Think Again: Failed States

On 9/11, the West woke up to the threat posed by failed states. But did we actually understand it?

James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

“Failed States Are a Threat to U.S. National Security.”

Only some of them. It has been a truism of U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the United States is, in the words of President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, “threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that over the next 20 years, the gravest threats to America will come from failing states “that cannot meet the basic needs — much less the aspirations — of their people.” Both as candidate and as president, Barack Obama has repeated this claim and has sought to reorient policy toward the prevention of state failure.

But the truth is that some state failure poses a real danger to the United States and the West, and some does not. Consider the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some 5 million or more people have died in the wars that have convulsed the country since the mid-1990s — the single most horrific consequence of state failure in modern times. What has been the consequence to Americans? The cost of coltan, a material mined in Congo and used in cell phones, has been extremely volatile. It’s hard to think of anything else.

Even the role of failed states in global terrorism may have been overstated. To start, terrorism is only a problem in failed states with significant Muslim populations — admittedly, 13 of the top 20 in this year’s Failed States Index. But the correlation between failure and global menace is weaker than we think. Islamist militants in unequivocally failed Muslim states such as Somalia, or profoundly weak ones such as Chad, have thus far mostly posed a threat to their own societies. They are surely less of a danger to the West than Pakistan or Yemen, both at least somewhat functional countries where state ideology and state institutions abet terrorists.

In his new book, Weak Links, scholar Stewart Patrick concludes that “a middle-ranking group of weak — but not yet failing — states (e.g., Pakistan, Kenya) may offer more long-term advantages to terrorists than either anarchic zones or strong states.” (See “The Brutal Truth.”) Terrorists need infrastructure, too. The 9/11 attacks, after all, were directed from Afghanistan, but were financed and coordinated in Europe and more stable parts of the Muslim world, and were carried out mostly by citizens of Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda is a largely middle-class organization.

A similar pattern plays out in the world of transnational crime. Take the three-cornered drug market that links cocaine growers in Latin America, traffickers in West Africa, and users in Europe. The narcotraffickers have found the failed states of West Africa, with their unpatrolled ports and corrupt and undermanned security forces, to be perfect transshipment points for their product. Drugs are dumped out of propeller planes or unloaded from ships just off the coast of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, or Sierra Leone, and then broken into smaller parcels to be shipped north. But the criminal gangs operate not out of these Hobbesian spaces but from Ghana and Senegal — countries with reliable banking systems, excellent air connections, pleasant hotels, and innumerable opportunities for money laundering. The relationship is analogous to that between Afghanistan, whose wild spaces offer al Qaeda a theater of operations, and Pakistan, whose freewheeling urban centers provide jihadists with a home base.

“Failed States Are Ungoverned Spaces.”

Not necessarily. Somalia, the land of the perpetual war of all against all, is our beau ideal, so to speak, of the failed state, and for the fourth year running it is No. 1 on the Failed States Index. Nobody can match Somalia for anarchy, but elsewhere in the world, government, rather than its absence, is chiefly to blame for state failure. Consider Sudan, where the state, deploying its national army as well as paramilitaries, fomented the violence that has dominated Sudanese life for decades and placed it near the very top of the index. Somali violence is a symptom of state failure; Sudanese violence is a consequence of state policy.

Gérard Prunier, a prominent Africa scholar, has written that since coming to power in 1989, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has adopted a policy toward restive ethnic groups that is “verging on genocide.” The same was true in Burundi in the 1990s, where Hutu governments massacred Tutsis, after which the Tutsis turned around and did the same to Hutus. In these and other failed states, mass atrocity has almost become an accepted form of politics.

A categorical divide, albeit a sometimes blurry one, separates two classes of failed states. A country like Somalia is incapable of forming and executing state policy; it is a hapless state. States like Sudan, by contrast, are precarious by design. Or take Pakistan, which has followed clear and consistent policies, laid down by the military, since its inception in 1947. Unlike Somalia, or, for that matter, its neighbor Afghanistan, Pakistan is an intentional state. But just as Sudanese policy has provoked decades of violence by pitting the state against the periphery, so the cultivation of jihadi groups by the Pakistani military and intelligence services — as a counterweight to India and a source of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan — has turned Pakistan into a cockpit of terrorist violence. Pakistan does, of course, have ungoverned spaces, in the Pashtun-dominated badlands along the border with Afghanistan. But the country’s military leaders have made a strategic choice to allow the Pashtuns to govern themselves there, the better to be able to use them against their alleged adversaries. Intentional states, in short, often pose far greater threats to the world than hapless ones do.

