‘Failed States’ and ‘Failed Policies’: Two Global Public Policy Challenges at Eye Height

first published by global policy, 25 Jan 2013

‘State fragility’, with its repercussions on national development and international security, re­mains one of today’s most pressing global public policy challenges, partly because this phe­no­menon is considered “the source of many of the world’s most serious pro­blems” (Fukuyama 2004:1). The topic’s centrality is reflected by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee agenda, was pivot to the 2011 World Development Report, and has been evi­denced by long-drawn international engagements in Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afgha­nis­tan. Yet, while foreign military contingents have incrementally left these war zones, ‘state fragility’ is cer­tain to stay, both, in these polities and the world at large. One central reason is that, “[f]rom a his­to­rical perspective, much of the developing world today is characterised by states in the pro­cess of formation” (CSRC 2005:2), a process that is inherently prone to cri­ses, conflict and fragility.

Whereas ‘fragile states’ pose a central challenge to the ‘international community’, the latter’s failing policies constitute a vital defiance to the respective states and their popula­tions. This is not only because current approaches to state-building are heavily militarized, but also because they utterly fail to bring about the envisioned stability and prosperity. International military engagement in Iraq has left its society with a significantly diminished GDP per capita (UNDP 2012), and Afghanistan is not only far from having reached acceptable levels of security and resilience despite an ‘investment’ of approximately USD 2.5 trillion by the US federal govern­­ment alone (Costs of War 2012), but also continues to have the highest infant mortality rate in the world (Global Health Facts). Similarly bleak is the international community’s state-building record in polities such as DR Congo, Sudan and Somalia, as these countries not only remain a far cry from achie­ving the MDGs, but continue to feature amongst the top ten ‘failed states’.

Getting ‘Failed States’ Wrong

Consequently, the state-building policies pursued by the ‘international community’ can con­fi­dently be judged as being ineffective at best. While a myriad of factors can be cited to ac­count for why Western policies towards ‘failed states’ have themselves largely failed, I argue here that the central underlying problem is not a practical but conceptual one. ‘Fragile states’ have usually been conceived of as pathologic deviations from the contemporary moulding of Western states with their free market economies and liberal democracies. Hence, it have invariably been neo-liberal interpretations of the state that have guided the inter­national community’s handbooks on how to supposedly ‘fix’ fragile states (Ghani/Lock­hart 2008; Kaplan 2008), even though “[t]he inadequacies of neo-liberalism have spawned a wide­spread questioning of this dominant worldview” (Sandbrook 2010). While the Washing­ton Consen­sus, which had seen the state as an obstacle to development, has offi­cially been abandoned, the underlying paradigm has largely remained intact (Stiglitz 2004).

Although the Post-Washington Consensus witnessed an apparent volte-face to main­stream thinking of the 1980s and 1990s in that policymakers ultimately realized the need for ‘Bring­ing the State Back In’ (Evans et al. 1985), the state is still not taken seriously as a vital partner in development and state-building processes. This is evidenced by the latest con­cep­tual varia­tion of the neo-liberal ideology that emerged in the scholarly literature as the post-2001 decade drew to a close. Concepts of ‘twilight institutions’ (Lund 2006), the ‘negotiated state’ (Menk­haus 2007) and ‘hybrid political orders’ (Böge et al. 2008) have come to praise earlier negative interpre­ta­tions of non-state orders (e.g. Jackson 1990; Zartman 1995; Rotberg 2003) as au­toch­thonous ways of state-building. Whereas it is true that ‘fragile states’ are marked by a competing plu­ra­lity of different actors, the concepts’ underlying proposition that a hybridity of ‘political orders’ is desirable for the advancement of developing states is highly problematic.

