The news from Afghanistan, for example, is pretty bleak: lawlessness, social collapse, “humanitarian crises,”. If you add civil war as a descriptor, the list of countries with existential problems would include: Burma/Myanmar, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Sudan/South Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen (and likely a bunch more). There is a concept being applied to all these countries: the “failed state.”
To be sure, there are any number of locally unique circumstances and events that have led these groups of people to their (respective) current situation. It’s reminiscent of Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Still, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder all this “failure” at a broader level.
The concept describes something different and more dire than the (well-justified) concern about the threats to democracy here in the US and a bunch of places elsewhere in the world. Neither Russia nor China may be described as the “home of the free,” but no one doubts that there is a state in place and in charge. History is strewn with monarchies (of varying degrees of absolutism) which constructed robust and bureaucratic organizations. Indeed, the very nature of historical fascism implies the existence of a strong state as the locus of group identity.
So, in using the concept of the “failed state” means we have to consider what a state is, what it’s supposed to do, and why its “failure” could be a problem.
The “state” can be fundamentally defined as the crystallization of the power structure of a society, institutionalized to preserve order (domestic and internationally) and to keep itself in operation. Historically, the modern “state” emerged (over the last 500 years or so) marked by the separation—conceptually and operationally—of a monarchy from bureaucratic operations necessary to achieve those functions. Traditionally, the state has claimed or at least aspired to a “monopoly of legitimate violence” in society (Max Weber’s classic early 20C definition) which enables it to create and preserve order.
The means by which a state maintains “order” in society has evolved over the centuries, reflecting changes in economic relationships, democratic power structures, technology, etc. Pre-modern states didn’t do much more than make war, host parties, and resolve disputes among its people. Now, we expect the state to provide health, education, roads, information, and a smoothly-functioning economy, in addition to maintaining internal and external security (oh, and collect taxes to pay for the whole thing).
In other words, if a state can’t do at least its core job, then (pretty much by definition) it has failed as a state. The presence of an extended civil war (of which many configurations exist) or being invaded or otherwise taken over by another country (more typical before the 20C) are the principal pieces of evidence that failure has occurred.
In most countries that were created and stabilized before WWII, this all seems pretty straightforward; in large part because the state is embedded in a more-or-less established and coherent political society. There is some social ‘glue’ that holds each society together. For those of us in the “modern” West, this is the norm. When a society and state don’t hang together in this way, the eventual result is a “failed” state.
From this perspective, it’s not surprising that most of the places that have had civil wars, or other violent changes in management since WWII have been in places that were run by Western empires. With boundaries that were often artificially drawn, and relatively little time to accomplish social integration (remember it took France and Britain about 500 years (and no few wars) to get themselves together into the entities (with infrastructure and resilience) we now take for granted as the standard for what a country looks like). As we repeatedly forget (e.g. in Iraq), nation building is not the work of a decade, but a century. In this way, “failure” is another example of the way in which Western power has made it easy for us to look at others, judge them negatively for being “not like us” and represents a culturally-blindered view of how societies “should” be organized. The implicit solution is that they should adopt our models, we’ll write them a check to help tide them over, and it will all work out.
Backing off from judging these other societies or replicating ours is far from saying that we or anyone should aspire to the situation in Afghanistan, Venezuela, or Chad. Indeed, if we take the preservation of order as the essential function of a state, they’re not doing it.
So, what I’m really arguing for is not that the “failed state” characterization is wrong, but that the (usual) judgmentalism isn’t helping. The solution for such places may well be a different configuration or new borders. It may require a model of governance that isn’t hung up on sovereignty and independence or democracy. It’s difficult to contemplate, given the highly problematic history of empires and the many points I have made in previous postings about democracy.
Perhaps it’s time to revive the model of trust territories which the UN applied to a variety of post-imperial countries in the 2d half of the 20C? What if some groups within such a country were to vote to surrender certain aspects of their freedom/independence for a sufficient period (30-40 years?) to let someone build socio-economic stability and foster a national culture? Life is full of trade-offs, making tough choices as between key values. There’s a lot of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” being sacrificed on the altar of state sovereignty. We (which is to say the people in those places) may need something different.