Gulliver's Troubles: Why the U.S. Fears Both the Weak and the Strong


Which poses a greater threat to the country: failed states or power players?


In the famous story by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver was troubled both by the tiny Lilliputians, men "not six inches high," and by the giant Brobdingnagians, who were 72 feet tall and took "about ten yards at every stride."

Like Gulliver, the United States is threatened by both Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians -- but we're talking about countries, not people. The Lilliputian countries are too weak: failed states, plagued by civil wars, collapsed governments, and economic ruin, all of which in turn breeds terrorism, undermines our economic interests, and causes humanitarian crises. Meanwhile, the Brobdingnagian countries are too strong: rising great powers poised to dominate the Eurasian continent and militarily challenge the United States.

Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians have been the major threats on Washington's radar since the Republic was founded -- but rarely in equal measure. Rather, the United States has switched back and forth, worrying about one and then the other.

In the early 20th century, the American military spent most of its time and energy dealing with Lilliputians. One of the primary concerns was the weakness of states in Latin America. In his 1904 corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Theodore Roosevelt declared Washington's right to intervene and stabilize chaos-ridden countries in the hemisphere. And in the coming decades, there were over two-dozen missions, aimed, as Woodrow Wilson paternalistically put it, to "teach the South American Republics to elect good men."

But the focus shifted dramatically during and after World War II -- from Lilliputians to Brobdingnagians. Now the great fear was not state weakness but state strength, in the form of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. Suddenly, an unstable country was not a problem in itself. What mattered was how this piece fit on the global chessboard. If a failed state was in the enemy camp, the United States had no compunction about encouraging further discord -- for example, backing the Mujahadeen rebels fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. When wrestling with a Brobdingnagian, the Lilliputian danger is a secondary concern.

Then, after the Cold War, we moved into another Lilliputian era, as failed states suddenly shot back up the list of security concerns. Weak countries caused famine, refugee flows, and terrorism. Nation-building became the watchword, as the United States tried to stabilize Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Rival great powers were no longer the problem. Indeed, Washington welcomed Brobdingnagian help in dealing with the Lilliputian threat -- encouraging Chinese investment in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why do we see this pattern: this shifting back and forth, worrying about weak states then strong states, then weak states? The simplest explanation is that the rise of Brobdingnagians, or great powers, tends to blot out the sun. Then, when the great power threat diminishes, the light shines through, revealing the danger from smaller insecure states.

So, what will happen next? The pendulum is about to swing again. With the rise of China, we will turn our gaze away from Lilliputians back to Brobdingnagians. We'll start thinking about failed states in a very different way. Like during the Cold War, unstable regimes will be seen less as a problem in themselves, and more as a chess piece in the global balance of power. Today, we obsess over the stability of Afghanistan, and welcome any assistance China can offer. But tomorrow, we may favor Afghan stability only if it aids U.S. interests, and we may compete with China over the control of Afghan resources. As China rises, the Lilliputian threat will be seen in the Brobdingnagian shadow.

Image: infomatique/Flickr

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,, and on NPR.
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