Inadequacies of Current Conceptualizations

First, the promotion of pluralism as constituting both the means and ends of state-building can only be sustained by a form of historical amnesia. While the advertisement of pluralism sits well with the deeply engrained ‘diversity myth’ that the West entertains regarding its own history, Schwartz (1995) shows that ‘Americanization’ had been “a process of coercive conformity” and that the United States “was characterized by ethnic dominance, not ethnic pluralism.” Hence, while Americans preach an adherence to liberal pluralism throughout the world, their own state and national unity was not founded on pluralism, diversity and tole­rance, but homogeneity, conformity and dominance. That it is processes of unification and standardization that have constituted the lynchpins of state-building throughout history has similarly been argued by intellectuals ranging from social contract theorists of the 17th centu­ry to contemporary scholars such as Anderson (1983), Connor (1994), and Levene (2000).

Second, also when viewed from a theoretical perspective, the unapologetic advancement of pluralism in contexts of fragility appears to be much more of a ‘tragic’ than ‘magic bullet’. Regarded through the analytical prism of institutionalism, neo-pluralist concepts, which em­pha­size problems of allocation rather than ones of rule and control (Nordlinger 1981; Lind­blom 1977), can be debunked as asserting a situation of ‘institutional multiplicity’. Al­though a diversity of ‘rules of the game’ (North 1990) can be desirable or even necessary to keep states functional in the long-term – partly because it offers “the possibility of switching stra­te­gically from one institutional universe to another” (CSRC 2005:8; North 2005:42) – the parallel existence of institutions is problematic in early stages of state development, as it defies the larger purpose of institutions themselves, namely to “reduce uncertainty by provi­ding a [clear] structure to everyday life” (North 1990:3).

Third, the neo-pluralist concepts remain wholly inconclusive regarding the question under what conditions or what kinds of ‘hybrid political orders’ are constitutive of rather than inimical to state-building – where runs the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ hybridity? Unable to answer these questions, the concepts are little helpful to under­stand, for example, the divergent trajectories of Somalia and Somaliland, both of which are marked by a hybridity of ‘political orders’. Moreover, just like previous approaches, this allegedly new thinking similarly reduces state-building endeavours to questions of institu­tional capacity. Yet, as “[g]overnance is about the relationship between the state and socie­ty” (Brinkerhoff 2007:18), and as “it is in the realm of ideas and sentiments that the fate of states is primarily determined” (Holsti 1996:84), I argue in a manner analogous to the dictum of Evans et al. (1985) on the state, for the need of ‘bringing the nation back in’ (Helling 2009).

What Next?

Despite the failure of the international community’s past policies towards ‘failed states’ there are no indications that global policy towards state fragility is about to change. Even after the failed state-building interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a para­digmatic shift in conceptual thinking about ‘fragile states’ and possible international responses does not appear to take shape. NATO’s military operation in Libya and France’s most recent single-handedly intervention in Mali are proof of the West’s apparent immunity to learn from past mistakes. Just as has been the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military engagement in Mali is more likely to contribute to a further political fragmentation and institu­tional ‘fragilization’ than to bring about peace, prosperity and stability – parti­cularly as France’s current policies are not suggestive of going beyond a few military objectives.

Yet, in the absence of a more comprehensive and politically defined long-term strategy of how to assist polities such as Mali in achieving a transition from fragility to resilience, the international community is more likely than not to continue defaulting to its plan A, marked by a largely military and technical approach in the framework of the neo-liberal paradigm – a plan that already failed (in) Afghanistan and Iraq. If the international community is, however, truly concerned with facilitating stability and development in ‘fragile states’, it needs to thoroughly rethink its conceptualization of states-in-the-making and seriously scrutinize its approach of liberal pluralism. Only if the dominant (Western) actors appreciate that what is required to sustain states should not be confused with what is required to initiate them, can the international community adequately deal with the challenges arising in and from fragile states, and help prevent a country like Mali from becoming another Somalia.

Dominik Balthasar is a fellow of the GG2022 program and a post-doctoral fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the framework of the Transatlantic Post-Doc Fellowship for International Relations and Security (TAPIR). This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows. For more information on the GG2022 please see here.


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