What version of the Third World in 2013 does Washington DC want to tell itself, and why? In the same week that investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill spoke of the need for the USA to “take a humility pill” in order to become a properly functioning democracy with a government truly accountable to its people, we’ve been subjected to precisely the opposite — yet another “Failed States Index” from Foreign Policy Magazine, complete with accompanying “Postcards from Hell” purporting to show what it’s like “living on the edge in the world’s worst places.”
Quibbling with the many bizarre claims of the index is tempting (Kenya is “less stable” than Syria, we learn) but in the end such gripes only give credibility to this tedious yearly exercise in faux-empirical cultural bigotry. Last year Claire Leigh explained in the Guardian why the index belongs “in the policy dustbin”. As I pointed out in Foreign Policy around the same time, this is a failed index. For anyone interested in actually finding out about places like Yemen or Uganda, the Failed States Index is about the last place you’d want to go. But what’s more interesting, and more helpful in understanding what the index really does, is to grasp that the very concept of the “failed state” comes with its own story. This article is the potted history of the curious notion of the failed state.
The Failed States Index is many things, but accountability journalism, it ain’t. The organisation that produces the index, the Fund for Peace, is the kind of outfit John le Carré thinks we should all be having nightmares about. Its director J.J. Messner (who puts together the list) is a former lobbyist for the private military industry, their funding is not disclosed (though in 2006 they took donations from several Big Oil companies), and none of the raw data behind the index is made public. So why on earth would an organisation like this want to keep the idea of the failed state prominent in public discourse?
The main reason is that the concept of the failed state has never existed outside of a program for Western intervention in the rest of the world. It has only ever been a way of constructing a rationale for imposing American interests on less powerful nations. Luckily, we can pinpoint exactly where it all began, right down to the words on the page. The failed state was invented in late 1992 by Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner, two US State department employees, in an article in — you guessed it — Foreign Policy, suggestively entitled “Saving Failed States”. With the end of the Cold War, they argued, “a disturbing new phenomenon is emerging: the failed nation-state, utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community.” And with that, the beast was born.
What followed in the essay was a grumpy version of the history of the Third World after 1945 in which Helman and Ratner lamented that the claims of “self-determination” made by colonized peoples had ever been established as a norm for organising international affairs. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Helman and Ratner argued, the time for fripperies like state sovereignty for Third World nations was over. What these failed states needed was the ever-benign “guardianship” of the Western world. We Westerners would keep hold of our sovereignty, of course. They would make do with something called “survivability” instead, and be grateful for it.
Helman and Ratner’s clever trick was to give an official gloss to their vision of how best to reshape international affairs after the Cold War by presenting it as an elaboration on a well-known, but not much read UN report by then general secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali (remember him?) which had come out a few months earlier. The international community was looking for new principles for understanding the role of the UN after the Cold War. In his “Agenda for Peace“, Boutros-Ghali recommended an expanded role for the UN in resolving international crises, but insisted that state sovereignty remain an inviolable principle. This was pretty much the opposite of what Helman and Ratner wanted, but if they insisted they were in full agreement with him then who was to quarrel?
Though Helman and Ratner attributed the idea to the Egyptian diplomat, in fact the notion of the failed state was unthinkable to Boutros-Ghali, who instead wanted everyone to celebrate the fall of the Soviet Union and the new states that had formed in its wake as a kind of second wave of decolonization, much like that of the 1950s and 60s which Helman and Ratner so detested.
Political scientists in the 1990s wanted nothing to do with this newfangled idea that there might be something out there called “failed states”, and binned it upon arrival. The problem was that it didn’t offer any insight as a mode of analysis (it still doesn’t). A civil war is a civil war. A famine is a famine. A political crisis is a political crisis. A failed state is really just rhetoric without a substantial theoretical or historical basis. As Siddhartha (who trained as a political scientist through the mid-1990s) wrote to me the other day, this thing called a failed state appeared to be less a rigorous way of analysing international affairs than an overblown expression of a pretty straightforward and reactionary attitude to politics, “an overweening concern with political order as the primary indicator of a functional state.” Far from offering a clean break from old Cold War habits, then, this new notion served conveniently as a vehicle for carrying forward the old mindset in which states were to be judged primarily in terms of whether or not they made for quiescent allies to Washington.
Rejected by scholars, the idea of the failed state has instead found a home as a mainstay of Beltway gossip and within the noisy space of shallow political punditry that forms much of the national conversation. Foreign Policy offered it something of a second life by publishing its annual index from 2005 onwards, at a time when the unfolding disaster of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, both of which had been justified as “humanitarian interventions” was painfully clear. Unsurprisingly given that the term was custom-made for the purpose of advocating for precisely such interference by America overseas, the term also made an appearance in the literature drafted between 2001 and 2005 which created the new international norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a doctrine whose application by the international community thus far can best be described as highly selective.
What the story shows is that there’s nothing empirical or objective about the Failed States Index, however many “stability” metrics they try to squash together. It doesn’t much matter where a particular country shows up on a given year. Putting a league table on history is plainly absurd, and when it boils down to it the index argues the same thing every year: that the US should be a kind of global regulator to which the rest of the world (particularly the Third World) must submit. It offers a version of the world to the American public that bears no relation to reality, but works very well as a way of rationalising overseas interventions past and present. The Fund for Peace indeed.
* A version of this article first appeared in the Guardian last week, titled “Failed States are a Western myth“