Antiquated before They Can Ossify (1): States That Fail before They Form

Article excerpt

"Today, the international community has the best chance since the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century to build a world where great powers compete in peace instead of continually prepare for war. Today, the world's great powers find ourselves on the same side--united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos."

--National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002

"The danger is that a global universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages."

--Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1948

The 21st century opened with a great deal of debate about the merits and prospects of the state, but there was very little discussion about the worlds in which the state is absent or about the value and purposes of any of the alternatives. Yet the state is not the natural, default organizational structure of human community. It is a distinct and particular institution with a number of historical and contemporary competitors. This essay is an effort to restore the horse to the front of the cart, and to examine states from a historical perspective that reveals something about the nature of the alternatives. Those competitors are solutions to problems, just as the state and the state system were originally a response to specific needs. Only if we understand how the state came to encompass the peoples and lands of the entire world, and what it supplanted or distorted in doing so, will we understand the profound costs of both its construction and its absence.

For decades there have been challenges to the state from a variety of quarters. From above, the European Union appeared to signal the waning of the sovereignty of its members and international organizations, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, seemed to infringe on the sovereignty of their constituents more often and more assertively. From below, the shattering of large states--the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the continuing challenges posed by separatist movements from Quebec to East Timor--raised questions about the viability of states around the world. In addition, non-state actors seemed to be proliferating, from nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and multinational corporations like ExxonMobil to criminal organizations like the drug cartels of Latin America and the terrorist networks of Al-Qaeda--and all contributed in their own ways to testing the prerogatives of the state. As Jessica Matthews put it, "A novel redistribution of power among states, markets and civil society is underway, ending the steady accumulation of power in the hands of the state that began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648." (2)

In some political circles, this challenge to the state had been welcomed and even advocated. The state was derided by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in their "Washington Consensus" as a bloated and hapless institution, as well as by leaders across the political spectrum, including Ronald Reagan in the US, Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Whether considering the industrialized world's stagflation in the 1970s, the need for perestroika in the Soviet Union or the sluggish performance of developing countries, the state was the culprit and far more of a problem than a solution. Smaller public sectors, unleashed markets and unrestrained civil societies were the policy prescription for virtually all political ailments. Indeed, President George W. Bush came into office in the United States in 2000, determined to privatize much of the activity of the US federal government at home and openly contemptuous of efforts to build states abroad. (3)

Although there had been increasing concern in academic circles that failing states might prove dangerous, particularly after the end of the Cold War, it was not until September 11, 2001, that the importance of states--or more precisely, the dangers of weak states--became clear even to policymakers. …