The annals of diplomacy recorded something startling in February. Saying, in effect, that it was in danger of collapse, the West African state of Guinea voluntarily turned to a United Nations agency that deals with failed or failing states. Like most of its neighbours Guinea has a history of violence, weak governance, poverty and destructive competition for natural resources. Its new government sought help from the UN Peacebuilding Commission, an unwieldy body that duly set up a task force known as a “country-specific configuration” to bolster the government in Conakry. It is already involved in shoring up half a dozen other countries, all African, at the behest of the Security Council; but this was the first time a country owned up to being at risk.
Such honesty is rare, but states that cannot control their territories, protect their citizens, enter or execute agreements with outsiders, or administer justice are a common and worsening phenomenon. Robert Gates, America’s defence secretary, says “fractured or failing states” are “the main security challenge of our time.” The term now extends beyond the poor world: American officials have applied it to the Italian region of Calabria…“Failure” may misleadingly imply that a government is trying to function but not managing. In fact, dysfunctional statehood may suit the powerful. As Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College in North Carolina has written*, the last thing a kleptocrat needs is good judges, or robust ministries that could be power bases for rival robber barons. “Where governments have become deeply complicit in criminal activities…perpetuation of state failure is essential for the criminal enterprise to operate.”
Yet even fairly bad rulers, say African or Afghan warlords or corrupt provincial governors in Russia, may feel the need to provide certain public goods, if only to further their own interests. Such public services might range from half-decent roads to the suppression (or perhaps limitation through taxing) of petty crime. What those rulers will not do, though, is create an arena in which other economic or political players can emerge. Is that a success or a failure, then?…
Calling Afghanistan a failed state seems less controversial, but in a land where central power has always been weak, what does success mean? The American-led coalition’s goals include the defeat of the Taliban, the interdiction of the opium business and the bolstering and cleaning up of the government in Kabul. But such aims may be hard to reconcile, argues Jonathan Goodhand of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The drug economy may have had a stabilising effect on some parts of Afghanistan, he has written; the only plausible hope of a functioning state may rest on a compromise among regional barons whose power rests on narcotics.
If this is even half-right, then success is hard to imagine, let alone achieve. And many an outsider has grown cynical about the prospects of even partial success in establishing a clean government in Kabul. Local support for clean governance is too weak; many hidden channels link the state, the drug lords and even the Taliban.
Another category of states, hard to place on any spectrum of success or failure, could be described as “brittle” dictatorships, like the communist regime that once ruled Albania or the one that still holds sway in North Korea. Such regimes are successful in the sense that they manage, as long as they last, to make people do what they are told; but once they fall, such polities can shatter into a thousand pieces….
To have any hope of success, state-mending efforts must tackle benighted places as they really are, says James Cockayne, who co-directs a New York think-tank called the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Co-operation. They must cope with local power-brokers with no particular link to state capitals; and also with anti-state forces with global connections that could never be trumped by a single national government, even a clean one.
The clearest cases of such transnational state-spoilers concern the drug trade. As long as Latin American narco-lords find it easy to sell cocaine and buy guns in the United States, no government to the south can eliminate them. Whether in Latin America, in Afghanistan or in the emerging narco-states of West Africa, purely national attempts to deal with drugs can be counter-productive; they just drive up prices or create new networks.
In many other cases the wreckers are too effectively globalised for any one state to take them on, adds Mr Cockayne. Examples include Somali warlords with deep ties to the diaspora and Western passports; Congolese militia leaders who market the produce of tin and coltan mines to end-users in China and Malaysia; Tamil rebels who used émigré links to practise credit-card fraud in Britain; or Hezbollah’s cigarette smuggling in the United States.
No worthy effort to train civil servants in just one capital will be of much use in neutralising these global networks. Last November the UN Security Council took a step towards recognising this. It passed a resolution telling buyers of tin not to source their raw material from mines controlled by Congolese militia leaders.
It was highly unusual for the council to issue an order to anybody except governments. Global Witness, an anti-corruption outfit, has reported that the resolution has been badly enforced, with only half-hearted efforts at self-policing by the tin industry. But at least the UN may be edging away from the fiction that governments, and people under their orders, are the only factors that determine the fate of nations.
Failed States: Where life is cheap and talk is loose, Economist, Mar. 19, 2011, at 67