Fixing Failed States

The top spot on the list of the worst?? Once again this year that honor has been bestowed on Somalia, which heads the most recent Index of Failed States, compiled by the Fund for Peace. Somalia, infamous for its piracy on the seas, is a fragmented country in which anarchy has reigned for years. Also high on the list are Afghanistan (#7) and Iraq (#9), the two nations in which the US is engaged militarily with a proclaimed commitment to nation-building. Haiti (#5) and Pakistan (#12) are two other nations, both standard features in the news, that are high on the list. Despite their well documented problems, however, both are geographical exceptions. African and Arab nations, where tribal and ethnic loyalties have long held sway, claim 17 of the top 20 positions on the list of failed states.

What is a failed state?? There is no clear definition offered by the authors of the list, but the symptoms are clear enough.? They include civil strife, hunger, poor economic performance despite sometimes rich resources, breakdown in government services, widespread corruption, and a steady flow of refugees ready to make their home just about anywhere else. All these are but the consequences of the core feature of a failed state: a national government that is too weak and ineffective to rule.? It would appear, then, that the absence of an effective national government is indeed a key component in the failure of a state.

Compelling Allegiance to Fill the Void

But what about Sudan (#3 on the List), a country in which a strongman, supported by the military, has ruthlessly punished ethnic groups throughout his 22 year rule?? Perhaps the difference between Somalia and Sudan isn?t as great as it might appear, if we understand the strongman as the sole alternative to a legitimate government in an otherwise ungovernable state.? Examples are easy to find: Mugabe in Zimbabwe (#6), Mobutu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (#4), and Mengistu in Ethiopia (#20). Burma (#18), Yemen (#13), and Pakistan (#12) offer further instances of the emergence of a strong force, sometimes the military but often an individual, to fill the authority vacuum and compel allegiance.

Now and then a grand figure, often a self-styled reformist, will seize power in an attempt to unify the factions of the nation. The Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, did this in Haiti (#5), as did Idi Amin in Uganda (#21) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (#9).? The price of unification, of course, is an autocratic centralized rule, adopted in order to check the regional allegiances that have held sway for so long. The rest of the story is all too familiar. The strongman will soon abandon whatever reformist visions might have guided him, usually because he has come to despair of winning buy-in from his divided people and so he lapses into the age-old pattern, choosing to use his authority to reward himself and his followers.? For decades he will cling to power, rewriting the constitution as necessary or dispensing with it altogether, protesting as he does that legal elections will only be a descent into the anarchy that preceded his rule.

The Response from Abroad

How are other nations to respond? They are confronted by the dilemma they faced last year at the insurrection in Libya, a dilemma they have had to face repeatedly over the years in one country after another.? Should they throw their weight behind the strongman who has usurped power and established a modicum of tranquillity, or do they dare support a revolution that could easily degenerate into the state of anarchy that prevailed before the latest champion seized power?? Do foreign nations stand behind Qaddafi for fear of something worse in his place, or do they lend support to the uprising and hope for the best?? Or at least something tolerable?

Let?s be clear that the issue here is not simply despotic rule. China is not a failed state, and Chavez?s Venezuela is nowhere near the top of the list, thanks to the services that are provided for their people. Liberal democracies may have their issues with such regimes on freedom and human rights, but nations like China and Venezuela are providing the needed services for their people. Whatever their shortcomings, they are far from the kleptocracies that many of the failed states have become.

It is the inability to govern effectively, whether the rule is democratic or autocratic, that distinguishes a failed state. When we look at that list of failed states once again, we find certain parts of the world over-represented: most strikingly Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia.? The nations that have made the list are, for the most part, distinguished by rampant regionalism or tribalism. The root of the problem would seem to be a long-bred resistance by the people to commit to a central government and its institutions.

The response of well-intentioned foreign governments is often to rush to the rescue of the imperiled people of such states by introducing them to the machinery of the democratic system that has served Western nations so well.? But ballot boxes and elections, the trappings of democracy, are not going to accomplish much if the elected leader ends up in a presidential office without authority.? Nation-building in such cases can not be reduced to the introduction of a constitution and the other apparatus of democracy.? Iraq has its constitution, as do any number of other failed states.? Even Somalia has a constitution, however little it is honored.? Constitutions and elections remain empty forms unless there is real commitment to a central government and its institutions by the people themselves.? But what reason would the segmented people in failed states, who have relied for so long on their own ethnic or tribal group, have for making such a commitment?

Is There Any Solution?

