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Is A Weak or “Hollow” State Worse than a Failed State?

Galrahn, writing at USNI Blog about my recent post on Mexico, raised an important question: “Are Weak States a worse outcome from the perspective of U.S. national security than a Failed State?”. Galrahn comes down squarely against the “muddling through” of a weak state:

Failed States Are Worse Than Weak States

….My point would be this: there is no value in the cartels overthrowing the Mexican government because its existence helps them more than its absence helps them.

But this is my larger point. There are currently zero, none, nada 4GW/COIN/Whatever military solutions for failed states; our emerging 4GW/COIN/Whatever doctrines, strategies, and theories only apply for weak states that have legitimate governments that can be supported. Failed states are problems that can be handled, even in an ugly way, by conventional military forces. The danger to US strategic interests is not failed states, as is often claimed, rather the real danger to US strategic interests always comes from weak states.

The ugly truth is, failed states allow for freedom of action by military forces without consequence; weak states do not allow such freedom of military action. Afghanistan before 9/11 was a weak state, not a failed state, thus Al Qaeda operated under the state governance of the Taliban and had top cover to carry out its evil agenda. In Somalia, pirates operate in a failed state, and as a failed state the west has taken military action, including cruise missiles, hostage rescue attempts with special forces, and other military activities without consequence against targets as they have been identified. The danger Somalia poses in the future to US strategic interests is not that Somalia continues as a failed state, rather if it were to become a weak state with a recognized legitimate government strong enough to say, eliminate the pirate threat while still being too weak to prevent the training and development of terrorist cells.

….but because it is a weak state, we face serious and complex diplomatic obsticles in taking freedom of action, even along our own national border. In a failed state, we could do what needed to be done to take out the bad guys. As a weak state, we are far more limited in options, and must account for the legitimate governments perspective a lot more than we would if Mexico was a failed state.

Zenpundit may or may not be right regarding the threat posed by Mexico, but if he believes Mexico as a failed state is more dangerous than a Mexico as a weak state, he is mistaken.

Read the whole post here.

I found Galrahn’s argument to be very intriguing. There’s the issue of Mexico specifically in his post and then Weak States being worse than Failed States as a general rule. First, Mexico:

The thought experiment I penned previously aside, Mexico is not yet a Failed State and I hope it does not become one – though I would not wager a mortgage payment on it staying away from catastrophic failure. Mexico is definitely, in my view, already a Weak State suddenly resisting the process of being “hollowed out”, slowly, by vicious drug cartels. I wish President Calderon well in his efforts to crush the narco networks, but just as America cannot avoid admitting that our drug laws are impacting Mexico severely, let’s not let the fact that Mexico’s ruling oligarchy has also brought this disaster on themselves with their self-aggrandizingly corrupt political economy escape comment.

The crony-capitalist-politico ruling class in Mexico ruthlessly squeezes their poor but ambitious countrymen to emigrate and is too greedy to even invest properly in the very security services that keeps their own state apparatus afloat. Mexico is not a poor country, their GDP is in the same league as that of Australia, India or the Netherlands. Mexico can afford to pay for a professional police, a functioning judiciary and a larger Army at a minimum. On a more reasonable level, Mexico can also afford basic public education and core public services for it’s citizens and could liberalize it’s economy further to stimulate entrepreneurship. They choose not to do so. An elite that stubbornly refuses to reform, even in the interest of self-preservation, is not a group likely to make statesmanlike decisions in the Cartel War.

If Mexico fails, really fails on the order of Lebanon in the 1980’s or Somalia since the 1990’s, Galrahn is correct that the U.S. military would, in the last analysis, have a free hand to do things in Mexico that could not be remotely contemplated today. However the  second and third order effects of a Failed State Mexico are calamitous enough that I’d prefer to skip enjoying that kind of “free hand”. Unless Mexicans have something in their DNA that makes them different from Iraqis, Afghans, Cambodians or Kosovar Albanians, extreme levels of violence in one area will cause them to move to areas of relative safety in another place. Internal displacement will precede external displacement. Elite flight will precede the flight of the masses.

