Discussing Failed States; What is the Concept Good For?

Caitlin Watson
Associate Editor at SAIS Europe

In an increasingly globalized world, where borders are more fluid, global influence is more dispersed, and international aid more prevalent, all countries have become more dependent on and more vulnerable to each other for security, stability, and growth. Given heightened global interdependence, weak states, susceptible to internal violence and insurgency, pose a danger to their neighbors and the international community.

Recognizing state weakness and examining the factors that underlie the dissolution of effective institutions remains not only relevant but critical to bolstering human rights and human security worldwide. However, the broad, loosely-defined notion of state weakness also poses a threat to state sovereignty, making weak states vulnerable to the political motivations of stronger countries. To offer an effective framework within which to mitigate the threats vulnerable states pose, policy-makers should recognize a fluid spectrum of state weakness and examine state failure primarily from the inside-out.

Identifying states that are weak can draw important attention from the international community. Yet a broad and relatively undefined notion, such as “state weakness” is vulnerable to manipulation for political motivations. Labeling a country “weak” offers an excuse for stronger countries to intervene and impose their own political ambitions. Yet, examining weakness by exploring local conditions rather than imposing external social norms can strengthen global human rights and security.

To effectively apply the notion of state weakness it is important to recognize a scale of fragility, not a rigid dichotomy.  While “state weakness” is an ambiguous concept, it is its broadness that allows it to be understood in relative terms, establishing a scale of weakness and strength to measure factors in different countries against each other. Understanding the underlying factors and institutions that make some states more susceptible to dissolution even when similar external factors are at work sets a more level basis for analysis and checks the notion that some states or political systems are inherently superior to others.

Recognizing and exploring a state’s weakness can illuminate not only what has failed, but also the local political and social systems embedded within a weakened state that emerge in the absence of formal institutions. In many cases, state weakness gives way to insurgencies, terrorist groups, informal economies or other non-state actors. Effectively bolstering a weak state demands a more constructive approach than the terms “weak” or “failing” offer. To focus on why institutions dissolve or collapse is important, but it threatens to eclipse internal dynamics that shed light on the institutions that might most effectively reconstitute security and stability in a particular geographic, political or social context.

Addressing state weakness in relative terms and in light of nuanced local contexts can make the concept of state weakness and failure a valuable lens through which to examine international security and to formulate policies and build institutions that bolster global security and state sovereignty.

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