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Failing States a Growing International Issue - 2004-03-12

The recent political crisis in Haiti is a reminder that a growing number of states around the world are teetering on the brink of collapse. Some are unable to provide their people with even the basic necessities of life. Others are losing control over significant parts of their territories. The problem of is the subject of a new book: When States Fail.

There are more countries today than ever in history. In 1914, on the eve of World War One, there were 55 recognized nation states. Today there are 192 sovereign countries. But many are sliding into political chaos, poverty and violence.

Robert Rotberg is professor of government at Harvard University and editor of the book When States Fail. He says a failure of a states is always a humanitarian issue, and also an international world order issue because each state abuts on another state. Mr. Rotberg points out that state failure itself is not a new phenomenon. But today, he notes, there is a paradox: relative security of state borders and high respect for national sovereignty allow some countries to linger near collapse for decades. “In the old days,” he says, “there used to be a regional power that would clean up the mess. Now it’s up to the United Nations, and in some cases NATO, or a regional organization to clean up the failing states mess.”

Why do states fail? Many of the weakening countries are relatively new, post-colonial entities with underdeveloped economies, ethnically mixed populations and artificially drawn borders. But Robert Rotberg argues that many countries that initially shared these characteristics are doing quite well today. In his view, the real issue is the quality of a country’s leadership. “Every state has failed by the greed of a leader or a ruling class,” he says. According to Mr. Rotberg, that was the case in Sierra Leone, the Congo, Burundi, Sudan, and Somalia.

Another contributor to the book When States Fail is Nicolas van de Walle, director of the Center for International Studies at Cornell University. He points out that countries that fail often are rich in natural resources. In fact, he says oil, diamonds or gold can be an obstacle to healthy development. “This is what political scientists have called the resource curse,” he says, “which is the statistical finding that having a lot of mineral or oil wealth doesn’t statistically increase rates of growth.”

“The general argument is that these revenues typically lead to political infighting,” he says. “The other reason is that governments typically don’t spend these revenues on development. They are far more likely to use the extra money to promote government consumption.”

Professor Van de Walle adds that although each failing state does so in its own way, there are some common warning signs. Typically, an element of the economy gets politicized. It becomes the subject of ethnic or regional rivalry leading to a series of violent insurrections that sap the government’s control over swaths of territory.

Nelson Kasfir, professor of government at Dartmouth College, contributed a chapter on domestic anarchy in failing states. He says that when governments are unable to enforce order, the combined fear and greed of various factions contribute to breakdown. Sudden outbreaks of mutual violence between neighbors from different ethnic or religious groups are in his view a particularly troubling feature of failing states.

They are often explained as a result of “ancient hostilities” or “cultural differences.” But Professor Kasfir believes such animosities are more often a consequence than a source of violence. In most cases, he says, the groups just want to survive, but they suspect that their enemies are arming to attack them. So they decide to arm themselves as well. “And after a while this little arms race among these different groups in the ruins of a state structure leads to more battles,” he says.

Another contributor to When States Fail is Christopher Clapham, Associate of the Centre for African Studies at Cambridge University. He notes that statehood is a heavy burden not all communities are able to shoulder. “Just paying for civil servants,” he says, “for example, paying for order, having social systems in which you obey reasonably effectively the demands of states, these are often very new things. And it may well take generations indeed for people to get used to them.”

Professor Clapham suggests that in some cases traditional statehood may not be the best solution. Parceling the entire world into units called states with fixed boundaries, governments, armies and officials is a Western, European invention that was imposed on the developing world in the post-colonial era. In his view, the international community should allow some regions to experiment with other, more flexible forms of organization.

He cites Somaliland, a part of Somalia, which began to build its own relations with the world independent of the ineffective central government. “The ways are open,” Mr. Clapham says, “for outside actors simply to respond pragmatically to what they find happening on the ground even if it is not part of what is formally recognized as a United Nations member state.”

Jeffrey Herbst, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, suggests the international community should even consider “de-legitimizing” failed states by refusing to treat them as truly sovereign countries. “It may not be clear what they are,” he says, “but the first thing to do is at least tell the truth and stop pretending that they are sovereign entities. Once that happens, I think some interesting discussions can be had in the international community and by a whole host of citizens about what the future might be.” Professor Herbst says that in some cases propping up failed countries is futile, and the international community should look for different solutions.

But editor Robert Rotberg does not share this pessimism. He cites a list of countries that, in his view, have been successfully brought back from the verge of collapse. He says the UN transitional administration helped to stabilize Cambodia, East Timor and Kosovo. In Mozambique a UN negotiated disarmament of warring parties ended a prolonged civil war. Syria reversed the disintegration of Lebanon by imposing its hegemony. And despite its colonial heritage, Russia became the guarantor of the stability in Tajikistan.

Professor Rotberg says the thesis of the book is that failing states can and should be revived. In some cases the United Nations must intervene. Sometimes a local power or a group of countries can play a role. But most analysts agree that the internal collapse of even one state is a matter of international concern. It can destabilize an entire region and send shockwaves throughout the world.