WASHINGTON — There is a lot of talk about what this week's handover of sovereignty to Iraq "means." For Iraqi leaders, certainly, new responsibility. For Iraqis, perhaps, renewed hope and pride. But for Americans, the jury is out - and will be for some time - as to whether Iraq's leaders and people can make their new institutions work, and whether US soldiers in Iraq, and daily life in America, will be more secure as a result.
Half a world away, in Haiti, there's another handover this week from US to UN forces. Again, the future is unclear: This time, can Haitians build a government that meets their basic needs and, above all, offers security to them and to the US?
What does the difficult rebirth of Iraq have in common with the collapse of Haiti? Each poses a threat to the US - not from adversarial power and weaponry, but from weakness and inability to control what happens on its territory. In those states and others like them - Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, and possibly Pakistan - where poor states lose control, it's often Americans who pay the price.
A broad band of weak and failed states - in the greater Middle East, as well as from South and Central Asia to Africa and the Caribbean - can harbor terrorists and drug traffickers, spark humanitarian disasters, and undermine global economic growth. They can be immense and powerful states like Nigeria, where uncontrolled communal violence and corruption help turn a state that should be a powerhouse for growth into a source of conflict and chaos. Or they can be small states like Liberia, whose weakness fed everyone from guerrilla fighters next door, to international criminals, to Al Qaeda financiers.
Weak states pose a 21st-century threat to which our US security demands a 21st-century response. Yet weak states remain on the periphery of American security strategy.
The US knows how to recognize states that have already failed - the Afghanistans, Haitis, and Somalias. But it isn't good at foreseeing which states are in danger next. America pays a terribly high price for that lack of foresight - in an overextended military, drugs in inner cities, preventable humanitarian tragedies, and ultimately the loss of American lives.
We and our fellow members of the Commission on Weak States and National Security, with hundreds of years of experience in industry and government among us, believe that national security demands that we remake the institutions that manage US policy toward weak and failed states, just as our predecessors remade them 50 years ago to deal with the challenges of the cold war.
The same strategic vision that leads us to hunt down terrorists before they strike and get deadly weapons off the market before they are used must lead us to do better at managing the development challenges of weak states before they become security threats. We've proposed a strategy to take action now, and avoid more costly action later.
That strategy begins with better policies to prevent and respond to state weakness: Invest in preventing state failure, with steps like dropping barriers to imports from the poorest countries and revisiting US regulations that make it almost impossible to offer police and military assistance where it is most in the interest of the US. Give this and every administration surge capacities - including a civilian rapid-response corps of experts and a $1 billion contingency fund - in order to move fast to stop failure or promote hopeful transitions in key states.
But policies are only as good as the institutions and political commitment behind them. American institutions are decades out of date, created to deal with the challenges of the previous century.
Just as the US is reorganizing homeland security and intelligence infrastructures, it ought to organize for success by:
• Creating, from programs spread across more than 12 agencies, a single cabinet-level development agency with resources and prestige.
• Backing that department with high-level White House support.
• Developing a unified intelligence strategy to rectify failures in gathering and disseminating information about which states are truly on the brink.
Other nations, too, have interesting proposals in this area - the US must leverage its burdens globally. It can start with its G-8 partners, but must also draw in key regional leaders. Many want to take on more responsibility for helping weak states grow into partners, not collapse into threats. The US should help.
A year from this historic week of handovers, we can be bracing for another cycle of Iraqs, Haitis, and Afghanistans - or be moving, with our own house in order and our international partners beside us, to prevent that cycle. That ought to be a security priority on a par with our efforts to remake our homeland security and intelligence infrastructure, and for the same reasons.
• Stuart E. Eizenstat, former deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, and John Edward Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, are cochairmen of the Commission on Weak States and US National Security, sponsored by the Center for Global Development, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.