Globalizing Weakness:
Is Global Poverty a Threat to the Interests of States?

Vincent Ferraro is the Ruth C. Lawson Professor of International Politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts at which he has taught courses on world politics, international political economy, and American foreign policy since 1976. He has written on issues of global poverty, the debt crisis, and the international trading system.

The “Global Poverty Report” issued at the G8 Okinawa Summit in July 2000 noted that eliminating global poverty “is both a moral imperative and a necessity for a stable world.” (World Bank, et al., p. i) The first concern is incontestable: global poverty is a moral abomination of the highest order. Indeed, this moral argument motivates invaluable personal and non-governmental behavior: literally thousands of private organizations work tirelessly and with great effect to reduce global poverty. But these private efforts cannot, by themselves, overcome the problem, nor can such efforts operate outside of the political and economic context maintained by the system of states. States remain the most organized and powerful agents in the world today, and their support is necessary to alleviate global poverty substantially.

States, however, are not motivated by moral concerns for non-citizens—altruism is a rare, and often absent consideration in the world of international relations. States are obliged to protect their national interest. So was the Global Poverty Report correct that poverty reduction is also a prerequisite for a stable world? And, is that objective compatible with the national interests of states?

Reformulating National Security

At its most basic level, the national interest has historically been defined in straightforward terms: the territorial integrity of the state and its political autonomy are the sine qua non of statehood. Without these two attributes there can be no state, and the protection of territory and autonomy from foreign threats is therefore the state’s highest priority.

Global poverty does not obviously constitute a threat to the national interests of states defined in these terms. Generally, poor states are militarily weaker than richer states, and few poor societies can directly challenge the territory or autonomy of rich states. Absent a direct threat from poor states, rich states can and will assert that their resources should be directed toward other issues, generally issues of a more immediate and unambiguous character typically posed by other rich states. The alleviation of global poverty is therefore a low priority for most rich states.

Is this traditional interpretation of the national interest relevant to today’s circumstances? For years, many scholars have argued for a redefinition of national security, arguing that the world has changed dramatically since Thomas Hobbes first articulated the security dilemma of states in the 17th century. Then, every state had no choice but to develop its own power for self-protection since there was no overarching power to guarantee the security of states; in developing that power, however, every state exacerbated the feeling of insecurity in its neighbors who would then have little choice but to expand their power as well. The cycle of increasing power and anxiety generated a relationship among states that mimicked the lives of those who existed without the protection of a sovereign: “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” (Hobbes, p. 186)

Twenty years ago, Richard Ullman offered an alternative understanding of national security:

A more useful (although certainly not conventional) definition might be a threat to national security is an action or sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or (2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of a state, or to private, nongovernmental entities…within the state. (Ullman, 1983, p. 133)

Ullman’s conception does not replace the historical definition of national security; rather, it expands that definition to include less direct, immediate, or intentional threats to a citizenry. While the Ullman formulation fails to capture the sense of urgency usually necessary to induce citizens to pay for the costs of security, it nevertheless more accurately reflects citizens’ actual security interests.

Many states have recognized (at least rhetorically) this expanded appreciation of what constitutes a threat to the nation. For example, President George W. Bush expressed little doubt in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) about the changing nature of threats facing the United States after September 11:
Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government. Today, that task has changed dramatically. Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us. (“National Security Strategy,”2002, p. 1)
In the aftermath of September 11, few Americans would have contested this claim.

But not surprisingly, the NSS analysis of immediate threats to the United States undermines the traditional definition of the national interest. By asserting that the tactic of terrorism is to “penetrate” open societies, the NSS suggests that the conventional distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” is no longer as useful as it has been in the past. The erosion of that distinction arises from the changed circumstances of living in a globalized world, raising serious questions about whether the focus on an exclusive “national” interest remains useful, appropriate, or even meaningful.

Secondly, the 2002 NSS characterization of the threats posed to the United States deliberately depreciates the conventional military threats of the past, most likely because there are no powerful states at the moment that seem willing or able to contest American power. The attacks of September 11 did not jeopardize the territorial integrity or political autonomy of the United States. What these attacks did appear to threaten was the quality of life of American citizens: most specifically, the ability of Americans to live free of fear. In other words, the relatively obvious and transparent traditional markers for the national interest seem to have been replaced in the NSS by a concern for a more amorphous set of considerations.

