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Failed States and Risk (the Board Game)

I make some pretty strange connections when it comes to foreign affairs. A few months back I wrote about globalization as it related to Cool Runnings. And I wrote about curling as it related to counter-insurgency. (Coming soon: Counter-insurgency theory and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.)

My most recent connection came when I was relooking at the failed states issue of Foreign Policy. As soon as I saw the map of the globe, all I could think was, “Man, that looks like a game of Risk.”

Risk? Yep, the game of global domination, one of the pastimes. We play for hours, get in heated alliances, and generally have a blast. (By the way, I’m not the only one looking to Risk for strategic answers.)

Over time, my friends and I have learned different Risk strategies. The most common lesson is that in Risk, like warfare, concentrating your forces makes sense. So the board starts to look something like this map on Foreign Policy. Different armies of different colors occupy the various states, grouped together to concentrate strength.

Except, whereas in Risk armies lump together for strength, on the failed states map, failed nations lump together; nations that have failed states as neighbors tend to fail themselves. This makes sense: if your neighbor falls apart trade will lower, displaced persons will flood into your country, and disastrous environmental policies will pollute/exploit your resources. All of which erodes the standard of living of all the surrounding nations.

This is all logical, but so what? Well when it comes to Risk, players have strategies to conquer the entire globe; in the realm of failed states no one has a plan. I wish the leaders of America or Europe took this same approach to the rest of the globe. What is our global strategy to pull everyone up to a decent standard of living? What is our approach to spread democracy and stop totalitarianism?

The point is we don’t have one. If we had a global strategy following 9/11, it was to protect our security through expeditionary wars. That only plunged two additional nations into chaos, and did nothing for the poverty stricken nations of Africa, where extremist terrorists took refuge and remain to this day, continuing attacks on Europe and threatening America again.

(Check out this speech by Obama on the same topic.)

nine comments

The current literature (FM 3-24 to Wicked Problems to Design) suggests that we must make least-bad solutions in intractable problems. (See the latest in SWJ “A Better, Bad Choice.”) In terms of strategy, my mindset is starting to change towards we simply need to stop making bad choices. Period.


I haven’t read that article yet, but I would agree that making less bad choices is definitely the best option. That said, I am not saying I have the answer toward making a global strategy for combating failed states—at least not in the post—it just really seems like each branch of our foreign policy does its own thing without coordination.

Oh and intervening directly into failed states doesn’t seem to work either. Which supports the idea that the Army should learn how to do good COIN, but should really be cautious in deciding when to do it.


Long hours I’ve spent trying to control that board. As you said, the effective strategy has always been to mass your forces at a fortified location and build slowly outward from a centralized and secured point. In Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen commented on how a similar tactic is necessary in counter-insurgancy. Specifically, establish your forces in a centralized population where you have support and allies. Then slowly, you gain the support of surrounding areas through intelligence ops, information campaigns, and active missions to expand your “territory”. The failure to do so can be reflected by the abandonment of stations in Korangal. Thanks for recommending Accidental Guerrilla by the way.


“pull everyone up to a decent standard of living”??

Excuse me… this is not our role it is the role of the people to pull themselves up through revolution and organization. While major countries in the world can do their best making sure things from our end of level it’s not our obligation to lower our standards and raise their’s so we meet in the muddled middle.

Relating to RISK… Australia or the Baltics!


@ Harrison – Gotta disagree with that. Especially since the point is, if we don’t raise everyone else up, our citizens are at risk. Bin Ladin was nurtured by failed states, and failed states cause terrorism.

And that’s just on the security level. From the moral perspective, give the shirt off your back to help others.

Just my thought, I think we disagree on this though.


bin Laden took his jihad (religiously based, not economically based) to America after infidels rolled into Saudi Arabia and never left.

Studies have shown that most terrorists are actually better educated and richer than their countrymen so that assumption that it’s “failed states” is itself flawed.

I have no desire to see the United States lower its standard of living by 50. Corrupt leadership is what holds states back, not lack of charity by 1st World nations.


- a couple of things. I agree with your statement about the economic and education levels of terrorists. I was discussing their safe havens not their birthplaces—of course, Saudi Arabia could have the smallest middle class in the world—places like Sudan, Congo, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. Terrorists thrive in broken down governments like that.

- I’m not adovcating military intervention, I’m advocating open trade barriers, allowing access to markets, rebuilding infrastructure. And using huge influxes of cash. In Turkey, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, it’s worked really well. If we could spend a tenth of what we’ve spent in Afghanistan prevented 9/11, that’d be a deal. (And before you say it, we need to do it intelligently, unlike the past)

Finally, what country could we give half of our money to? Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic?

Like I said, give the shirt off your back, give to the needy. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. We can agree to disagree.


“nations that have failed states as neighbors tend to fail themselves.”

a.k.a. we have to transfer the PRTs from Afghanistan to Mexico?


Turkey, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea have one thing in common… all democracies and not overly corrupt. Sudan, Congo, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia are all filled with corruption and are not democracies.

I’m afraid until those governmental systems change, nothing with them will.

50% might be hyperbole but studies have shown that throwing money at 3rd World countries actually hurts the people who live there because it goes down the rathole of a dictator’s pocket.