Failed States

The Brutal Truth

Failed states are mainly a threat to their own inhabitants. We should help them anyway.


The last 20 years — so blandly labeled the "post-Cold War era" — might as well be known as the "Age of Failed States." After decades of confronting Soviet power, successive U.S. administrations suddenly became embroiled in and bedeviled by the world’s most dysfunctional countries. Although great-power competition persists, it is often the world’s basket cases — from Somalia to Afghanistan, Haiti to Liberia, and Pakistan to Yemen — that dominate the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. This trend began in the early 1990s, when a shocking outbreak of state collapse and internal violence, including but by no means limited to episodes of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, seemed to herald a "new world disorder," in the words of British diplomat David Hannay.

For analysts wondering where the next shoe may drop, the annual Failed States Index (FSI) produced by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace has become required reading. Launched in 2005, the index has spawned many imitators (including one I constructed in 2008 with Susan E. Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), but remains the marquee brand. Each year government officials and policy analysts pore over its rankings, seeking evidence of dramatic deterioration in the relative standing of the world’s most troubled countries. This attention reflects a widespread conviction that state failure poses grave risks to international security, a view embraced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has warned of "the chaos that flows from failed states," and her Pentagon counterpart, Robert Gates, who called them "the main security challenge of our time." It may be time, however, to revisit our assumptions about just how much these troublesome countries matter to the rest of the world.

The brutal truth is that the vast majority of weak, failing, and failed states pose risks primarily to their own inhabitants. When governments cannot discharge basic functions, their citizens pay the heaviest price. Countries in the top ranks of the FSI face a much higher risk of internal conflict, civil violence, and humanitarian catastrophe (both natural and man-made). They are settings for the worst human rights abuses, the overwhelming source of the world’s refugees, and the places where most U.N. peacekeepers must go. Home to humanity’s "bottom billion," they suffer low or negative economic growth, and their populations are more likely to be poor and malnourished; experience pervasive insecurity; endure gender discrimination; lack access to education, basic health care, and modern technology; and die young or suffer chronic illness. Think of Nigeria (No. 14 on the list), a country that spends only $10 per capita on health care annually and has an average life expectancy of just 46 years, or Zimbabwe (6), whose venal authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe, has driven a once-promising country into repressive horror.

Beyond those living in such countries, the heaviest brunt of state failure is borne by neighboring states; violent conflict, refugee flows, arms trafficking, and disease are rarely contained within national borders. A case in point has been the devastation wrought throughout Africa’s Great Lakes region in the decade and a half since the Rwandan genocide, with warring militias, arms flows, and epidemics crisscrossing notional national frontiers. As the Great Lakes show, the risk of regional contagion is compounded when weak and vulnerable states are adjacent to other countries with similar characteristics and few defenses against spillovers. And even when they are not exporting violence, fragile states impose dramatic economic costs on their neighbors. According to Oxford University economist Paul Collier and his colleague Lisa Chauvet, the total cost of a single country falling into the "fragile state" category, for itself and its neighbors, may reach $85 billion. This is a gargantuan sum, equivalent to 70 percent of worldwide official development assistance from international donors in 2009.

But such troubles — bad as they are — do not automatically endanger the wider world, much as it may be a convenient sales pitch to argue otherwise. The world, it turns out, is not quite as interdependent as advertised. What happens in the poorest, most marginalized, and most dysfunctional places in the developing world only rarely comes back to bite those living in the wealthy world. What happens in failed states often stays in failed states.

The theory of the "failed state threat" gathered steam in the early 1990s and has become commonly accepted since. Journalist Robert D. Kaplan luridly portrayed state failure in Africa as portending a "coming anarchy" that would engulf much of the post-Cold War developing world. President Bill Clinton’s administration created a State Failure Task Force, charged with predicting and, where possible, heading off state collapse to protect the United States from any consequences. The task force identified several factors that correlate with state failure, such as high child mortality, but it remained a largely academic exercise.

Not everyone acknowledged the new danger. Self-styled "realists" still tended to regard states with sovereignty deficits as humanitarian rather than security problems; they might pique one’s moral conscience, but they lacked strategic significance. But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, dramatically altered this calculus. Al Qaeda’s ability to launch history’s most devastating hit on the United States from one of the most wretched countries on Earth produced a rare bipartisan consensus, encapsulated in President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy: "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones."

Barack Obama’s administration has hardly changed course. Rather, it has redoubled the rhetorical focus on fragile states and taken steps to strengthen U.S. capabilities to address them, whether in using the military’s combatant commands as platforms for heading off state failure or bolstering the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a civilian expeditionary corps within the State Department.

Indeed, the perceived need to counter the failed-state threat has transformed U.S. military, diplomatic, and development policy in the post-9/11 era. Seeking to bolster the world’s most vulnerable countries, police its "ungoverned spaces," and mitigate negative "spillovers" from failed states, the Pentagon, the State Department, and USAID adopted new doctrines, reallocated budgets, and embraced new missions of conflict prevention and state-building. Governments and international institutions from Britain to the World Bank followed suit. This flurry of activity reflects a shared conviction: In an interdependent world, our collective security is only as strong as its weakest link.

In the breathless prose of USAID: "When development and governance fail in a country, the consequences engulf entire regions and leap around the world. Terrorism, political violence, civil wars, organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, infectious diseases, environmental crises, refugee flows, and mass migration cascade across the borders of weak states more destructively than ever before."

