The number of countries in which state structures have collapsed seems to be growing. But is it really? Are these so-called failed states a threat to global security? And is there an antidote? Five hypotheses put to the test. 

By Sarah Bressan


 “The List of Failed States is Growing Longer”

Not necessarily. Very few states have completely failed. In international law, a state has ​‘failed’ when its authority has largely disintegrated and it can no longer carry out essential duties. Recent examples include Syria and Yemen – but even in these countries, both of which are embroiled in ongoing wars, the state is still able to perform basic functions in parts of its territory.

In any case, the blanket diagnosis of state failure has been out of fashion for more than a decade. In 2001, it still served as a justification for the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, which was supposed to result in a liberal and democratic Afghan state. Almost 20 years later, this endeavor has proven a complete disaster – thanks to the immense hubris of the interveners and their inability to comprehend the diverse challenges arising from political order in contexts where scarcity and violence are more widespread than prosperity.

Instead of being labeled as ​‘failed’, such places are now commonly considered ​‘fragile’. And even the most fragile among them – which are rarely entire states, but more often sub-state areas or regions with limited statehood – have neither failed irretrievably nor are they waiting to be rescued by the West.

Fragility is considered to be the opposite of state stability on a continuum between a well-functioning and completely absent state. As World Bank expert Michael Woolcock once put it in reference to Tolstoy, every fragile state is fragile in its own way. While one state may lack authority, another may suffer from a lack of legitimacy and acceptance in the eyes of its population. Elsewhere, a government’s capacity to supply basic public services may be limited. And the situation often varies considerably between different parts of the same country.

Global indices such as the Fragile States Index (FSI) categorize states according to a cross-section of several symptoms of fragility. Their rankings often produce unexpected neighbors in the global rankings. Take, for example, Turkey and Tanzania: while the two countries both received similar FSI scores between 2017 and 2020, that instability is rooted in very different causes and comes with varying consequences. While the main problem in Tanzania is low state capacity, the index attests Turkey’s limited legitimacy as a result of widespread repression in the country.

To account for such nuances, governments and international organizations have refined their analytical tools. The German government, for example, distinguishes between multiple ​‘fragility profiles’ based on a state’s levels of authority, legitimacy and capacity. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development measures fragility in terms of a state’s economy, environment, politics, and security. Since 2011, the World Bank refers to fragile ​‘situations’ rather than fragile or failed states; and in 2020, it chose to sharpen its focus on contexts marked by violent conflict or high social and institutional fragility.

From the vantage point of development policy, this makes perfect sense. According to World Bank estimates, at least half of all people affected by extreme poverty will live in fragile situations by 2030, and those areas do not always neatly map onto national borders. The Global Fragility Act, which was recently passed by the US Congress, also refers to existing rankings for fragility and conflict risks but stresses the need for more nuanced analyses of the causes of state failure and violence.

Detailed fragility assessments rightly point to the fact that elements of fragility exist almost anywhere. These range from a rule of criminal gangs or rebel groups in certain sub-state areas to widespread poverty and a lack of basic public services in countries where governments are not going anywhere any time soon. They can also take the form of a temporary loss of state control in crisis situations (think Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic). But this does not mean that the world as a whole has become more unstable.

Accurately evaluating the risk of state collapse and conflict and proposing remedies requires a combination of expert assessments, scenarios and predictive analyses on the basis of geo-located event data. Such analytical capacities are being developed in the European Union and some member states like Germany, but there is still plenty of room for improvement to prevent and mitigate crises.

Strong States Guarantee Peace and Security”

That’s a misconception. It is true that populations are particularly vulnerable without the protection of capable state authority. But often it is these very state authorities who pose the greatest threat to their citizens. Well-organized state apparatuses are especially effective in carrying out repression and serious human rights violations against political opponents and minorities, including genocides.

That is why the contemporary understanding of security not only includes the security of states but the safety of people and the protection of their rights. Domestic conflicts come with the potential to escalate and even destabilize the international order. The war in Syria is a prime example for how security threats to populations on the ground can directly impact neighboring countries or entire regions – in this case, the Middle East, and Europe. Such a holistic understanding of security also reflects the fact that wars are not the principal danger to people’s safety. Violent crime accounts for global casualty numbers that are several times higher than those caused by armed conflicts.

Public order and essential services are often lacking in fragile states. But it is naïve to sweepingly blame such problems on the absence of a strong state as the sole cause. In many contexts, non-governmental actors successfully provide basic public services like infrastructure and public security in coordination with the central government. Bangladesh became a development success story after the central government gave non-governmental organizations a free hand in running the country’s educational infrastructure. Since a lack of schooling for young girls is a proven risk factor for armed conflict, this move decreased the risk of conflict.