That brings us to the general question of, is a Failed State better or worse than a Weak State whose tattered shreds of international legitimacy prevent robust foreign intervention? I am going to “punt” by inclining toward judging on a case-by-case basis. “Failed State Botswana” is not likely to impact the world very much nor is “Functional State Congo” going to look very good next to anything except Congo as the Failed State that it is. Now “Failed State China” or “Failed State Russia”, that has consequences that are the stuff of nightmares.

What do you say? Which is worse: Weak State or Failed State?


SWJ Blog links to a Washington Post series on the Cartel War

8 Responses to “Is A Weak or “Hollow” State Worse than a Failed State?”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I want to commend both you and Galrahn for doing more than punting, but carring the ball of this topic forward for a first down. The more we discuss this issue the better prepared we are for whatever happens. Had the blogs been this active prior to 9/11 who knows what attention could have been drawn to the bad actors on the horizon.

  2. historyguy99 Says:

    This just posted by Michael Yon as the winds of Hurricane Mexico reach Afghanistan.

  3. fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    The idea that a failed neighbour state would be better than a weak one because the US govt has its hands free for punitive expeditions seems frankly puerile. Going in to "take out the bad guys" indeed. And then what ?  Perhaps this:
    "Failed states are problems that can be handled, even in an ugly way, by conventional military forces."  Is that supposed to imply a full scale military occupation and some “nation building”, again ?
    Iraq has around 40 million inhabitants. Pacifying them (at least imperfectly and for the time being) was not that easy. 2,5 Iraqs on yr southern border wd constitute an interesting stimulus package for the security community.   On the other hand the hypothesis that a weak state may be more useful to criminal networks than complete chaos seems plausible. However, I am not sure the leaders of criminal organisations would view it the same way. I know far too little about their backgrounds, training (if any) and thus their mentality and possible strategy to hazard even a tentative guess.   Methodical gripe: Comparing around 110 million Mexicans to 16,5 million Dutch and 1.150 million Indians ?

  4. zen Says:

    hi HG99,
    Much appreciated – thank you!
    Hi FMC,
    Mexico is a MIC ( middle income country), the table is drawn from the CIA Fact book for size of GDP, not per capita GDP. Whether it is India or the Netherlands or Mexico, countries in this band have adequate resources for a functioning state.

  5. Galrahn Says:

    Is that supposed to imply a full scale military occupation and some “nation building”, again ?Interestingly, I would say the answer is yes, generally it means exactly that. The world does this all the time with the United Nations, and in many cases this is done with African Union forces.For the most part though, I would argue the world usually quarters off failed states and does nothing about them, usually waiting for governments to emerge as weak states before taking action.

  6. fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    Hi Zen

    Maybe my English isn`t good enough. Calling it a gripe was intended to convey that it was just meant as a hint, not a main point.
    Anyhow, I am by no means a "numbers guy" but just looking at GDP size without taking the size / population of the country into account does not make sense to me. No snark intended (for once) but I am not surprised you got this MIC from the CIA factbook. Just the sort of thing they wd do. Again, maybe it is my fault, but I see little use in the classification.

    BTW, you are absolutely right in pointing out (previous posts) that there is not much weighing of the pros and cons in re Mexico in the media or the blogosphere. I hope I will get some here.

  7. Lexington Green Says:

    "… liberalize it’s economy further to stimulate entrepreneurship."
    Mexicans in Chicago are entrepreneurial, hardworking and had the guts to come all the way up here and face the weather and a frequently difficult and hostile environment. 
    If their own government got the Hell out of their way, and provided the basis minima needed to facilitate growth (a recorder of deeds office, roads, courts that enforced contracts, basic public safety), they would transform the place in a generation.
    A weak Mexican state is better for us.  We can work with it, have it take the lead and take the blame and do the shooting.  A failed state in Mexico on the level of Somalia or Lebanon would be a catastrophe for the USA.  Half the population would head north in the automobiles, a gigantic, Spanish speaking volkerwanderung.  It would be ugly. 

  8. fester Says:

    Tied up until Saturday, so a longer response then, but i think a weak state is slightly different than a hollow state and both are significantly different than a failed state and I think a weak state is much better than a failed state — the institutional framework is still there to be strengthened. 

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