The Conservator: Saving States from Political Bankruptcy

By Helman, Gerald B. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Conservator: Saving States from Political Bankruptcy


Helman, Gerald B., Harvard International Review


The last several decades have seen a growing awareness of the phenomenon of failed states and its implications for the international system. In part, failed states are a product of the great proliferation of the nation-state model after 1945, which was punctuated by the founding of the United Nations and the decline of European colonialism. Failed states reveal the weaknesses of the original Westphalian model, but also uncover its strengths. What may be most remarkable is that the nation-state model, born and nurtured in Europe over 300 years ago, has been so successfully adapted to many different societies around the world. As the embodiment of sovereignty, the nation-state model has served as a political framework for cultures as diverse as those of the United States, China, Japan, India, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa--and the list goes on. It also constitutes the basis for the United Nations Charter and a host of multilateral conventions of central importance to the functioning of today's international system.

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Directly put, a nation-state traditionally is required to control its own territory and be capable of meeting its international obligations. Today, those obligations are generally delineated in the United Nations Charter, as well as treaties and conventions to which the state is a signatory. Significantly, since 1945 these conventions and treaties have generally dealt with the matter of human rights and questions involving trade and economic policy that limit the sovereignty of states. In addition, they provide a basis for interventions when a state in the process of failure begins to constitute a threat to international peace and security.

Examples such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam suggest that size, economic strength, and territorial cohesiveness are not necessarily critical factors in determining whether a nation-state will succeed. Nor is the political system under which the state operates domestically necessarily a factor in determining the country's success under the nation-state model. Authoritarian states can do quite well, as many nineteenth century European states and modern Arab states have proven.

Failed state indices, such as the one published in Foreign Policy may provide a useful relative ranking of states, how they are governed, and the levels of freedom and quality of human rights that their populations enjoy. But few of those states will decline to the point where they become threats to others or liabilities that the international community must nurture for the sake of regional stability.

The failure of a state is often characterized by a breakdown of political, civil, and economic structures. Commercial activity is often diminished to subsistence level, resulting in the spread of poverty, disease, human rights depredation, refugee creation, and foreign intervention that includes the introduction of terrorist elements and armed conflict. As in Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, and elsewhere, terrorist groups have found failing states to be convenient venues for training and operations. Because of their transnational impact, the consequences of state failure have required a multinational response effort.

Failed State or Work in Progress?

Iraq provides a case study of what qualifies as a failed state. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the people of Iraq were brutalized by a tyranny that deserved and received worldwide condemnation for its violations of human rights, most notably those of the Kurds, its support of terrorist movements and activities, and its aggressive stance vis-a-vis Iran and Kuwait. Nonetheless, the regime built up a stable physical infrastructure as well as educational and medical delivery systems that were generally regarded as among the best in the Arab world. In addition, women were allowed far more rights than in almost any other Arab state. Under Saddam, Iraq may have been guilty of aggression, and in the case of Kuwait, deserving of military defeat and subsequent sanctions--but it was not a failed state. …

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