States of Failure

Pauline H. Baker of the Fund for Peace replies to Afghan Amb. Said T. Jawad and Doug Lieb of the American Jewish Committee's concerns about the Failed States Index 2008.

Although Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace’s "Failed States Index" (July/August 2008) seeks to measure the strength and stability of countries based on a variety of factors, it does not properly account for historical context and relative progress, both of which are vital to understanding Afghanistan’s circumstances today.

Prior to the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan had been wracked by war for more than 20 years. Those conflicts, which were fueled by international actors, effectively destroyed Afghanistan’s state institutions and scattered its people. In that sense, Afghanistan was a failed state. But it is no longer accurate to describe it as such today.

Building state capacity is a process that can span decades. Few countries developed into functioning states overnight. In fact, many took generations to do so. It took 21 years after the American Revolution before the United States saw a year of peace, almost 100 years before it abolished slavery, and 137 years before women could vote.

Although some may argue that the backing of the international community should assure quicker progress, Afghanistan still faces dangerous neighbors, a committed terrorist enemy, and a daunting reconstruction process.

Despite these challenges, Afghanistan has already drawn out the contours of a democratic system, brought women into the political process, and enrolled more than 6 million children in school — a fivefold increase since 2001.

Afghanistan is not yet in the clear, as recent security incidents indicate. But with committed and consistent international support, Afghanistan will continue to establish and strengthen its institutions. The process will be neither quick nor cheap. Only if the world treats it as such will Afghanistan run the risk of once again becoming a failed state.

  — Said T. Jawad
Ambassador to the United States
Embassy of Afghanistan
Washington, D.C.


Your classification of Israel among the world’s most vulnerable states for the first time raises a central question about what it means to be a low-functioning state. Should measures of failure not weigh state functioning against the challenges a state confronts?

At least in Israel’s case, the issue is not this year’s level of "group grievance" or refugee displacement, as the rankings may suggest. It is how well the state produces services and protects citizens’ rights in light of those long-standing challenges.

The occupation of the West Bank has had negative effects on daily life for Palestinians, but Israel does not relish the difficult job of combating terrorism there. Unfortunately, though the Palestinian Authority has produced gains in law and order in some areas, it has shown no inclination to arrest militants or disrupt terrorist operations.

Although the West Bank’s economic indicators may look bleak, Israel’s government does much to safeguard its population’s well-being. The public apathy you cite is only relevant because Israel remains the Middle East’s sole democracy. Israel also recognizes that its own vital interests lie in the creation of a viable Palestinian state as soon as possible.

You argue that "weak states are weak precisely because they lack the resiliency to cope with unwelcome — and unpleasant — surprises." Regrettably, Israel’s rich 60-year history is full of unpleasant surprises from neighbors committed to its destruction, most recently Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Failed States Index views such challenges only as sources of instability. But when one views them as obstacles that a state has consistently overcome, Israel is doing just fine.

— Doug Lieb
Executive Assistant to the Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, N.Y.

The Fund for Peace replies:

Both Said Jawad and Doug Lieb raise valid concerns regarding how one can interpret the results of the Failed States Index. However, two clarifications are needed. First, the index measures "conflict risk" on a continuum. All 177 countries assessed, including those that are stable, have some risk, which is measured by the index in an annual snapshot of state vulnerability. Not all states in the top 60 are "failed" or "failing," but they do exhibit significant vulnerability to violent conflict. Second, every state can cite its own unique historical circumstances that provide meaningful context. Although that can be valuable, it does not provide policymakers with concrete ways to measure evolving risks.

In the case of Israel, which unquestionably has made remarkable progress in its 60-year history, these risks have, in fact, worsened recently. In the Failed States Index, assessments are applied equally, whatever the heroic achievements of the past or the unique qualities of the "obstacles that must be overcome" — another way of saying that significant sources of instability do indeed exist.

Jawad also raises the issue of historical context with regard to his country, Afghanistan. Here, too, there is a case to be made that the country has seen commendable progress in some areas and that it still faces huge challenges in others. None of that negates the risk profile in the index, which demonstrates more precisely what those challenges are and how far Afghanistan must go to achieve sustainable security.

For all countries, the index tracks progress — or deterioration — objectively. Rather than ignoring the past, the index is a means for enabling decision-makers, especially in risk-prone states, to shape the future. However, if they ignore the warning signs that the index offers, the risk of failure will only grow.

  — Pauline H. Baker
The Fund for Peace
Washington, D.C.

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