominent thinkers, a flurry of attention from the mainstream press, and a series of foundation grants, think-tank projects, roundtables, and conferences.

From a third angle, however, it could be seen as a solution to an unusual concern confronting U.S. policymakers in this era: what to do with a surplus of national power. The United States entered the 1990s with a dominant international position and no immediate threats. Embracing a substantially reduced U.S. global role would have required a fundamental reassessment of the prevailing consensus in favor of continued primacy, something few in or around the U.S. national security establishment were prepared to consider. Instead, therefore, whether consciously or not, that establishment generated a new rationale for global engagement, one involving the application of power and influence to issues that at any other time would have been seen as secondary or tertiary. Without a near-peer competitor (or several) to deter or a major war on the horizon, Washington found a new foreign policy calling: renovating weak or failing states.


The practical challenges of state-building missions are now widely appreciated. They tend to be long, difficult, and expensive, with success demanding an open-ended commitment to a messy, violent, and confusing endeavor — something unlikely to be sustained in an era of budgetary austerity. But the last decade has driven home intellectual challenges to the concept as well.

The threat posed by weak and fragile states, for example, turned out to be both less urgent and more complex and diffuse than was originally suggested. Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index for 2013 is not exactly a roster of national security priorities; of its top 20 weak states, very few (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan) boast geostrategic significance, and they do so mostly because of their connection to terrorism. But even the threat of terrorism isn’t highly correlated with the current roster of weak states; only one of the top 20, Sudan, appears on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and most other weak states have only a marginal connection to terrorism at best.

A lack of definitional rigor posed a second problem. There has never been a coherent set of factors that define failed states: As the political scientist Charles Call argued in a powerful 2008 corrective, the concept resulted in the “agglomeration of diverse criteria” that worked to “throw a monolithic cloak over disparate problems that require tailored solutions.” This basic methodological flaw would distort state-building missions for years, as outside powers forced generic, universal solutions onto very distinct contexts.

The specified dangers were never unique to weak states, moreover, nor would state-building campaigns necessarily have mitigated them. Take terrorism. The most effective terrorists tend to be products of the middle class, often from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, not impoverished citizens of failed states. And terrorist groups operating in weak states can shift their bases of operations: if Afghanistan becomes too risky, they can uproot themselves and move to Somalia, Yemen, or even Europe. As a result, “stabilizing” three or four sources of extremist violence would not render the United States secure. The same could be said of threats such as organized crime, which finds comfortable homes in functioning but troubled states in Asia, eastern Europe, and Latin America.

As the scholar Stewart Patrick noted in a 2006 examination of the purported threats issuing from weak states, “What is striking is how little empirical evidence underpins these assertions and policy developments. Analysts and policymakers alike have simply presumed the existence of a blanket connection between state weakness and threats to the national security of developed countries and have begun to recommend and implement policy responses.”

And although interconnectedness and interdependence may create risks, the dangers in such a world are more likely to come from strong, well-governed states with imperfect regulations than weak ones with governance deficiencies. Financial volatility that can shake the foundations of leading nations and cyberattacks that could destabilize energy or information networks pose more immediate and persistent risks than, say, terrorism.

A third problem was misplaced confidence about the possibility of the mission’s feasibility. The last decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way. When a social order has become maladapted to the globalizing world — when governing institutions are weak, personalized, or kleptocratic; corruption is rampant; and the rule of law is noticeable by its absence — there are simply no proven methods for generating major social, political, economic, or cultural change relatively quickly.

As the Australian political scientist Michael Wesley argued in a brilliant 2008 essay, state weakness is primarily a political problem, and yet state building is often conceived and executed as if it were an apolitical exercise. “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic,” he wrote. “Even seemingly technocratic tasks confront international administrators with essentially political decisions: the nature and basis of elections; which pressure groups to consult; the reintegration or de facto separation of ethnic communities; school curricula; degrees of public ownership of enterprises; the status of women; and so on. However technocratic their intention, state-building missions inevitably find themselves factored into local rivalries.”

