Thinking Beyond Failed States

Photo Credit: Associated Free Press

By: Jake Howry, Columnist

This summer saw another annual update to the Fund for Peace’s “Fragile States Index”.[i] The Index has received plenty of criticism,[ii] but its continued prominence is symptomatic of a recent tendency for academics and policy officials to disproportionately focus on the inability of “financially, bureaucratically, and militarily weak states”[iii] to prevent the onset of conflict in areas with conditions favoring insurgents. Without discounting the role of failed states, the current emphasis on weak and failed states has ignored the potential for conflict to arise internally due to the expansion of much stronger centralized states. Historically, insurgent resistance to the expansion of the state has been well understood,[iv] but in the modern state system this phenomenon has become masked by a shifting notion of sovereignty and the causes of ungoverned regions within a state. Thus, it is critical to identify sub-state regions where state expansion, and not state collapse, is a driver of insurgency. In such cases, adopting strategies to counteract failed states through the expansion of infrastructure and governing authority can prove to be a counterproductive strategy that will succeed only in mobilizing the local insurgency.

Preoccupation with failing states has often led policymakers and academics to ignore the fact that as state central governments gain strength and become more capable, their reach expands internally to previously ungoverned territory within their own country. Outside of Western Europe, the reach of the state rarely matches international borders. In many of these countries, gaps between recognized borders and state control exist in a relationship of pseudo-salutary neglect. People in such regions may passively acknowledge the central government, but, prior to the arrival of state-based administration, such acknowledgement has little risk and even less meaning. To be a citizen of an absent state is to be free in all but name. Traditionally, people at the edge of expanding states have been faced with three options: accept incorporation into the state, rebel, or flee. Flight, however, usually came only following a failed insurrection.[v]

Although many of these states may lack empirical control over a region, the international community continues to hold the central authority responsible for what occurs within all areas of the state’s juridical sovereignty. While states have historically needed relatively few reasons to expand outwards, differences between juridical and empirical sovereignty may provide a great pressure to do so, when possible. The expectations of the international community are often high; advances in telecommunication systems, all-weather roads, and GPS are expected to have dramatically increased the ability of the state to extend their empirical sovereignty.[vi]

Scholars and policymakers should more closely examine internal regions within all countries that show indicators for conflict onset. It is rare for internal conflicts, even widespread insurgencies with significant geographic scope, to involve the entire country.[vii] Rather, where a conflict takes place is determined by a number of factors ranging from local geography to an insurgency’s goals. Generally, there is a great deal of internal variation of violence levels and insurgency risk factors between different regions of a country during periods of internal conflict. However, by using the nation as the level of analysis, quantitative studies often inadvertently focus exclusively on countries where indicators for insurgency appear across all regions. In the type of weak states that quantitative literature usually examines, weakness is systemic and complete; regional data is largely homogenous such that national-level analyses do not need to account for any obscuring of regional variation.[viii] Yet, most indicators for conflict onset are no less salient at the regional level.[ix]

Using a regional lens, similarities are more apparent between areas that have only recently come under the control of the state and areas in traditionally examined “failed states”. As a strong state first expands into its hinterland, such regions typically only have weak state infrastructure; strong, developed administrative capabilities cannot be transplanted without time and investment. Even the cooptation of existing systems remains difficult for the expanding state, as extant systems often require the same, if not more, time and investment to integrate into centralized state functions. Additionally, due to poor information about the local landscape, central authorities often have trouble distinguishing a militant insurgency from the civilian population. As the state expands, it can destroy and rebuild local means of existence, causing disruptions to everyday life and creating conditions similar to those observed in failing states.

Current academic literature tends to treat sovereign strength and administrative capability as uniform and wholesale, masking potential flashpoints for governance and security failures. Under- or un-governed regions exist within juridical states of all strengths, not merely failing states. Even portions of the United States, such as the Appalachian region, can be characterized as ungoverned at various points over the last two and a half centuries. Alone, such pockets of lawlessness are not reflective of the strength of the central state.

Conventional wisdom has traditionally seen these subnational spaces as safe havens rife for exploitation by nascent terrorist and insurgent groups; pockets of ungoverned territory are viewed as symptoms of state collapse and policy seeks to build back up nonexistent governance capacity. However, when misapplied, such policies may actually make matters worse on the ground by fueling internal state expansion into ungoverned areas. Realizing the potential for insurgent groups to mobilize in response to expansive internal state building, policymakers should focus greater attention on sub-state regions susceptible to insurgency and tailor policy prescriptions to address expanding, as well as collapsing, states.

[i] Indexed by Fund for Peace “Fragile State Index,” Foreign Policy. 2016.

[ii] Claire Leigh, “Failed States Index belongs in the policy dustbin” The Guardian, 2 July, 2012.; Miles M. Evers; “The Fatally Flawed Fragile States Index” The National Interest (Blog) 15 July, 2014.

[iii] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 1 (February 2003): 75–90.

[iv] Examples include the American wars of westward expansion against the Plains Indians and the Germanic Wars and Celtic uprisings that plagued the Western extent of the Roman Empire.

[v] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale Agrarian Studies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009). 138

[vi] Ibid. 10-11.

[vii] Halvard Buhaug and Scott Gates, “The Geography of Civil War,” Journal of Peace Research 39, no. 4 (2002): 417–33. 424-5.

[viii] Examples can be found in Fearon and Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” or Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 61, no. 1 (2009): 1–27.

[ix] Quy-Toan Do and Lakshmi Iyer, “Poverty, Social Divisions and Conflict in Nepal” (Working Paper 07-065, Harvard Business School, 2007).

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