Global Policy Forum

Failed States: Where Life is Cheap and Talk is Loose

The Failed States Index uses definite criteria to determine the degree of a state's failure. However is it truly possible to diagnose a state as "failed," or does this categorization raise more problems than it solves? This article articulates the inherent difficulties in attaching the term "failed state" to countries such as North Korea, which functions as a regime, but is nonetheless an oppressive dictatorship, amongst other examples. Overall it argues that governments should be wary of rendering states as "failed" without considering the semantic issues of this classification.

The Economist

March 17, 2011

The annals of diplomacy recorded something startling in February. Saying, in effect, that it was in danger of collapse, the West African state of Guinea voluntarily turned to a United Nations agency that deals with failed or failing states. Like most of its neighbours Guinea has a history of violence, weak governance, poverty and destructive competition for natural resources. Its new government sought help from the UN Peacebuilding Commission, an unwieldy body that duly set up a task force known as a "country-specific configuration" to bolster the government in Conakry. It is already involved in shoring up half a dozen other countries, all African, at the behest of the Security Council; but this was the first time a country owned up to being at risk.

Such honesty is rare, but states that cannot control their territories, protect their citizens, enter or execute agreements with outsiders, or administer justice are a common and worsening phenomenon. Robert Gates, America's defence secretary, says "fractured or failing states" are "the main security challenge of our time." The term now extends beyond the poor world: American officials have applied it to the Italian region of Calabria.

The problem has attracted lots of wonkish experts, who have offered their expertise to the American government. As a scholar, Susan Rice used to berate the Bush administration for calling broken states a deadly threat but failing to fix them. Now she is her country's envoy to the UN. As a Princeton professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter was a leading academic authority on benighted places; till last month, she was a policy planner at the State Department.

This brainpower has yet to turn the tide of anarchy. In places where the state is chronically weak, it is not improving much. The spectre of state failure is haunting hitherto calm locations too. An annual ranking published by the Fund for Peace, a think-tank in Washington DC, always features the usual black spots: Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, Haiti. Applying a fairly strict standard, it finds that most countries in the global South face some threat to their proper functioning.

Politics can complicate diagnosis and prescription. In a topical bit of scaremongering a Texas-based think-tank, Stratfor, has voiced fears that the drug-related mayhem engulfing parts of Mexico could end in state collapse. But the State Department would never bring that language to a delicate relationship. In some contexts, the use or non-use of words is a political choice. Last year, when Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Kyrgyzstan was at risk of failing, he wasn't engaging in political analysis but hinting that Moscow's fatherly hand might again be needed to keep order.

Some semantic history may help. "Failed state" entered the political lexicon with the (ill-fated) American-led venture in Somalia in 1992. With cold-war patrons gone, so the theory went, many poor states were at risk of collapsing into Hobbesian anarchy, with dire results for their own inhabitants and neighbouring lands. Robert Kaplan, an American writer, captured and somewhat exaggerated an important truth by describing the chaos engulfing Liberia and Sierra Leone and warning of the "coming anarchy" in other parts of the world.

When words become deeds

No sooner was the term "state failure" born than political scientists began picking it apart. "Failure" may misleadingly imply that a government is trying to function but not managing. In fact, dysfunctional statehood may suit the powerful. As Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College in North Carolina has written*, the last thing a kleptocrat needs is good judges, or robust ministries that could be power bases for rival robber barons. "Where governments have become deeply complicit in criminal activities...perpetuation of state failure is essential for the criminal enterprise to operate."

Yet even fairly bad rulers, say African or Afghan warlords or corrupt provincial governors in Russia, may feel the need to provide certain public goods, if only to further their own interests. Such public services might range from half-decent roads to the suppression (or perhaps limitation through taxing) of petty crime. What those rulers will not do, though, is create an arena in which other economic or political players can emerge. Is that a success or a failure, then?

The English word "fail" can imply a status: a binary category into which you (or your exam paper) either fall or don't fall. Or it can be a process of indefinite duration. The second sense is more useful when discussing the welfare of states, where no bright line separates success and failure. Nor is there a continuum stretching from dismal failure to blessed success. The conditions are mixed in a variety of ways.

