In Box

Dangerous Weakness

Somalia is the quintessential "failed state" -- and not just because it has topped Foreign Policy's Failed States Index since 2008.


Somalia’s collapse in the early 1990s inspired the term, even as a disastrous relief mission there made Americans wary of serving as the world’s police. Then came the 9/11 attacks, and suddenly the world’s ungoverned territories were back atop the agenda: Whether in the lawless borderlands of Afghanistan or in earthquake-devastated Haiti, the consequences of state failure have never been clearer.

1648: The Treaty of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years’ War and begins a new era in which the primary actors in European politics are no longer cities or empires, but states. What defines these new players is unquestioned legal authority within their borders — in a word, sovereignty.

January 1918: German scholar Max Weber, lecturing on "Politics as a Vocation," argues that true states are those that have a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force" over their territory.

December 26, 1933: The Montevideo Convention ensures that countries don’t forfeit their right to statehood if they don’t meet Weber’s conditions: "The rights of each one do not depend upon the power which it possesses to assure its exercise."

1950s-1970s: After World War II, the concept of countries in need of "development" takes hold. The label "failed states" is not yet in use, but U.S. official U. Alexis Johnson memorably describes newly independent Bangladesh as a "basket case."

1989-1991: The end of the Cold War creates a power vacuum as unsavory regimes lose the Soviet and U.S. aid that once propped them up. Years later, scholars such as UCLA’s Michael L. Ross attribute the rise of failed states in the 1990s to this sudden geopolitical shift.

Winter 1992-1993: As Somalia and the Balkans descend into chaos, Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner offer the first serious conceptual definition of a failed state, in Foreign Policy: "a disturbing new phenomenon is emerging: the failed nation-state, utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community."

August 10, 1993: Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, brings the term "failed state" into popular use in the New York Times, asking the international community to "help lift [Somalia] from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy."

August 13, 1997: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tells the New York Times, "Of course, the enemies of Pakistan try to present it as a failed state. But it’s not a failed state. It’s much better than it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago."

July/August 2002: The 9/11 attacks focus new attention on barely governed states like Sudan and Afghanistan, both of which harbored Osama bin Laden. Writing in Foreign Affairs, scholar Robert Rotberg is the first to argue that "the threat of terrorism has given the problem of failed nation-states an immediacy … that transcends its previous humanitarian dimension."

2002: The World Bank begins an evaluation program to track failed states, which it diplomatically calls "Low-Income Countries Under Stress." The bank identifies 17 in the program’s first year.

2005: The Fund for Peace, a nonprofit research group, teams up with Foreign Policy to conduct the first Failed States Index, ranking the world’s countries according to a dozen factors. Ivory Coast tops the initial list, with Iraq taking fourth place just two years after the U.S. invasion.

2009: Barack Obama stocks his administration with experts on the national security risks of state failure, including White House advisor Samantha Power and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

May/June 2010: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues in Foreign Affairs that dealing with "fractured or failing states" is "the main security challenge of our time."

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