“Failed States Are the West’s Fault.”

If only. The colonial powers, especially the more heedless ones, undoubtedly dumped their former possessions on the threshold of independence with little if any preparation for statehood. Think of Congo, which Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled as the chief executive of a private company dedicated to the extraction of raw materials under conditions of virtual enslavement, and whose entire population at independence in 1960 included not a single person with a graduate degree in any subject. Others, like never-colonized Afghanistan, were shredded in the savage crossfire of the Cold War.

But how can you hold the West responsible for states like Iraq (at least before 2003), Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, all of which enjoyed relative prosperity and stability in the first decades after emerging from rule by a Western power? Or what about Haiti, which threw off the yoke of French colonialism in the time of Napoleon, but never acquired more than the trappings of statehood in the two centuries since?

Less than half of the dozen most-failed countries can reasonably blame their Western parents for their plight. Why, after all, is Pakistan No. 12 on the list and India No. 76, despite sharing the same history of British colonization? Why is Ivory Coast 10 and Senegal 85, when both were under French rule? Same colonial upbringing, very different outcomes.

“Some States Were Born to Fail.”

Unfortunately true. Although some failed states have no one but themselves — or rather, their corrupt or brutal political elites — to blame, others never had a chance to start with. Here we face a problem of nomenclature. The very expression “failed” falsely implies a prior state of success. In fact, many countries in the upper tiers of the Failed States Index never emerged into full statehood. Fourteen of the 20 highest-scoring states are African, and many of them, including Nigeria, Guinea, and, of course, Congo, consisted at birth of tribes or ethnic groups with little sense of common identity and absolutely no experience of modern government. (Perhaps in this more limited sense one can blame colonialism, because it was the European powers that drew the dubious borders.) They are, in novelist V.S. Naipaul’s expression, “half-made societies,” trapped between a no-longer-usable past and a not-yet-accessible future. They “failed” when modernity awakened new hopes and appetites (and rivalries) that overwhelmed the state’s feeble institutions or that leaders sought to master and exploit.

What is the world to do about such misbegotten states? One answer is that you seek to minimize the harm that comes from them, or to them — by stemming the flow of drugs into and out of Guinea, say, or by using peacekeeping troops to prevent the spillover of violence from Darfur and Chad into the Central African Republic. You bolster the regional and subregional organizations in their neighborhoods (the African Union, or ECOWAS). And you acknowledge that even in places that pose no meaningful threat to the West, a moral obligation to relieve suffering requires that those who can help do so.

“The United States Needs a Failed-States Policy.”

Maybe not. One of the standing critiques of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is that, though the president has spoken frequently of the danger posed by state failure, he has never formulated a coherent policy to prevent or cure it. The administration has been sensitive on this score; during her recent tenure as head of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested that the U.S. civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan could be viewed as a “petri dish” for such a policy and that the post-earthquake state-building effort in Haiti, with its high level of collaboration with international partners, could serve as an alternative model. But today, even advocates of the administration’s large-scale effort in Afghanistan acknowledge that the attempt to spread good governance there has largely failed, while even a year after the Haiti quake the state-building effort there has barely even begun.

Perhaps the problem lies with our habit of thinking of failed states monolithically. What can it mean to have a policy that covers both Haiti and Afghanistan? What template could dictate a useful set of choices for U.S. officials in both Yemen, where state failure poses a direct threat to U.S. interests, and the Central African Republic, which has no strategic significance? And what policy would supply any useful options at all for Somalia, a wasteland that appears to be impervious to all forms of outside meddling, benevolent or malign? In this case, policy coherence may be overrated.

