A New Approach: The Need to Focus on Failing States

By Mair, Stefan | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

A New Approach: The Need to Focus on Failing States


Mair, Stefan, Harvard International Review


In the post-9/11 security paradigm, failed states are considered one of the main threats to international and regional security. However, there remains much debate over what exactly constitutes a failed state. The first point of contention lies in the problem of identifying the indispensable functions of a state. The second lies in the controversy over the degree of failure in key functions that makes a state a failed state. Most would generally agree that a state must be able to exert a monopoly on the use of force within its borders, provide a legitimate political and legal order, and offer essential services in health, education, and physical infrastructure. The consensus ends here, however, with academics and policymakers disagreeing on the more detailed requirements of the definition. How deep and comprehensive must the monopoly on the use of force be? What constitutes the legitimacy of a political order? Which social services are essential? What factors account for the failure of a state?

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In a 2007 study on international state building, Ulrich Schneckener draws a clear distinction between failed states and failing states. Failing states like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Georgia, and Nigeria are unable to completely control their territories, but they still deliver public services to the majority of the population and have some degree of political legitimacy. In failed states, however, none of the functions mentioned above is effectively performed. The most prominent example of a failed state is Somalia. Although I acknowledge that the breakdown of regional security might have serious repercussions on international security, I argue that ultimately, it is the failing state, not the failed state, that encourages international terrorism and organized crime. The failed state, in contrast, poses more threats to regional security than to international security.

International Security

As crucial as these differentiations between failed states and failing states are for a proper understanding of state failure, decision-makers who are concerned with failed states as security risks to Western societies rarely refer to them. Although their overall perception of failed states has only slightly been influenced by the academic debate on failed states, there have been two exceptions. They have taken into consideration the concrete examples of failed states, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the total incapability of these states to control their territories.

According to conventional wisdom, these failed states enable international terrorists and organized crime to seek haven and run their training camps and operational bases within their territories. This assumption, however, hardly passes the reality check. Despite the widespread rumors about al Qaeda cells in Somalia, the links between Somali factions and warlords and the terrorist network are rather loose. So far, Somalis have not played a prominent role in international terrorist attacks outside the African region.

The case of Afghanistan also illustrates the threat posed by failing states. Here it must be stated that at the time al Qaeda was most successfully running its training camps in Afghanistan, the country was closer to the model of an effective state than it was in the prior two decades. As illegitimate as the rule of the Taliban was in the view of the Western world, the regime controlled greater pieces of the Afghan territory (where it allowed al Qaeda to operate in exchange for financial and military support), provided a more reliable political and legal order, and offered better social services than the preceding regimes.

The same assumption holds true for organized crime, which cannot flourish in a stateless environment. Organized crime needs a legal order to subvert in order to make real profit as well as a certain minimum of financial, economic, and physical infrastructure in order to flourish. …

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