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."