The NSS, in fact, explicitly proclaims these changed conditions at the very outset: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” (NSS, p. 1) Curiously, however, while the document identifies a rather dramatic change in the character of the states posing threats to the United States (from strong to weak), it does not really identify a change in strategy to deal with these new threats. A state protects itself from a strong (“conquering”) state by building up the capability to deter, contain, or conquer, and typically these measures include a heavy reliance on military capability. But how does a state protect itself from a weak (“failing”) state?

One can only answer this question by raising a prior question: what types of security threats do poor states pose to powerful ones?

Global Poverty as a Threat to the National Interest of Global Stability

Powerful states have a vested interest in the stability of the international system, and one cannot overestimate the significance of global order to a powerful state. Through their power, these states have shaped the political, economic, and cultural rules and norms that maintain the system as a whole and have taken steps to assure that those rules and norms conform to their interests. American foreign policy since 1945 is a good example of the process: the United Nations system roughly reflects the republican form of representative democracy in the United States, and the Bretton Woods system (The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization) defend the rules of market capitalism.

There have been intentional challenges to this arrangement, most notably by the former Soviet Union. The United States interpreted this challenge as a national security matter of the utmost seriousness, and made strenuous efforts to reduce the Soviet threat. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, no organized state has challenged the American system. Indeed, at the beginning of the 21st century, that framework seems nearly universal. There are virtually no national economies that exist outside of global markets, and few states fail to pay at least lip service to the idea of democracy or self-determination. Some analysts have interpreted these developments as a final triumph for liberal values, but such a conclusion is premature. It is safe to say, however, that at this particular moment in history, liberal values have attained a degree of universality that is both distinctive and powerful.

The United States has a strong self-interest in the perpetuation and maintenance of this system, which has as its dominant feature a dynamism that is usually referred to as globalization. About one-quarter of U.S. economic growth in the 1990’s was derived from exports, and by virtually any measure the economic interests of the United States are now substantially coupled with the interests of other economic powers in the world. This interdependence is neither predetermined nor historically unique. It has, however, heightened the importance of global stability as a national interest of those states that are tightly integrated into the system.

