The Birth and Perhaps Death of Anxiety about Failed States

The debate over state failure is one that has shifted a lot.
October 1, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in Washington Post on October 1, 2014.

As critics of the conventional wisdom on failed states since 2006, we have followed the evolution of the debate over state failure. So when we saw a new post on Monkey Cage and article (ungated) in the journal Governance from Stephen Krasner and Thomas Risse on the subject, we read with interest.

We were surprised to find that the arguments overlapped considerably with our own, but we were more interested to find the profound tension between Krasner’s arguments regarding failed states today and his arguments on the subject when he was writing from the State Department in 2006 (as a Director of Policy Planning).

For instance, today Krasner and Risse write that their work debunks the “conventional wisdom” that “failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign.” The irony here is that Krasner very much helped create the conventional wisdom he is now arguing against. Consider the opening of a Foreign Affairs article he wrote with Carlos Pascual in 2005:

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute threat to U.S. and global security. … When chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation and other forms of organized crime can flourish. … people become susceptible to the exhortations of demagogues and hatemongers…

Krasner and Pascual went on explicitly to cite Afghanistan in 2001 as an example showing that “the problems of other countries often do not affect them alone.” In their words, the

elements of state weakness constitute structural threats akin to dead leaves that accumulate in a forest. No one knows what spark will ignite them, or when.

And make no mistake: Fixing failed states was about U.S. national security.

Safety both here and abroad now depends on the ability of the United States and the international community to make sovereignty work — to establish democracies that improve the lives of ordinary individuals rather than of the ruling elite.

And what did this mean for policy, specifically? That the United States must be “ready and able to manage all four postconflict stages,” which were

  • “stabilization,” which involves “enforcing order, feeding people, restarting basic services, initiating a political transition process, generating local employment, and reintegrating returning refugees and internally displaced persons.”
  • Addressing “root causes,” which meant fixing problems like “corruption, collapsed economic systems, political exclusion, or the private exploitation of public resources.”
  • “the creation of the laws and institutions of a market democracy—or fostering the ‘supply side’ of governance” and finally
  • establishing “the ‘demand side’ of politics, essential for accountability”

Keep in mind — in 2005–2006, this debate was taking place in the context of the Iraq War, and statements like that of Krasner and Pascual defined the conventional wisdom on failed states. These sorts of arguments were used to justify a large U.S. ground presence in Iraq and later Afghanistan, and they even helped stand up a standing nation‐​building office in the State Department that has since atrophied.

We were practically alone when we wrote at the time that this judgment of the alleged threats posed by failed states was obviously inflated, and that the policy program stemming from that threat inflation was breathtaking in scope, unattainable in practice and dangerous thinking to institutionalize in the national security bureaucracy.

One other lonely voice against the conventional wisdom back then was Alex Gourevitch, who suggested in 2005 that the entire discussion of fixing failed states was “an eminently political discourse, counseling intervention, trusteeship and the abandonment of the state form for wide swaths of the globe.” We think that the evolution of the debate clearly validates this view.

Today, Krasner writes with Risse not only that state failure is rare (and rarely threatening when it does happen), but also that state‐​building, democratization, and enhancing state capacity are usually well out of reach of Western interveners. These were precisely our points when we argued with the 2005 vintage Krasner.

The debate over state failure is one that has shifted a lot. Other scholars like Stewart Patrick have also moved in the skeptic direction.

For our part, and likely that of younger scholars, it would be interesting to find out how and why Krasner’s view has changed as much as it has.

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