In the case of Mexico, it is hard to deny that governance is failing at some levels: some municipal police and councils, and authorities in certain states, have been infiltrated by the narco-mafia, becoming useless or worse in any fight against the drug trade. But the government can still marshal a formidable array of forces against the traffickers; that is quite a different situation from the anomie of Congo or Somalia.

Calling Afghanistan a failed state seems less controversial, but in a land where central power has always been weak, what does success mean? The American-led coalition's goals include the defeat of the Taliban, the interdiction of the opium business and the bolstering and cleaning up of the government in Kabul. But such aims may be hard to reconcile, argues Jonathan Goodhand of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. The drug economy may have had a stabilising effect on some parts of Afghanistan, he has written; the only plausible hope of a functioning state may rest on a compromise among regional barons whose power rests on narcotics.

If this is even half-right, then success is hard to imagine, let alone achieve. And many an outsider has grown cynical about the prospects of even partial success in establishing a clean government in Kabul. Local support for clean governance is too weak; many hidden channels link the state, the drug lords and even the Taliban.

Another category of states, hard to place on any spectrum of success or failure, could be described as "brittle" dictatorships, like the communist regime that once ruled Albania or the one that still holds sway in North Korea. Such regimes are successful in the sense that they manage, as long as they last, to make people do what they are told; but once they fall, such polities can shatter into a thousand pieces.

Beyond good and evil

Nor is there anything simple or Manichean about the standoff between the state on the one hand and its would-be wreckers on the other. States that are fighting either terrorist or criminal groups often respond by sponsoring their own terrorist or criminal protégés. At that point it can be hard to make any moral distinction between pro- and anti-state forces.

Moreover, anti-state forces (such as the Tamil Tigers, the IRA in Northern Ireland, or the Kosovo Liberation Army) often function rather like states in the territory they control, operating welfare services and primitive justice systems, while at the same time engaging in crime, from organ-snatching to bank heists, to keep their coffers full. Such organisations may "go straight" when they gain a degree of formal political power. Or they may not.

Given the messy intractability of state failure, who or what has a chance of solving it? Coaxing states in the direction of success, so that relatively clean institutions drive out the dirtiest ones, may be the most realistic goal. But if dozens of the world's states are in some sense failed, and may well have a stake in covering up the failure of others, then help offered by yet more governments, or inter-governmental agencies, is unlikely to be a panacea.

To see the difficulties of what pundits call a "state-centric approach", consider the history of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. It was one of the big ideas to emerge from a reflection on the UN's future by the global great and good in 2005. As first conceived, it would have had enforcement powers and tried to pre-empt state failure, not just cure it. But many governments, jealously guarding the cloak of statehood, lobbied to keep the commission weak.

To have any hope of success, state-mending efforts must tackle benighted places as they really are, says James Cockayne, who co-directs a New York think-tank called the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Co-operation. They must cope with local power-brokers with no particular link to state capitals; and also with anti-state forces with global connections that could never be trumped by a single national government, even a clean one.

The clearest cases of such transnational state-spoilers concern the drug trade. As long as Latin American narco-lords find it easy to sell cocaine and buy guns in the United States, no government to the south can eliminate them. Whether in Latin America, in Afghanistan or in the emerging narco-states of West Africa, purely national attempts to deal with drugs can be counter-productive; they just drive up prices or create new networks.

In many other cases the wreckers are too effectively globalised for any one state to take them on, adds Mr Cockayne. Examples include Somali warlords with deep ties to the diaspora and Western passports; Congolese militia leaders who market the produce of tin and coltan mines to end-users in China and Malaysia; Tamil rebels who used émigré links to practise credit-card fraud in Britain; or Hezbollah's cigarette smuggling in the United States.

No worthy effort to train civil servants in just one capital will be of much use in neutralising these global networks. Last November the UN Security Council took a step towards recognising this. It passed a resolution telling buyers of tin not to source their raw material from mines controlled by Congolese militia leaders.

It was highly unusual for the council to issue an order to anybody except governments. Global Witness, an anti-corruption outfit, has reported that the resolution has been badly enforced, with only half-hearted efforts at self-policing by the tin industry. But at least the UN may be edging away from the fiction that governments, and people under their orders, are the only factors that determine the fate of nations.

*Ending Wars, Consolidating Peace: Economic Perspectives, ed Berdal and Wennmann, IISS


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