The Obama administration is certainly seeking such coherence. The State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a novel effort to marshal the tools of “soft power,” repeated the criticism about the absence of an overarching policy, but also placed a welcome emphasis on the need to develop civilian capacity to actually do whatever it is policymakers decide needs to be done. At present, meaningful U.S. policy options are undermined by the absence, at least outside the armed forces, of operational or “expeditionary” capacity: police trainers, sanitation experts, public-health officials, forensic accountants, and lawyers (yes, lawyers) who can be deployed to fragile states or post-conflict settings. You need people to do things. Unfortunately, congressional Republicans seem determined to gut any and all increases in nonmilitary capacity. Conservatives seem more comfortable with old-fashioned threats from powerful countries like China, Iran, and Russia. Perhaps they’re not troubled by the absence of a failed-states strategy because they don’t worry about failed states.

“Military Intervention Never Works.”

Wrong. The fixity of the failed-states rankings from year to year reminds us that the multiple diseases that plague these places are very resistant to being cured, whether by domestic actors or outsiders. Certainly the examples of Afghanistan and Haiti, the petri dishes of 2010, are not encouraging. But there are a few rays of light — all of which, oddly enough, have involved military intervention. Liberia and Sierra Leone have been pulled back from the brink of utter chaos in recent years, and both are now at peace. The same may be true of Ivory Coast in future years; it’s still too early to tell after this year’s brief and bloody post-election civil war. Iraq, a country whose descent seemed to have no bottom five years ago, has improved its standing on the index as sectarian violence has diminished over the last year, from No. 7 to No. 9.

The inference to be drawn is not that the solution to failed states is to send in the Marines, but rather that, at moments of supreme crisis, outsiders can bend the trajectory of failed states by using force to topple monstrous leaders or prevent them from gaining power. But intervention is itself a sign of failure, a failure to anticipate the moment of crisis. Any new policy toward failed states needs to focus on prevention rather than reaction, not only to avoid the need for military force, but also because in many places intervention simply will not be possible. You want to know now that, say, Thailand is at risk of political crisis, because while neighboring countries and Western powers have diplomatic tools they can use to avert calamity, there may be little they can do once violence breaks out. The supreme example of the dire consequences of ignoring early warnings is, of course, Rwanda, where U.N. officials and the Security Council ignored repeated warnings of an impending genocide and reacted only when it was too late to stop the killing.

“Failed States Can’t Be Helped.”

Some of them can. What can outsiders do when this moment of leverage has passed? What can they do to promote reconciliation among tribes in Kenya, to bolster civilian rule in Pakistan, to help create an economic base to replace dwindling supplies of oil in Yemen? These are, of course, profoundly different questions, but they do have one common answer: It depends on the willingness of the state to be helped. Outsiders can do little in Zimbabwe so long as Robert Mugabe remains in power, for Mugabe is prepared to wreck his country in order to preserve his rule over it. The best thing outsiders can do is pressure or bribe him and his immediate circle into leaving. On the other hand, outsiders may be able to accomplish a great deal in Liberia, where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has invited U.N. officials to operate from inside the country’s ministries in order to provide expertise and prevent abuse. The same contrast may apply between Sudan, an autocracy afloat on oil wealth, and Southern Sudan, a new country born naked and helpless, but with a legitimate political leadership (though there is a real danger that Sudan’s abrupt seizure of the border territory of Abyei could plunge both countries into a spiral of violence).

It is tempting to view the problem of failed states in technocratic terms. In Fixing Failed States, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart argue that failed states need to be connected to global markets and have their innovative energies unshackled. They do — but ruthless dictators view economic and political freedom as a threat to their rule. The generals who run Burma will make sure that no one save themselves and their friends benefits from global markets. There’s no escaping politics, and political will. The hapless states, like Liberia, want help, and sometimes they can be helped. The intentional states, like Burma or Sudan, will exploit outside help for their own purposes. Unfortunately, it’s the intentional states, by and large, that pose the greatest threat to the United States and the West. So here’s a proposal: Maybe we can formulate a new kind of failing-states policy, one to help the deserving states, those that can be helped, and minimize the harm from the others.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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