Failed states: Time to shed new light on dangerous power shortages

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Failed states can no longer be forgotten states. Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US and its allies have been increasingly conscious of the dangers of allowing countries to lapse into anarchy. In the year after 9/11, a revised US national security strategy summed up the new conventional wisdom: “The events of September 11th 2001 taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.”

Somalia and the Congo are among the nations that are often labelled as “failed”. But – alas – there is no shortage of candidates. An annual ranking of “weak and failing” states, published by Foreign Policy magazine and the Carnegie Endowment think tank in 2007, ranked 60 vulnerable countries using an index of social, economic, political and military criteria.

Sudan was listed as the single most vulnerable state. But Pakistan, a nuclear-weapons state and one of the most populous countries in the world, is rapidly rising up the watch-list.

While it is the threat of terror that has forced the issue of nation-building up the national-security agenda of the west, failed states also pose a variety of other problems. In the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Balkans became a major trans-shipment route for drugs and organised crime. Drugs are also a big problem emanating from Afghanistan and the lawless areas of Columbia and Burma. Failed states are also far more at risk of famine and civil war and therefore a likely source of refugees.

The problem of a lack of sovereign power is not unique to the modern age. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century political philosopher, famously argued that in a “state of nature”, with no sovereign government, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. His solution was the rapid establishment of a powerful sovereign.

Centuries later, an initial resort to brute force remains a vital part of the remedy for many failed states. Even before 9/11, there had been western-led military interventions in the 1990s, aimed at filling governmental vacuums in a variety of weak or failing nations: Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone among them.

Unfortunately, outside military intervention is far from a panacea. Even when it works, there remains the vexing problem of setting up sustainable government structures. But, it is also increasingly apparent that the US and its allies are sometimes not even capable of getting to stage one – establishing a military supremacy that will allow them to proceed to working on sustainable civilian institutions.

The war in Afghanistan is the prime example of this problem. Despite the commitment of billions of dollars in aid and more than 70,000 troops from a 40-nation military alliance, the security situation seems to be going backwards. A new American administration is likely to push for a greater troop commitment – both from US troops and from Nato allies. Yet, there are grounds for scepticism that this will achieve very much.

Some counter-insurgency experts point out that Nato might have to commit twenty-five times its current level of troops to achieve the same level of territorial coverage that was deemed necessary in Bosnia. Clearly, this is politically unthinkable. Yet, the political and military commitment to Afghanistan by the west is very strong, in comparison with the situation in other failed states. After its bloody experiences in Somalia in the early 1990s, the US will not be rushing to deploy troops in the Horn of Africa.

If and when the necessary levels of security are established to allow for civilian institution-building, a new set of issues comes to the fore. Which institutions are best equipped to provide the expertise necessary to help build states? In general, different western multilateral institutions have tended to take on particular roles. The World Bank has specialised in economic advice. Aid agencies (whether governmental or non-governmental) have taken on the role of administrative reforms. Social policy often falls under the ambit of a variety of NGOs.

But all these well-intentioned outsiders often require co-ordination, by a semi-imperial authority. In Bosnia, this was the role assigned to Lord Ashdown, a former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, who effectively became a UN-appointed viceroy until 2006. Lord Ashdown was nominated for a similar role in Afghanistan earlier this year – but eventually rejected by the Afghan government.

A recent set of studies* by the Rand Corporation, an American think tank indicates that the UN – often derided, particularly in the US, as slow and bureaucratic – has a relatively good record in nation-building. Its combination of legitimacy, institutional memory and in-house expertise is a powerful one.

Even calling on the UN, however, is hardly a guarantee of success. Feeble UN peacekeeping missions have failed to pacify the Congo, for example.

With success so elusive in a number of failed states, the international community may be tempted to redefine “success”. The experience of Afghanistan, in particular, has heightened scepticism about the ability of a poor and tribal society to maintain the kind of democratic institutions that are dreamed up at international conferences.

For better or worse, the west is moving towards a second-best solution in Afghanistan – trying to establish a sovereign authority (or authorities) capable of preventing the return of anarchy and the establishment of safe havens for terrorists. This minimalist model may be the new template for those vexatious “failed states”.

* “America, the UN and Europe’s role in nation building,” edited by James Dobbins.

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