State Failure and the International Community

Peacekeepers in the aftermath of a terror attack in Mali. Photo by United Nations Photo.

Guest post by Harvey Starr and Zaryab Iqbal.

In the 1970s it was Lebanon; in the 1990s it was Somalia. In every decade since the 1960s there have been sub-Saharan African countries, perhaps most recently Liberia or the Central African Republic. Most prominently in recent headlines it’s been Iraq, and even more so—Syria. The conflict in Syria – moving from uprising in 2011 through to full-scale civil war in 2012-13 to today – with its complex set of parties, factions, and interventions (especially ISIS and Russia), joins Syria with these other cases in being termed a “failed state.” This label has been used across commentaries by such diverse sources as the Voice of America, citing the need for the U.S. to create a failed state policy, and Haaretz, linking ISIS to state failure in the Middle East.

With every civil war hot spot, or every area suffering dire economic conditions (due to nature or human choice), the issue of “state failure” is raised along with concerns about its impact and its spread. There has been an acute awareness across the international community of the need for dealing with the problem of instability in states. State failure and its consequences also represent a significant policy concern – for policymakers, IGOs, NGOs, and academics – in our increasingly interdependent and globalized world.

Regarding the latter, students of conflict have increasingly moved to the study of civil war as the primary arena of conflict in the contemporary world system, and then to state failure. A number of other scholars have come to the study of failed states through an interest in security, especially “human development” or “human security.” The study of state failure requires scholars and policymakers to link both the conflict and political economy approaches to failed states by looking at development, modernization, and the economic viability of states, especially those that achieved independence from colonial rule after World War II.

These comments begin to convey the complexities of politics, institutions, and economic development, and how dealing with such complexities bedevils all those who try to formulate policy regarding “state failure.” In a recently published book we argue that a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the prevention of either a first or subsequent collapse, recovery from collapse, or spread of state failure, is not appropriate or feasible.

We conduct statistical analyses of the 30 countries that suffered state failure, conceived as state collapse, from 1946-2010. Our analyses make clear that the major causal factors for state failure that have been identified by others—type of political rule, low economic output, civil war, and other forms of organized dissent—are important determinants of state collapse. As many have noted, countries with an incoherent mix of democratic and authoritarian institutions are at greater risk of collapse than are either highly authoritarian regimes or highly democratic ones. Importantly, we also show that both being surrounded by democratic neighbors and international engagement reduce the spread of unrest (organized dissent) but do not impact the spread of civil war.

The duration of state failure is also important to understand, and we show that factors which do not impact state collapse do impact how long it takes a state to rebuild and establish effective rule. In particular, both economic openness (e.g., trade volume, low tariffs, limited state regulation) and membership in economic and political international organizations not only reduce the period of state collapse, but also make a recurrent collapse less likely. These findings comport with the policies of IGOs such as the Pacific Islands Forum, whose 2003 intervention (RAMSI, or Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) worked to prevent a second failure in the Solomon Islands. They are also consistent with the Canadian (and Commonwealth) POGG policies (peace, order, and good government).

Because observers and analysts have been especially concerned with the spread of state failure to neighboring countries, some of our most important findings regard diffusion. While organized dissent does have diffusion effects in bordering neighbors, civil war exhibits the strongest diffusion effects, both next door and across the region. But while civil war exhibits the strongest diffusion effects, state failure itself does not diffuse: it does not lead to more failure in the same country (recurrence), nor does it lead to more failure/collapse in other countries (spatial diffusion).

What of the international community? Attempts at external intervention and state collapse are intricately related, with the possibility of effective intervention at multiple levels of the process of failure. While our study treats state failure as a definite and absolute collapse of state authority, our analyses of the determinants of failure (as well as the influences on its duration and recurrence) provide insights into the processes through which that endpoint is reached. For instance, factors such as economic openness and membership in IGOs were not important as causes of collapse, but were important in reducing the duration of collapse, in the prevention of a second collapse, and in the failure of collapse itself to spread to other countries. Therefore, nuanced assessments of international involvement before collapse, and intervention after collapse, would yield valuable insights into the occurrence (and prevention) of this rare but important phenomenon.

Our bottom line is that different factors are important at different points—as causes of collapse, the duration of collapse, recurrence of collapse, and spread of collapse. Therefore IGOs, NGOs, and the international community as a whole must look carefully at each case for similarities and differences, and abandon one-size-fits all solutions. The international community must recognize that highly complex and complicated situations such as Syria may differ significantly from Liberia or Somalia—and that analysts can learn much from both the differences and similarities.

Harvey Starr is Dag Hammarskjöld Professor in International Affairs Emeritus at University of South Carolina. Zaryab Iqbal is Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State.

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