If, where, and when public services, including security, are provided in a fair manner is not solely a matter of state capacity or stability. Hubs for illicit trade in arms and narcotics, human trafficking, and cybercrime can also be found in states that are considered respected members of the international community. And it is often the governments of wealthy nations that cannot or do not want to be the providers of all public goods to all parts of the population. This becomes obvious during exceptional situations such as natural disasters or pandemics: police functions are outsourced to for-profit security companies, the private possession of weapons is poorly regulated, critical infrastructure like railway networks, power plants and hospitals remain underfunded, and access to those services is unequal.

Failed States Pose a Threat to Germany and Europe”

In some cases. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States and its allies were convinced that failed states are ideal hiding places for terrorists and thus constituted security threats. This narrative spread rapidly and proved very persistent. But the reality is that ideological, financial, and logistical support for terrorists mostly comes from rich, functioning states.

A collapse of state structures is often followed by periods of lawlessness in which different groups compete for power – often using armed violence. To spread and enforce their own model of public order, regional branches of the Islamic State have carried out terrorist attacks in countries like Iraq and Syria and throughout the Sahel. This illustrates that unstable states first and foremost pose a threat to the people living within their borders, who directly face the resulting violence, crime, and disorder.

It is true that extremists also spread their ideology worldwide via YouTube and messenger services to recruit new followers for attacks in Europe and beyond. But only a small fraction of victims of violence are harmed in terrorist attacks. And the majority of terrorist attacks committed in Europe were carried out by European citizens with various ideological motivations.

Still, foreign and security policymakers view the collapse of state structures as one of the biggest global threats. Armed violence bears the risk of spilling over to neighboring countries or entire regions, and of escalating to the point of war between great powers. But whether or not this happens depends to a large extent on the behavior of other, mostly stable states. Major interstate conflicts arise when outside actors interfere in internal conflicts and the international community fails to reach a peace agreement – such as in Syria and Yemen.

Somalia is considered one of the most fragile states in the world. But the Republic of Somaliland holds democratic elections and maintains control over its territory. While governance in Somaliland functions more effectively than in the rest of Somalia

When large territories are no longer governed effectively, it becomes more difficult to tackle global security challenges like the spread of the novel coronavirus or to enforce international arms control agreements. The international system is based on states as the primary units of order. In diplomacy, states are natural counterparts. In the absence of recognized governments, there are no legitimate partners for diplomatic relations. Negotiations and peace agreements become much harder when the relationship between parties at the negotiating table are a constant bone of contention.

However, the limited capacity of the central state does not necessarily result in chaos. Somalia, where the central government has failed to effectively rule its national territory and population for decades, is considered one of the most fragile states in the world. But the Republic of Somaliland, a self-declared but not internationally recognized state, holds democratic elections and maintains control over its territory. While basic service provision is supported by international and local aid organizations, governance in Somaliland functions more effectively than in the rest of Somalia.

A closer look at differences within a country is essential for assessing security threats, but far too often this falls to the wayside. By focusing on recognized state structures, the international community at times undermines its own efforts toward effective problem-solving.

The West is to Blame for Failed States”

It shares a large part of the responsibility. Especially when looking at the African continent, it is hard to deny that centuries of colonial rule and exploitation are causes for the instability that plagues many African states. Haphazardly drawn borders, which randomly divided established settlements, along with the division of people into ethnic groups based on pseudo-scientific criteria and their corresponding political instrumentalization still hamper peaceful coexistence to this day.

Colonial states in much of Africa were designed for exploitation by European rulers. Administrative structures served as tools of oppression, not legitimate forms of representation or even participation. Functioning and legitimate local institutions were destroyed. Today, differences in the stability of African states can be traced back to their respective experiences under different forms of colonial rule.

Even after these countries have been formally independent for decades, dependencies on the West and Global North persist. West African states, for example, still struggle to gain complete control over their monetary and fiscal policies, which are influenced by France. What is more, by choosing to support autocratic regimes in the quest for stability, Western governments continue to undermine the development of free and democratic societies.

The weapons used in wars and state-sponsored repression often come from Western countries like Germany or the United States. And it is the West that facilitates slavery and war economies and hampers economic development – through the EU’s trade and agricultural policies, the exploitation of natural resources like diamonds or rare earths by Western trade networks and corporations, and generally through Western mass consumerism.