What, if anything, can be done to reverse the downward spiral of these failed nations, with their wide pendulum swings from impossible fragmentation to autocracy?? What does it take to persuade people to invest their social capital in something beyond their tribal or religious or ethnic factions?a legitimate national authority? The free city-states of Florence, Naples and Venice somehow made this leap in the Middle Ages, according to the political scientist Edward Banfield, and reaped abundant economic and social rewards. Meanwhile, most of southern Italy, where people continued in the pursuit of narrow self-interest and never learned to trust anything outside their family, lagged far behind.? The difference has long appeared, among other places, in the profit lines of municipal and corporate ledgers.

We could be tempted to believe that a strong ideological system might be enough to unite a disparate group of tribal cliques into a single people.? But to dispel such a notion we need only look to northern Africa where the Islamic religion has spread throughout vast lands occupied for centuries by bands of Bedouins, each with its own tribal organization and authority. The proliferation of failed states there, along with the experience of nations like Afghanistan, should provide ample evidence that a common religion, even one as compelling as Islam, does not appear to be a sufficiently strong unifying principle to undergird an effective state in today?s world.

There are other pathways to explore, of course. We might, for instance, ask what explains the difference between Tanzania (which has managed to stay off everyone?s list of failed states) and Ethiopia (which is on all of them).? Did former president Julius Nyerere work the magic needed to help the nation make the great leap forward when he insisted on a single national language (Swahili) and unceasingly beat the drum for national unity?? Did he personally engender the confidence that prompted his people to take a chance on venturing beyond the tribal system?? Or was the history of Tanzania markedly different from so many of its neighbors in Africa? Whatever the case, the nation stands as a standard bearer, a measure of what a nation might become, for others on the continent.

The Example of Britain

Such a transfer of confidence from tribal loyalties to a central government that is so essential to nationhood can be a long process?one that took centuries in Britain, the economic historian Gregory Clark documents in his book Farewell to Alms.? Following the Magna Carta in the 13th century that limited royal authority, Britain gradually developed the stable political, legal and economic institutions so often touted as the key ingredients for a successful nation. Clark carefully documents the cascade of changes occurring in Britain after it developed stable political institutions and a reliable legal system.

The dynamics of this transformation are not hard to grasp. As government authority was regulated, people bought into the system, relying as they did less on their own arms to redress wrongs than on appeal to authority.? With sheriffs policing the shires, an era of relative peace began, during which citizens were able to cultivate other interests, academic as well as technical.? Freed from the need to keep their swords sharpened and their weapons handy, they could tend their gardens for long hours and learn their letters. Meanwhile, they grew increasingly confident in the ability of an individual to make a difference, giving rise to a sense of competitiveness and strong work ethic that would serve them well in years to come.

Perhaps this process need not take as long for nations today as it did for Britain, beginning in the High Middle Ages.? Even if it can be accelerated in some cases, the process surely cannot be shrunk to fit the few years before troop withdrawal from a nation like Iraq or Afghanistan. Commitment to an effective central government can not be adjusted to fit the timetable of Western nations bent on facilitating the process.? Patience and restraint are the first requirements of those nations pledged to assist them.

A Change of Heart and Head

Ultimately the fate of failed nations is in the hands of their own people, since they alone can offer or withhold the requisite buy-in that would permit a central authority to operate effectively.? The transformation of failed states to successful ones can only occur within these states.

While it is waiting for the transformation to occur, the outside world can do more than sit in the wings and watch.? Other nations can provide relief services to assist the needy in failed states.? They can continue to offer food, medicine and other relief to alleviate the sufferings of people shortchanged by their own government.? This has been going on for some time in Ethiopia and other failed states, even as international agencies afford assistance to refugees to those leaving because of the internal strife, persecution and lack of economic opportunities. ?Such efforts will have to be continued for an indefinite length of time?years, perhaps decades, possibly centuries?for some of the worst off of the failed states.

This will require a global change of heart and of head. The rest of the world can offer the short term aid that failed states so badly need, but it must do so without demanding instant reform as the condition for such assistance. Indeed, the global community is probably going to have to accept the fact that long-term aid is as necessary for some nations as it is for some sectors of the population within the donor nations.? Long-term foreign aid will continue to be as much a requirement for some failed states in the future as welfare is for some of their own disadvantaged citizens.? There is no sure formula for nation-building from the outside, and there never will be.

In the immediate future the United States and other Western nations, against all instincts, must temper their expectations when assisting such nations. To postpone military withdrawals until the course of such ?failed nations? as Iraq and Afghanistan has been reversed and the effects of its ?nation-building? program are clear for all to behold is unwise policy.? Otherwise, the US may have to count on remaining in whatever nation it?s attempting to build a very long time. And even then, its best intentions may never be realized.