The ‘Failed State’ Fever Must Break

World map coloring states according to the Failed State Index 2013: Alert (Red), Warning (Orange), Stable (Yellow), and Sustainable (Green). It is said that leaders are bound to fight the last war. The United States and the international community are similarly in danger of overlearning the lessons of a particular scenario: the “failed state.”

Failed states and post-conflict state-building have been a major focus of U.S. and multilateral diplomacy, development, and security policy in the last two decades. This focus stems from the confluence of a humanitarian concern with chaos and a security concern that terrorists and violent criminals would occupy ungoverned spaces (like in Afghanistan pre-9/11, and in Iraq after the 2003 invasion).

This tendency—based on dramatic cases from Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere—is reinforced by an intellectual mindset. That mindset is captured by the opening sentence of perhaps the most influential work in American political science since World War II, Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, published 46 years ago. He wrote, “The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.”  The idea is that governments must govern, and the greatest danger lies in the lack of capacity to do so. In 1968, the late Huntington antiseptically lauded the capacity of Leninist states.

If we accept this notion that order and state-capacity is the hammer that must be applied to every nail in the world, we distort U.S. and multilateral policy.

Despite the Iraqs, Afghanistans, Somalias, and DRCs, so many governance problems in the world are ones of how to govern, not how much to govern. The “failed state” image and the Huntington thesis fast become a rationale to centralize power in states. They become a pretext for unsavory backing of autocratic rulers in the name of economic development, counter-terrorism, and avoidance of chaos. Much policy today is shaped by a conscious or subconscious false dichotomy that assumes that a predominant state and chaos are the only alternatives.

On the grounds of governance, a state that is accountable and transparent to its citizens and that ensures access to justice for all groups (e.g. women and minorities) is more important than a strong state per se. All the better, democracy—defined as much by pluralism, tolerance, and basic freedoms such as elections—incorporates the voice of the people in governing.

On the grounds of security, democracies do not go to war with each other. They sometimes forego nuclear arms ambitions, as liberalizing Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa all did. More importantly, accountable governments avoid creating pressure cookers that, denying a voice to some groups in society, drive some to extremist views and violent tactics targeting innocent people. The latter is precisely what one sees across the Middle East and North Africa, in many governments considered vital U.S. allies.

On the grounds of economic development, Morton Halperin, Joe Siegle, and Michael Weinstein demonstrate in their still salient 2004 book, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, that democratic governance facilitates economic growth. It engenders choices, real-time information flow, and innovation. Democracy is not just a luxury which must follow economic development, but a catalyst of prosperity.

Ukraine shows these very lessons: people took to the streets to demand economic performance, and an end to Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocracy and his refusal to listen to popular will seeking ties to the West. Civil society demanded and “owned” change in governance. Outside help (especially from the United States as leader and catalyst) was needed and justified—not to make a state stronger but to back civil society.

There are great risks in getting a metaphor wrong, or assuming a vivid one always pertains. Alliances and escalation led to World War I. Appeasement ushered in World War II. But both metaphors cannot possibly always be apt. The “failed state” is a problem. Often, but not always. The image is perverting policy to the detriment of human rights, civil society voice, corruption-free rule, and prosperity.