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A 4GW QUESTION

This will delight some, intrigue many and annoy others but I found it to be a good counterintuitive question worth considering.

Ahistoricality, posting at ProgressiveHistorians regarding the latest Failed States index, wonders about applying the criteria for state failure, used by Foreign Policy, to the linchpin of the global Core, the United States:

“The annual “Failed States Index” is out. The concept is an interesting one, indicating our very recent idea that national governments are supposed to be stable, almost eternal, and that society is supposed to manage all its conflicts with policy, that all land and people deserve stable governance. I’m not criticizing the ideas, I’m just pointing out that they are recent conceits, not eternal verities, and up to the end of WWI the most likely response to a failed state was imperial takeover.

The headlines regarding the index are highlighting Iraq’s precarious position as the second most failing state in the world, but it was a tight finish between the Sudan, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia for the top spots. The only two non-African nations in the top ten of this list are Iraq and Afghanistan. Two things come to mind immediately when I look at this list: first, our imperial interventions are clearly short-term disasters, and; second, the history of failed post-colonial states suggests that they might well be long-term ones.

The full list of 177 states is interesting reading. The top thirty-two (the most critical, by their reckoning) are dominated by post-colonial African and Asian states. The rest of the top sixty adds some Latin American and Central Asian governments. Russia and China are tied with Azerbaijan and Lesotho for 62nd place.

The US ranked 160th, or 18th from the top in terms of state stability. I wonder, though. I’m including the list of factors they considered: do you think we’re as safe as all that?

Social Indicators

1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons creating Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
3. Legacy of Vengeance-Seeking Group Grievance or Group Paranoia
4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight
Economic Indicators
5. Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
6. Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline

Political Indicators
7. Criminalization and/or Delegitimization of the State
8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
9. Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread Violation of Human Rights
10. Security Apparatus Operates as a “State Within a State”
11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
12. Intervention of Other States or External Political Actors”


Naturally, I disagree that the United States is in danger of imminent or medium term state failure though such things are not impossible. The secession crisis before the Civil War was an event of critical state failure. Late 1932 and early 1933 saw at least symptoms of state failure and delegitimization amidst the economic implosion of the Great Depression and the collapse of the banking system.

What do you think ?

5 Responses to “”

  1. subadei Says:

    I didn’t notice this when reading the issue, but rather later on when having another look at the map at Catholicgauze.

    Why, exactly, is the US merely “stable” whereas Canada is most stable? Have the editors forgotten the rather hefty separatist movement in Quebec? How can a state in which a major province has nearly seceded (and might well do so in the future) be considered “most stable?”

    Consider the largest separatist movement in the US (by state) exists right here in Vermont with 8% of the populace (or roughly 5000 people) in favor.

    Probably a bit of a nit-pick given that the issue’s major focus was on “The States that Fail Us,” but a bone to pick never the less.

  2. mark Says:

    “Why, exactly, is the US merely “stable” whereas Canada is most stable? Have the editors forgotten the rather hefty separatist movement in Quebec? How can a state in which a major province has nearly seceded (and might well do so in the future) be considered “most stable?”

    I can’t argue with you subadei, that would seem to be a significant flaw. I’d also like to know their answer too.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    “The only two non-African nations in the top ten of this list are Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    Two countries with ongoing wars ought to be near the bottom.

    The late 1960s were another episode of incipient state failure, a disaster scenario that was choked off by the brilliant statecraft of President Richard M. Nixon.

  4. Dave Schuler Says:

    My immediate reaction to the list was relief that the U. S. wasn’t on it (I’m generally the last to know about these things).

    I wonder how predictive a list like this actually is. How do you measure how close a territory that was never a state to begin with (like Pakistan) is to failing? What is the possible range of values just before a state fails? How about just before it stops failing? Is there such a thing as a trend? Does a “state” with an index of 80 need to pass through an index of 90 before it reaches an index of 100?

    “States” that are clearly in serious trouble e.g. Sudan are one thing. What’s the relevance of the index to states that may be in serious jeopardy for reasons of geography, environment, or population (none of which seem to factor into the index)? I can envision a future in which both Russia and China fracture for just those reasons. Does that count as failure?

  5. mark Says:

    Hi Lex,

    I agree with you.

    Afghanistan has long been a country but the only time it has had a reliably functioning state was under King Zahir Shah, where it tried to do very little and succeeded.

    Hi Dave,

    I think the list is anything but predictive.

    I wager that it was originally contructed by garnering a consensus on the worst of the worst countries and then devising some metrics afterward which were eventually applied to all other countries. Then there was some tinkering on the margin when the system popped out a “weird” ( counterintuitive) result.


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