In trying to force change on recalcitrant governments and societies, moreover, outside interventions undermine internal motives for reform by transferring responsibility for a better future from local leaders to external actors. The outside power needs cooperation from its local clients more than they need its sponsorship. The result is a dependency paradox that impedes reform. As success stories from South Korea to Chile show, the path from state weakness to strength has to be traveled by the states themselves, gradually and fitfully, most often under the influence of strong, decisive leadership from visionary architects of governance. It is an organic, grass-roots process that must respect the unique social, cultural, economic, political, and religious contexts of each country. And although it can be encouraged and even modestly shaped by outside contributions and pressure, it cannot be imposed.

A fourth problem with the state-building obsession was that it distorted the United States’ sense of its central purpose and role in global politics. Ever since World War II, the United States has labored mightily to underwrite the stability of the international system. It has done this by assembling military alliances to protect its friends and deter its enemies, by helping construct a global architecture of trade and finance, and by policing the global commons. These actions have helped buttress an interdependent system of states that see their dominant interests in stability rather than conquest.

Playing this role well demands sustained attention at all levels of government, in part to nurture the relationships essential to crisis management, diplomacy, and multilateral cooperation of all kinds. Indeed, the leading danger in the international system today is the peril that, assaulted by a dozen causes of rivalry and mistrust, the system will fragment into geopolitical chaos. The U.S. experience since the 1990s, and growing evidence from Northeast Asia, suggests that if the relatively stable post–Cold War era devolves into interstate rivalry, it will be not the result of weak states but that of the escalating regional ambitions, bitter historical memories, and flourishing nationalisms of increasingly competitive states. The U.S. role in counteracting the broader trends of systemic disintegration is therefore critical. The United States is the linchpin of a number of key alliances and networks; it provides the leadership and attractive force for many global diplomatic endeavors, and its dominant military position helps rule out thoughts of aggression in many quarters.

The weak-state obsession has drawn attention away from such pursuits and made a resurgence of traditional threats more likely. Focusing on two seemingly endless wars and half a dozen other potential “stability operations” has eroded U.S. global engagement, diminished U.S. diplomatic creativity, and distracted U.S. officials from responding appropriately to changes in the global landscape.

When one reads the memoirs of Bush administration officials, the dozen or more leading global issues beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “war on terror” begin to sound like background noise. Top U.S. officials appear to have spent far more time between 2003 and 2011, for example, managing the fractious mess of Iraqi politics than tending to relationships with key global powers. As a consequence, senior U.S. officials have had less time to cultivate the leaders of rising regional powers, from Brazil to India to Turkey. Sometimes, U.S. actions or demands in state-building adventures have directly undermined other important relationships or diplomatic initiatives, as when Washington faced the global political reaction to the Iraq war.

Such tradeoffs reflect a hallmark of the era of state building: secondary issues became dominant ones. To be fair, this was partly the fault of globalization; around-the-clock media coverage now constantly shoves problems a world away onto the daily agendas of national leaders. Combined with the United States’ self-image as the indispensable nation, this intrusive awareness created political pressure to act on issues of limited significance to core U.S. interests. Yet this is precisely the problem: U.S. perceptions of global threats and of the country’s responsibility to address them have become badly and perhaps permanently skewed. A great power’s reservoir of strategic attention is not infinite. And the United States has become geopolitically hobbled, seemingly uninterested in grand strategic initiatives or transformative diplomacy, as its attention constantly dances from one crisis to another.

A fifth problem flowed directly from the fourth. To perform its global stabilizing role, the United States needs appropriately designed, trained, and equipped armed forces — forces that can provide a global presence, prevail in high-end conflict contingencies, enable quick long-range strike and interdiction capabilities, and build and support local partners’ capacities. The state-building mission has skewed the operations, training, equipping, and self-conception of the U.S. military in ways that detract from these responsibilities.

