Fragile is the New Failure

By Bridget Coggins

Central African Republic. 2009 UK DFID photo by Simon Davis.
Central African Republic. 2009. UK DFID photo by Simon Davis.

We shouldn’t stop talking about failed states, but merely changing the way that we talk about them isn’t enough.

Michael Mazarr’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs sounds the death knell for what he terms the “state failure paradigm,” dubbing this the end of “a decade of distraction” for American foreign policy. Mazarr’s wide-ranging essay calls out the disastrous consequences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, attributing both to Washington’s overzealous concern for failed states and its misplaced optimism in state building. He argues that failed states don’t generate important threats, that failure is a slippery concept anyway, and that the United States isn’t particularly good at state building. I find a lot to disagree with, especially his suggestion that the American-led efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were motivated by fears about state failure or even that the state failure paradigm has dominated US foreign policy over the last decade — it has not.

As someone who studies weak states and international security, what I find most strange about Mazarr’s essay though is that he gets so much wrong about the academic and policy literatures. In the past decade, some pretty great empirical work on state failure has been produced (see for example the Political Instability Task Force and Jay Ulfelder) and we have gained substantial insight into state failure’s relationship to non-traditional threats and the relative utility of state building as a remedy (for a few examples see Shortland and the World Bank, Patrick, and Coggins). The accumulated findings show that state building isn’t the right or only answer to ameliorate failure-related threats, but turning away from these struggling countries in favor of some “organic” or Darwinian alternative, as Mazarr implies, is certainly the wrong choice.

Instead of thoughtfully reviewing the field, Mazarr takes aim at its lowest hanging fruit: the Failed States Index produced annually by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. According to Mazarr, it’s “not exactly a roster of national security priorities.” Unfortunately, he’s not wrong. The newest index, released just this week, will do little to convince anyone that state failure should remain a priority. Perhaps conscious of Washington’s “failure fatigue,” this year they’re calling it the “Fragile States Index.” But the old wine is simply in a new bottle. All of the conceptual and empirical problems remain:

  • Failure (or fragility) remains undefined
  • The sources and scoring rubric for the 12 indicators are not transparent
  • The interrelationships between the indicators are not explored
  • The measures are equally weighted, so emigration is as important as basic security provision
  • “Good governance” and “effective governance” are not distinct, leading some to question the index’s objectivity

Together, these problems yield strange rankings that often seem at odds with political reality. To demonstrate but one odd result, this year, (though it has been consistently true for the last decade) the FSI notes that North Korea is not as failed as we might expect because there is little human flight and there are few refugees. Thinking about the explanation behind this pattern for only a moment, the dubious logic underlying the index becomes clear. We might assume that refugees, migrants or IDPs are examples of people voting with their feet, so to speak. If citizens feel safe and happy, then they stay put, whereas heavy economic or security stresses motivate human flight. Therefore, higher emigration or internal displacement indicates greater fragility. Another way of conceptualizing the relationship has to do with the state’s ability to control its population. A strong state has the ability to control population movement. As a state becomes weaker, it’s control over its borders and its population also weakens. Therefore, strong states will have lower rates of displacement, emigration, and refugees (Assuming that its leaders prefer to maintain their population; a stronger state could also more efficiently purge or unsettle its citizenry). In this case, people might desperately want to leave the stronger state, but cannot. The second example is not likely what the FSI architects had in mind. So while it is true that the strength of the DPRK’s security apparatus, with an assist from China and the DMZ, keeps North Korean defection low, it probably isn’t due to what most would label “success.”[1] If we look at the absolute change in the average of North Korea’s FSI scores from the first five years of the index until today, the positive change due to declines in human flight and refugees is only slightly less than the positive change in Burma’s score over the same period due to improved economic development and human rights … congratulations?

An index measuring weakness is, in theory, both alluring and practical. If a common set of factors (or some fuzzy set) can lead us to diagnose a country as “failed,” or utterly incapable of sustaining independent governance, and if those characteristics are found to be more likely to generate particular problems, then we can more readily predict those threats and formulate targeted policies to address them. Furthermore, many smart people including PVG’s own Lionel Beehner and Joe Young, Robert Rotberg, and Stuart Patrick have suggested constructive improvements for the FSI. Unfortunately, the persistent shortcomings within the most well known work on failure have already turned most serious scholars off. Indeed, it seems today that the FSI is referred to most often as an example of what not to do and how not to measure, just as Mazarr does.

If Washington keeps going back to the same convenient, flawed sources for insight into weak and failed states, then it is no wonder why policymakers are so eager to abandon the problem. This year marks the end of the road for me and the FSI. Its architects have had ample time to improve it, but continue to churn out the same dubious rankings and analysis. And because the FSI is now used primarily as a straw man for those with alternative foreign policy priorities to demonstrate how wrongheaded our concern for state failure was in the first place, it’s doing more harm than good. I’m going to keep working on the problems attendant to weak and failed states because I think that political collapse in Yemen and Syria and Iraq and Somalia have generated external threats and will continue to cause insecurity for their neighbors and the wider international community. And I think that preventing the violent implosion of states like Pakistan and North Korea is better than the alternative. And unlike Mazarr, I think that foreign intervention in weak, internally contested states will, unfortunately, remain a fixture of US foreign policy for some time, however great the American incompetence at and distaste for state building.

[1] I haven’t taken the time to check, but I’d bet that failed states that happen to be island nations or isolated and mountainous score surprisingly well on the migration and refugee measures.


  1. The failed states index is yet again reified, but it’s seriously flawed. Here’s Mark Lilla on the subject, from the current (June 17) issue of the New Republic: “In 2013, readers of the Freedom House’s ‘Annual Freedom Report’ were confidently told that, based on the numbers, the ‘most noteworthy gains’ in freedom in 2012 had been in Egypt, Libya, Burma, and Côte d’Ivoire. One hardly knows where to begin. Clearly, the big surprise in world politics since the cold war’s end is not the advance of liberal democracy but the reappearance of classic forms of non-democratic political rule in modern guises.”

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