Poor states are threatening to rich states because the weaknesses of poor states could be globalized, thereby destabilizing the entire international system. What is new and different about this threat is that, with few exceptions, it is not an intentional strategy. Poor states are not “enemies” of the international system, although the ramifications of their condition may undermine both the system as a whole and the quality of life in rich states in profound and potentially catastrophic ways. The threats posed by poor states are environmental, economic, and political.
Environmental Threats
The environmental threat posed by global poverty to the stability of the international system is obvious, direct, and dangerous. The NSS, however, mentions this threat only once and only peripherally. While well-documented, the rate at which we are approaching the limits to irretrievable damage to the planet is yet unknown. Both rich and poor states contribute to this stress, and rich states remain the primary offenders to the global ecosystem. But poor states contribute to environmental degradation in particular ways that reflect their constrained economic choices. The fundamental difference between rich and poor states is that some rich states lack only the will to address the problem; many poor states lack both the capability and the will.
For example, deforestation, a serious global problem, is particularly acute in poor tropical countries. The causes of deforestation are directly related to poverty, either because poor populations cut down trees to clear land for agriculture or habitation, or because a poor state cannot resist the short-term economic advantages of selling wood products to rich countries. Even the most stringent domestic or international regulations cannot protect the world’s forests as long as poverty restricts the ability and the will to focus on a long-term perspective. The same dynamic applies to almost every other environmental issue from global warming to resource depletion to water quality.
Poverty imposes a tyranny of the short-term perspective. While there is no necessary trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection in the long run, a poor state needs significant outside resources to realize both objectives simultaneously. This situation will only worsen over time, as poorer and more populated states become more integrated into the global economy and adopt the industrial techniques of the richer states. We already are witnessing the impact of Chinese industrialization on the availability of petroleum, and shall soon witness the effects of increased Chinese petroleum consumption on the global environment.
Indeed, the inability of poor countries to address environmental issues poses a serious threat to the quality of life, not just within the poorer countries but within richer countries as well. If, as many suggest, a global warming threatens potentially catastrophic consequences, then all nations will be affected, not just the people in countries that have been unable to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases or to protect their forests serving as carbon sinks. More importantly, even heroic efforts on the part of some countries to control their emissions will not substantially delay a possible disaster if a number of other countries refuse to cooperate.
States that do not include the environmental interests of all states within their understanding of their national interest cannot succeed in defending their national interest. Environmental issues transcend the distinction between global and national interests, almost to the point of rendering it meaningless. To ignore global environmental security is to sacrifice national environmental security.
Economic Threats
Similarly, globalization has succeeded in economically integrating a large number of countries—rich and poor—into world markets. Proponents of globalization assert that the process benefits all who participate, and there is little question that globalization stimulates widespread economic activity. (Maddison, 1995, p. 19) Increased global economic activity, however, has been accompanied by a dramatic worsening in global income inequality. The OECD study of the world economy from 1820-1992 and its data on GDP per capita growth led it to conclude that
the overall long run pattern of income spreads has been strikingly divergent...In 1820 the intercountry range (the distance between the lead country and the worst performer) was over 3:1, in 1870 7:1, in 1913 11:1, in 1950 35:1, in 1973 40:1, in 1992 72:1. (Maddison, 1995, p. 22)
This pattern is increasingly unstable. High levels of economic activity are not sustainable in the face of dramatically escalating income inequality. As economic activity becomes ever more concentrated, and larger populations are excluded from that activity, there are both short- and long-term risks to the global economic system.
The frequent debt crises since 1982 document the short-term risks of this growing inequality between rich and poor states: (Mexico in 1982, Mexico again in 1995, several Asian countries in 1997, Russia in 1998, and Argentina in 2002). The total external debt of developing countries in 2001 amounted to about $2.3 trillion (World Bank, 2003, p. 221), of which about 40 percent was owed to private lenders. These debts will never be repaid fully, and the rich countries have seemingly accepted this likelihood. But the debts cannot be completely forgiven without inflicting irreparable damage to the future integrity of the international financial system. Similarly, outright defaults on these loans would perhaps fatally undermine confidence in global capital markets and critically weaken specific banks with substantial outstanding loans.
Rich and poor nations are thus locked together in a mutual hostage situation. The economic security of rich countries requires a degree of economic development within poor countries to insure a sustained commitment to some level of debt repayment. The poor countries cannot honor this commitment without substantial support from the rich. Paradoxically, however, the problem of debt repayment has become so large that the rich states are more vulnerable to a default by a major debtor than the poor states are at risk of not being able to repay the debts. Rich states stand to lose more than just the interest payments on their loans if growing poverty in debtor nations forces a major default.
O’Rourke and Williamson assess the longer term risk of growing inequality in terms of a backlash against globalization itself. In assessing the dismal economic collapse of the 1930s, these scholars concluded that:
….a political backlash developed in response to the actual or perceived distributional effects of globalization. The backlash led to the reimposition of tariffs and the adoption of immigration restrictions, even before the Great War. Far from being destroyed by an unforeseen and exogenous political events, globalization, at least in part, destroyed itself. (O’Rourke and Williamson, 1999, p. 287)
The current evidence of such a backlash is suggestive, but inconclusive. There is, of course, a broad-based anti-globalization movement. But the greatest danger to globalization comes not from its opponents, but from its erstwhile supporters.
