Fail States

10 October 2016

Nation-states fail because they are convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose legitimacy, and the very nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes illegitimate in the eyes and in the hearts of a growing plurality of its citizens.

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The rise and fall of nation-states is not new, but in a modern era when national states constitute the building blocks of legitimate world order the violent disintegration and palpable weakness of selected African, Asian, Oceanic, and Latin American states threaten the very foundation of that system. International organizations and big powers consequently find themselves sucked disconcertingly into a maelstrom of anomic internal conflict and messy humanitarian relief.

Desirable international norms such as stability and predictability thus become difficult to achieve when so many of the globe’s newer nation-states waver precariously between weakness and failure, with some truly failing, or even collapsing. In a time of terror, moreover, appreciating the nature of and responding to the dynamics of nation-state failure have become central to critical policy debates. How best to strengthen weak states and prevent state failure are among the urgent questions of the twenty-first century.

This book examines contemporary cases of nation-state collapse and failure. 1 It establishes clear criteria for distinguishing collapse and failure from generic weakness or apparent distress, and collapse from failure. It further analyzes the nature of state weakness and advances reasons why some weak states succumb to failure, or collapse, and why others in ostensibly more straightened circumstances remain weak and at risk without ever destructing.

Characterizing failed states is thus an important and relevant endeavor, especially because the phenomenon of state failure is under-researched, hitherto with imprecise definitions and a paucity of sharply argued, instructive, and well-delineated cases. Further, understanding exactly why weak states slide toward failure will help policymakers to design methods to prevent failure and, in the cases of states that nevertheless fail (or collapse), to revive them and assist in the rebuilding process. States are much more varied in their capacity and capability than they once were.

They are more numerous than they were a half century ago, and the range of their population sizes, physical endowments, wealth, productivity, delivery systems, ambitions, and attainments is much more extensive than ever before. In 1914, in the wake of the crumbling of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, there were fifty-five recognized national polities. In 1919, there were fifty-nine nations. In 1950, that number had reached sixty-nine. Ten years later, after the attainment of independence in much of Africa, ninety were nations.

After many more African, Asian, and Oceanic territories had become independent, and after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the number of nations jumped to 191; East Timor’s independence in 2002 brought that total to 192. Given such explosive numbers, the inherent fragility of many of the new recruits (fifteen of Africa’s fifty-four states are landlocked), and the inherent navigational perils of the post–Cold War economic and political terrain, the possibility of failure among a subset of the total remains ever present.

Strength and Weakness Nation-states exist to provide a decentralized method of delivering political (public) goods to persons living within designated parameters (borders). Having replaced the monarchs of old, modern states focus and answer the concerns and demands of citizenries. They organize and channel the interests of their people, often but not exclusively in furtherance of national goals and values.

They buffer or manipulate external forces and influences, champion the local or particular concerns of their adherents, and mediate between the constraints and challenges of the international arena and the dynamism of their own internal economic, political, and social realities. States succeed or fail across all or some of these dimensions. But it is according to their performance—according to the levels of their effective delivery of the most crucial political goods—that strong states may be distinguished from weak nes, and weak states from failed or collapsed states. Political goods  are those intangible and hard to quantify claims that citizens once made on sovereigns and now make on states. They encompass expectations, conceivably obligations, inform the local political culture, and together give content to the social contract between ruler and ruled that is at the core of regime/government and citizenry interactions. 2 There is a hierarchy of political goods.

None is as critical as the supply of security, especially human security. Individuals alone, almost exclusively in special or particular circumstances, can attempt to secure themselves. Or groups of individuals can band together to organize and purchase goods or services that maximize their sense of security. Traditionally, and usually, however, individuals and groups cannot easily or effectively substitute private security for the full spectrum of public security.

The state’s prime function is to provide that political good of security—to prevent cross-border invasions and infiltrations, and any loss of territory; to eliminate domestic threats to or attacks upon the national order and social structure; to prevent crime and any related dangers to domestic human security; and to enable citizens to resolve their disputes with the state and with their fellow inhabitants without recourse to arms or other forms of physical coercion. The delivery of a range of other desirable political goods becomes possible when a reasonable measure of security has been sustained.

Modern states (as successors to sovereigns) provide predictable, recognizable, systematized methods of adjudicating disputes and regulating both the norms and the prevailing mores of a particular society or polity. The essence of that political good usually implies codes and procedures that together constitute an enforceable rule of law, security of property and inviolable contracts, a judicial system, and a set of values that legitimize and validate the local version of fair play.

Another key political good enables citizens to participate freely, openly, and fully in politics and the political process. This good encompasses the essential freedoms: the right to compete for office; respect and support for national and regional political institutions, like legislatures and courts; tolerance of dissent and difference; and fundamental civil and human rights.

Other political goods typically supplied by states (although privatized forms are possible) and expected by their citizenries include medical and health care (at varying levels and costs); schools and educational instruction (of various kinds and levels)—the knowledge good; roads, railways, harbors, and other physical infrastructures—the arteries of commerce; communications infrastructures; a money and banking system, usually presided over by a central bank and lubricated by a national currency; a beneficent fiscal and institutional context within which citizens can pursue personal entrepreneurial goals and potentially prosper; the promotion of civil society; and methods of regulating the 4 ROBERT I. ROTBERG sharing of the environmental commons. Together, this bundle of political goods, roughly rank ordered, establishes a set of criteria according to which modern nation-states may be judged strong, weak, or failed. Strong states obviously perform well across these categories and with respect to each, separately. Weak states show a mixed profile, fulfilling expectations in some areas and performing poorly in others.

The more poorly weak states perform, criterion by criterion, the weaker they become, and the more that weakness tends to edge toward failure, hence the subcategory of weakness that is termed failing. Many failed states flunk each of the tests outlined above. But they need not flunk all of them to fail overall, particularly since satisfying the security good weighs very heavily, and high levels of internal violence are associated directly with failure and the propensity to fail. Yet, violence alone does not condition failure, and the absence of violence does not necessarily imply that the state in question is not failed. It is necessary to judge the extent to which an entire failing or failed profile is less or more than its component parts.

Strong states unquestionably control their territories and deliver a full range and a high quality of political goods to their citizens. They perform well according to indicators like GDP per capita, the UNDP Human Development Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Report. Strong states offer high levels of security from political and criminal violence, ensure political freedom and civil liberties, and create environments conducive to the growth of economic opportunity. The rule of law prevails. Judges are independent. Road networks are well maintained. Telephones work. Snail mail and e-mail both arrive quickly. Schools, universities, and students flourish.

Hospitals and clinics serve patients effectively. And so on. Overall, strong states are places of enviable peace and order. Weak states include a broad continuum of states that are: inherently weak because of geographical, physical, or fundamental economic constraints; basically strong, but temporarily or situationally weak because of internal antagonisms, management flaws, greed, despotism, or external attacks; and a mixture of the two. Weak states typically harbor ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other intercommunal tensions that have not yet, or not yet thoroughly, become overtly violent. Urban crime rates tend to be higher and increasing.

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