Of course, many problems of contemporary weak states are homemade. While international financial institutions and donor countries often limit these states’ ability to independently manage their economies, the pressure for liberalization plays into the hands of kleptocratic elites who prevent the investment of state revenue into infrastructure projects and public goods for the population. Instead of fighting their money laundering schemes, Europe grants corrupt elites and their billions access to European financial centers – much to the detriment of the local populations. While European politicians sharply criticize such corruption in public statements, they ultimately dismiss it as an unfixable defect of non-Western societies.

And not only former Western colonial powers take advantage of weaker states. Actors like China, Russia, or the United Arab Emirates also benefit from money laundering, lack of natural resources regulation, and flourishing arms business that characterize many weak states – and thus prevent effective global solutions.

While Europe continues to be perplexed by violence and state failure as drivers of migration, its coarse attempts at controlling migration and terrorism create new rifts within historically developed cross-border economies. Instead of contributing to prosperity and thus reducing migration, European governments restrict cross-border movements and inadvertently further the cycle of poverty and repression. So the West is far from acting in a conflict-sensitive and historically conscious manner and from promoting peace and development in unstable regions to its best ability.

There is No Way to Help Failed States”

There is, but there is also a serious risk of doing more harm than good. Afghanistan is representative for all the countries where Western intervenors catastrophically overestimated their influence, their understanding of the situation on the ground, and their own legitimacy. Those who act like a bull in a china shop should not be surprised by the mess.

But given the risks associated with escalating violence and a rising number of displaced people, doing nothing is hardly a viable option. The German government and many of its partners understandably want to see the wars in their neighborhood end and make sure that cornerstones of international law, such as those regulating weapons of mass destruction or prohibiting the killing of civilians, are respected.

Once a state has collapsed, the road back to functioning institutions is a long one. Still, examples like Germany after 1945, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Liberia, or Sierra Leone all show that (re)construction under varying conditions is possible. The group of states we see today has not always been around and will likely not remain in place forever. When governments founded the United Nations almost 75 years ago, they designed its Charter to prevent violent disputes on state sovereignty. But the post-World War II period is full of examples of states being destroyed and reconstructed.

In times of acute crisis, humanitarian support and diplomacy can help. The aftermath of natural disasters and conflicts requires financial assistance from international funds. Economic cooperation facilitates reintegration into the global economy. In the fight against diseases such as Malaria, countries benefit from targeted external support. But if outside actors’ assistance permanently substitutes public services, they can weaken existing structures.

To support other countries in times of crisis, some governments try to counteract immediate state collapse through stabilization measures. The German government, for example, uses civilian, police and military means to achieve a rapid and clearly visible improvement in living conditions for civilians and thus increase public trust in local authorities. In Iraq and Mali, Germany supports the respective security sector with training and equipment to further sustainable development, create the conditions for a reconciliation of the conflict parties, and even lay the foundations for democracy. While these are noble goals, reaching them will require a long-term effort – and a lack of detailed studies means that the jury is still out on whether this approach actually works.

Securing basic services for vulnerable populations can buy time and political capital to help resolve underlying differences, but nothing more. Stabilization alone cannot cure structural problems like corruption, inequitable distribution of resources, or the exclusion of minorities – much less end the external support for conflict parties by major powers that has prolonged and exacerbated conflicts like the one in Syria.

As a result, international organizations, the EU, and European governments are increasingly focusing on conflict prevention. Beyond diplomatic mediation, their goal is to foster long-term societal resilience through democratic participation and flexible institutions. This is a difficult balancing act with a number of conflicting goals: stabilization, respect for locally developed structures, and promoting democracy and human rights as the basis for sustainable peace.

Any success of European conflict prevention efforts will be difficult – if not impossible – to prove definitively. Experience shows that when a conflict breaks out, oversimplified explanations spread even quicker than the violence itself. But when violence is avoided, nothing happens. Prevention measures usually go unseen and investments in conflict prevention do not result in tangible political wins. Instead, they call for close observation, tolerance for complexity and, above all, patience. Understanding what would have happened under different circumstances requires tracing complicated processes with the help of counterfactuals, scenarios and simulations – a tedious exercise that is often complicated by a lack of a sound empirical basis.

Despite the arguably limited influence that external actors have, the possible return on investments in conflict prevention is high: prevention is significantly cheaper than the sum of humanitarian, stabilization, and reconstruction efforts – not to mention that it is a moral responsibility.

Sarah Bressan is a Research Associate at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).

A German version of this commentary was originally published in the May/​June 2020 edition of Internationale Politik.

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