Frightening. But is it true? Ten years after 9/11, it is time to examine the evidence about the threat of state failure before adopting it as the bedrock of U.S. and international strategies in the developing world.

A closer look suggests that the connection between state fragility and global security is more complicated and contingent than conventional wisdom would have it. Today’s sweeping generalizations are based on isolated examples — such as al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan — rather than on an empirical assessment of global patterns or in-depth case studies that reveal causal linkages between, for example, poor governance and transnational terrorism. That kind of hype provides little analytical insight or practical guidance when it’s time to set priorities.

Most failed states, it turns out, generate few spillovers of concern to the rest of us. Rather, transnational threats are more likely to emanate from better-performing developing countries that are more closely integrated into the global economy but nevertheless possess significant governance gaps.

Consider terrorism, the most commonly stated rationale for why failed states matter on the international stage. Certainly, al Qaeda has found sanctuary in a number of fragile states, including Pakistan and Yemen. However, the vast majority of fragile states, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, are of marginal importance to the network and its affiliates. Indeed, the anarchy of "failed" states can pose insuperable obstacles even to terrorists, who require at least basic levels of operational security. As analysts such as James Forest of West Point note, the notion of a "safe haven" in a failed state is an oxymoron. What terrorists favor are not so much collapsed states, like Somalia, as weak but functioning states, like Pakistan or Kenya.

Politics and culture often matter more than the degree of "failedness." Al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan and Yemen, for instance, is facilitated less by the states’ weakness than by the ruling regimes’ unwillingness to combat Islamic extremism — and, indeed, their decision to embrace jihadi groups. Al Qaeda’s ability to operate in both countries has also depended on hospitable tribes and local power brokers, as well as populations receptive to its hard-line religious message. By contrast, al Qaeda has gained only a tenuous foothold in the extremely weak countries of the Sahel, where a more tolerant Sufi version of Islam is popular. Al Qaeda’s evolution — from a centrally directed network dependent on a single "base" to a more diffuse global movement with cells in dozens of countries, poor and wealthy alike — suggests that failed states may be even less important to its future, though they may retain a niche role in providing sanctuaries for leaders and training camps.

Nor are failed states the major concern they’ve been made out to be when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. National security experts have long worried that poorly governed countries may be particularly prone to pursue nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological weapons; be unable or disinclined to control existing stocks of such weapons; or be unable to prevent the spread of WMD and related technology. These fears are largely unwarranted. With the important exceptions of nuclear-armed North Korea and Pakistan, the worst-ranking countries on the FSI present little proliferation danger. Few possess appreciable quantities of fissile material or have indicated an interest in pursuing other WMD capabilities. Of far greater proliferation risk are more capable countries (such as Iran, Russia, or Syria) that either possess or have the means and determination to develop WMD, while lacking the transparency, oversight, or motivation to ensure that their programs remain secure.

And the link between fragile states and transnational crime? After all, Afghanistan produces nearly all of the world’s opium; Colombia, a plurality of its coca. Somalia and Nigeria are the epicenters of global piracy. And tiny Guinea-Bissau has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Colombian drug cartels. Still, fragile states play only minor roles when it comes to money laundering, human trafficking, or environmental crime, and they are virtually irrelevant to entire illicit realms like cybercrime, intellectual property theft, or the counterfeiting of manufactured goods. As with terrorism, weaker is not necessarily more advantageous for criminals. To sell illicit commodities and launder the proceeds, criminals need secure access to financial services and modern telecommunications, banking, and transportation infrastructure — all things generally lacking in failed states. In their thirst for profits, criminals will accept higher risk for a convenient geographical base and proximity to the global marketplace. Such factors help explain why Mexico and South Africa — neither remotely a failed state — have emerged as hotbeds of criminal activity and violence.

Failed states, given their rudimentary capacity for primary care, monitoring epidemics, and responding to natural disasters, have also been labeled the weak link of global public health. But although such troubled countries bear a disproportionate (even crushing) disease burden, these afflictions are primarily endemic diseases like cholera, malaria, or tuberculosis, whose impacts are localized, or the long-wave pandemic of HIV/AIDS, which has become a manageable disease in wealthy countries while continuing to ravage many of the world’s poorest. By contrast, the most alarming pandemic threats of recent years, such as avian influenza — which could in principle kill tens of millions of people — have largely bypassed the world’s failed states, isolated as they are from major global trade and transportation links. If anything, the past decade suggests that the Achilles’ heel of global public health may be not the world’s weakest states but obstructionism and denial in more advanced developing countries, such as China, South Africa, and Indonesia, which responded sluggishly to — and at times denied — the SARS, HIV/AIDS, and bird-flu epidemics.

So, should we just ignore failing states, then? Hardly. The international community has a vested interest in the fate of the world’s most dysfunctional countries. But these stakes are and will likely remain primarily humanitarian and developmental. Hyping the security threat risks diverting resources that could otherwise go to helping people.

And they do need our help. Failed and failing states are the main setting for mass atrocities against civilian populations, including situations that might merit armed intervention under the "responsibility to protect" doctrine. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has accurately described failed states as "the toughest development challenge of our era." Regardless of their strategic salience, the international community retains an enduring interest in alleviating suffering, reducing poverty, and nurturing effective and legitimate institutions in the world’s most troubled countries. And after all, it is the right thing to do.

Stewart M. Patrick is James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

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