Much of the U.S. military has spent a decade focusing on state building and counterinsurgency (COIN), especially in its training and doctrine, to the partial neglect of more traditional tasks. Massive investments have gone into COIN-related equipment, such as the MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) vehicles built to protect U.S. troops from improvised explosive devices, draining billions of dollars from other national security resources. The result of these choices has been to weaken the U.S. military’s ability to play more geostrategic and, ultimately, more important roles. Between a demanding operational tempo, the requirements of refitting between deployments, and a shift in training to emphasize COIN, the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, lost much of its proficiency in full-spectrum combat operations. Simply put, the U.S. military would be far better positioned today — better aligned with the most important roles for U.S. power, better trained for its traditional missions, better equipped for an emerging period of austerity — had the state-building diversion never occurred.


None of this is meant to suggest that a concern for the problems posed by weak or failing states can or should disappear entirely from the U.S. foreign policy and national security agendas. Counterterrorism and its associated tasks will surely remain important, and across the greater Middle East — including Afghanistan after 2014 — internal turmoil may well have external consequences requiring some response from Washington. Effective local institutions do contribute to stability and growth, and the United States should do what it can to nurture them where possible. The difference is likely to be in the priority Washington accords such efforts. The January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, for example, reflected the judgment that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” and announced an intention to pursue “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches” to achieving objectives. Recently, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, went even further: “I simply don’t know where the security interests of our nation are threatened enough to cause us to lead a future major, extended COIN campaign.”

In the future, the United States is likely to rely less on power projection and more on domestic preparedness, replacing an urgent civilizing zeal with defensive self-protection. This makes sense, because the most appropriate answer to the dangers inherent in an era of interdependence and turbulence is domestic resilience: hardened and redundant networks of information and energy, an emphasis on local or regional self-sufficiency to reduce the cascading effects of systemic shocks, improved domestic emergency-response and cybersecurity capacities, sufficient investments in pandemic response, and so forth. Equally important is a resilient mindset, one that treats perturbations as inevitable rather than calamitous and resists the urge to overreact. In this sense, the global reaction to the recent surge in piracy — partly a product of poor governance in African states — should be taken as a model: no state-building missions, but arming and protecting the ships at risk.

When it does reach out into the world to deal with weak states, the United States should rely on gradual progress through patient, long-term advisory and aid relationships, based on such activities as direct economic assistance tailored to local needs; training, exchanges, and other human-capacity-development programs; military-to-military ties; trade and investment policies; and more. The watchwords should be patience, gradualism, and tailored responses: enhancing effective governance through a variety of models attuned to local patterns and needs, in advisory and supportive ways.

As weak states continue to generate specific threats, such as terrorism, the United States has a range of more limited tools available to mitigate them. It can, for example, return terrorism to its proper place as a law enforcement task and continue to work closely with foreign law enforcement agencies. It can help train and develop such agencies, as well as local militaries, to lead in the fight. When necessary, it can employ targeted coercive instruments — classic intelligence work and clandestine operations, raids by special operations forces, and, with far greater selectivity than today, remote strikes — to deal with particular threats, ideally in concert with the militaries of local allies.

Some will contend that U.S. officials can never rule out expeditionary state building because events may force it back onto the agenda. If al Qaeda were to launch an attack that was planned in restored Taliban strongholds in a post-2014 Afghanistan, or if a fragmentation and radicalization of Pakistani society were to place nuclear control at risk, some would recommend a return to interventionist state building. Yet after the United States’ recent experiences, it is doubtful that such a call would resonate.

The idea of a neo-imperial mission to strengthen weak states and stabilize chaotic societies always flew in the face of more important U.S. global roles and real mechanisms of social change. There is still work to be done in such contexts, but in more prudent and discriminate ways. Moving on from the civilizing mission will, in turn, make possible a more sustainable and effective national security strategy, allowing the United States to return its full attention to the roles and missions that mean far more to long-term peace and security. One of the benefits of this change, ironically, will be to allow local institutional development to proceed more organically and authentically, in its own ways and at its own pace. Most of all, the new mindset will reflect a simple facing up to reality after a decade of distraction.