For example, when the Bush Administration imposed steel tariffs in 2001, the action signaled a rather dramatic change in its stated policy of free trade. The imposition of tariffs was a concession to the American steel industry which had argued that competition from abroad, from both rich and poor countries, was crippling its viability. One can more broadly interpret the action, however, as a decision by the U.S. government to transfer the economic weakness of its steel industry to other states. Similar actions, in the areas of trade, capital flows, foreign investment, or immigration, are underway in a large number of countries in the world. We do not know the point at which these actions may translate into a genuine economic contraction, but states that adopt a sustained commitment to a policy of contracting demand are acting contrary to their long-term economic interests.
A more productive approach would be to stimulate demand for troubled products. There are about two billion people in the world who cannot participate in any meaningful way in the global economy. There is a clear national interest in deepening the process of economic integration to include the global poor.
Political Threats
The NSS discusses the political threat posed by the poor to some degree. The argument is familiar: poor people will resort to violence (either in the form of terrorism or through other criminal activities like drug smuggling) to change the political and economic system that they believe responsible for their poverty. World Bank President James Wolfensohn drew an explicit link between poverty and violence in 2001 when he spoke of the war on terrorism:
It is hard to say when the war will be won. Getting our hands on Osama bin Laden or installing a new government in Afghanistan will only be the start of the process. The war will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty and thus the sources of discontent. Not just in Afghanistan, but also in the neighboring regions, in many other countries. This war is viewed in terms of the face of Bin Laden, the terrorism of Al Qaeda, the rubble of the World Trade Center and of the Pentagon, but these are just symptoms. The disease is the discontent seething in Islam and, more generally, in the world of the poor. (World Bank, 2001)
This political explanation of violence has a grain of truth but, overall, it is both misleading and dangerous. Genuinely poor people do not themselves have the time nor the means to pose significant security threats. One of the greatest ironies of poverty is that being poor constitutes more than a full-time job: poverty dictates almost total attention to subsistence and no time for either leisure or plotting. Poverty is unquestionably a conditioning factor in resorting to violence—poverty itself is a ubiquitous form of violence. But the link between poverty and terrorism is, at best, tenuous. Terrorist leaders are rarely poor. Perhaps poverty may inspire willing foot-soldiers for terrorist leaders, but terrorist organizers generally have their own agendas which have little to do, except rhetorically, with the alleviation of poverty.
The danger in identifying poverty as a cause of political conflict is that states will more likely respond with military or police force to eliminate threats, rather than initiating a more difficult and complex economic response to mitigate the source of those threats. State prefer to exercise their more traditional role as provider of physical security instead of intruding on the market with redistributive measures. Politically, it is far easier to pass appropriation bills for the military than to fund foreign aid.
Posing the poor as a military threat also plays into the hands of the state, which has its own reasons for retaining and enhancing its monopoly on violence. Moreover, this tactic reduces profoundly whatever sympathy the better-off may have for the poor. These outcomes are dangerous. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mission of the US armed forces became opaque. Recent attempts to clarify that mission have all centered around vague and ill-defined threats from "rogue" or failed states, or from terrorist groups, all of whose members purportedly come from poor states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Unquestionably, these states and groups have interests in changing the current global distribution of power. That all of these interests are primarily rooted in the desire to eliminate global poverty is nonsense. The poor are everywhere and they are numerous. If we allow their very existence to be used as a justification for increasing the coercive power of the state, then no action or capability will be denied to the state. Global poverty is undoubtedly a source of great instability in the world, but it is probably far better and more accurate not to emphasize that link in military terms.
The real political threat is that the deepening divide between rich and poor states creates the illusion of separate worlds, one in which genuine cooperation among states becomes impossible. Poverty undermines the political legitimacy of the richer states: expressions of concern for political freedoms within poor states ring hollow as long as desperate economic conditions fail to elicit concrete action.
The national interests of states are no longer “national.” September 11 underscored the realities of a globalized world: that security can no longer be guaranteed by a strong military, and territorial borders are highly permeable and increasingly trivial when defending the quality of life for domestic populations. This commentary has examined only three examples of how the national interests of rich states are fundamentally compromised by the weaknesses of poor states, even in the absence of any intention to threaten harm. The list could be easily expanded to include questions of corruption, disease vectors, migration, and the like. Rich states cannot afford the indulgence of pretending that poor states are not an integral part of the world system. The unforgiving imperatives of poverty can no longer be sealed off from the welfare of all.
A reformulation of the national interest to include global interests is necessary because our world scarcely resembles that of 17th century Europe when the global population was less than a billion, the overwhelming human activity was agricultural, and few people ever traveled more than ten miles from their birthplace. Territorial integrity and political autonomy will always be important to states, but the threats now facing states do not respect or even acknowledge those parameters. The processes that have made human activity more integrated have led to both good and bad outcomes. The worst of the outcomes was the creation of global poverty and the explosion of the number of people who live in these circumstances. Rich states no longer can ignore this truth. Hobbes needs to be updated: the life of states may still be poor, nasty, brutish, and short, but it is no longer solitary, and the illusion of hermetically-sealed and self-reliant security is naïve and dangerous.


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Maddison, Angus. (1995). Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992. Paris: OECD

O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. (1999). Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ullman, Richard. (Summer 1983). “Redefining Security,” International Security, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 129-53.

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