What Makes a Failed State in the 21st Century?

The concept of a ‘failed state’ in the modern era is an aspect of politics that is regularly contested and debated. The Global Policy Forum (GPF) define a failed state as an entity that can ‘no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty’, be that the fault of internal or external factors, or both (Global Policy, ND). Maintaining a clear and constant check on fragile and failed states is seen as crucial in terms of state security as they are known to provide ‘havens in which increasing powerful armed groups can recruit, plan, train, and build up a resource base and from which they can deploy to execute operations’, an issue that is arguably only increasing in importance post-9/11. Making the distinction between simply a fragile or ‘weak’ state and a failed state is the cause for much dispute, especially as in the 21st century ‘the majority of the world’s nearly 200 states can be classified as weak, failing, or failed’ (Hanlon, 2012). This essay will focus on possibly two of the most infamous states in the world, Somalia and Afghanistan, to help gain a complete understanding of what truly constitutes a failed state in the 21st century, taking into account the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and the impact of competent stable states amongst other factors. This essay will also ask on a wider scale whether the classification of states into these categories is fair, bringing forward the argument that failed states are either not accurately categorized or simply do not exist altogether.

The widely accepted characteristics of a failed state are summed up well by Querine Hanlon who outlines that, by large, failed states ‘do not control much of their own territories or borders… fail to provide even the most basic measure of security… cannot provide most basic core services, such as food, clean water, sewage treatment, and health care… are not perceived as legitimate by most of their populations’ (Hanlon, 2012). This being said, Derick Brinkerhoff categorises the concepts of state failure and fragility as ‘wicked problems’, whose definition is ‘contested and whose contours are ill-formulated and inherently complex’. If Brinkerhoff’s view is to be accepted it would reduce the legitimacy of any overarching definition like that of Hanlon’s, especially as ‘no matter how they are defined, the problem at hand can be viewed as a nested symptom of another problem’ (Brinkerhoff, 2014). Indeed, as Robert Rotberg rightly highlights ‘failed states are not homogenous’, with the causes and reasons for classification as a failed state being unique to each individual country. His statement that ‘failure and weakness can flow from a nation’s geographical, physical, historical, and political circumstances, such as colonial errors and Cold War policy mistakes’ encapsulates well, if not somewhat inaccurately, the reasons for the failure of both Afghanistan and Somalia (Rotberg, 2002).

Krasner and Pascual note that ‘States are most vulnerable to collapse in the time immediately before, during, and after conflict’, an observation that is possibly most applicable to Afghanistan (Krasner and Pascual, 2005). Conflict began with the Soviet invasion of 1979 that began a ten-year war fought between Mujahedeen fighters funded by the United States and Russian troops intent on maintaining soviet power in their ‘client state’ (Britannica, ND). Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue the removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 signalled the beginnings of a transition from the anti-communist ‘red scare’ to the post 80’s ‘terror scare’ that has created the base for US foreign intervention in the middle east, culminating in the post-9/11 Afghanistan war (Sluka, 2002, Britannica, ND). Not only this, but the Fund for Peace (FFP) explain how the ‘vacuum that existed after the Soviet withdrawal saw warring tribes and the Taliban vying for control over the country’, meaning that ‘Afghanistan has seen little development as the central government has focused its energies on combating its enemies’ (FFP, 2012). A likely reason for this relates back to a classic hallmark of the failed state, the fact that the Afghan population view central government as ‘puppets of foreign powers’, thereby making them illegitimate (Vázquez del Pino, 2011). C.S.C Sekhar observes the effect of this, describing a state ‘virtually torn asunder by insurgency, terrorism, ethnic clashes, clashes among warlords and militias’ whose drug and poppy based economy, ‘extremely fragile’ government and largely lawless countryside filled with ‘Taliban militia, local warlords, and external forces mainly of US’ makes for what Vásquez del Pino describes as ‘a perfect storm’ resulting in a state in utter disrepute (Sekhar, 2010, Vasquez del Pino, 2011).

The case of Somalia largely represents the struggles of failing states in Africa as a whole, with its main problems being ‘grave and severe ethnic conflict among clans and rival armies… complete breakdown of political system, and lack of effective authority of transitional government’ (Sekhar, 2010). There are many significant effects of colonisation in Somalia, with one example being the fact that European colonisers further pitted clans against each-other creating five individual warring states within Somalia itself. A second, perhaps more interesting effect came after Somalia gained independence and fell into what Jeffrey Herbst calls the ‘paradox of decolonisation’ where even as newly independent leaders were ‘proclaiming a break with Europe and the west, they uniformly seized upon that most western of political organisations – the nation state – to rule’ (Herbst, 1997). As Kimberly Marten explains, the effect of this was a concept of statehood that was ‘considered a legacy of European imperialism that lacked inherent legitimacy’, meaning many naturally pushed against the somewhat make-believe state borders. For this Herbst blames assumptions made by the United Nations and the west in general, saying ‘the notion that Africa was ever composed of sovereign states classically defined as having a monopoly on force in the territory within their boundaries is false’ from the very beginning (Marten, 2007, Herbst, 1997). This demonstrates that lack of basic law and order was prevalent in the area even before colonialism, or at the very least a lack of a ‘western style’ form of statehood. Using Somalia along with number one failed state according to the 2015 FSI, South Sudan, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson note how both states were ‘built atop societies that historically never created a centralized state but were divided into clans where decisions were made by consensus among adult males’, making them effectively ‘doomed to fail’ (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). Animasawun and Saka support this, highlighting that ‘At the centre of the African crisis is the state, whose control has become the subject of crises, while its poor performance has become the bane of development on the continent.’ (Animasawun and Saka, 2013). Rulers such as Mohamed Siad Barre, leader of Somalia between 1969 and 1991, were ‘personally greedy, but as predatory patrimonialists they also licensed and sponsored the avarice of others, thus preordaining the destruction of their states’ (Rotberg, 2002).

Krasner and Pascual determine the effect of these historical issues in the 21st century with the statement that ‘when chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation, and other forms of organized crime can flourish’ (Krasner and Pascual, 2005). Most failing and failed states operate in a state of perpetual violence and corruption that is both a result of the state failing and also a primary contributing factor to its continued lack of improvement. This rather paradoxical way of governance reflects negatively on social, political and economic prosperity and ultimately leads to yet more violence and unrest.  Tiffany Howard highlights that ‘Living conditions within weak and failed states are so psychologically damaging and physically threatening that such an unstable climate ultimately drives one to obtain tangible political and economic resources through the use of violence’ (Howard, 2014). For both Afghanistan and Somalia, the resulting form of control is usually through warlordism that in turn creates insecurity not only within the country but also in neighbouring states and states around the world in general. Warlords in both countries have been funded and supported by these neighbouring countries along with the United States. Marten outlines the US have ‘repeatedly given military support and economic assistance to warlord factions in both countries in an effort to form alliances designed to thwart anti-Western Islamist radicals and bring stability’. This can be seen most explicitly in the USA’s support of Afghan warlords both against the 1979 Soviet invasion and the ‘coalition war’ against both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from 2001 onwards (Marten, 2007). It has been argued by Adam Curtis that this influx of money that was intended to help build a strong democracy actually did the opposite, funding warlords and militia resulting in further damage to the already highly frail state. This, Curtis believes is due to the fact that the west ‘ruthlessly simplified the complex struggles around the world into simple stories of good versus evil’, making it somewhat inconceivable that there was not simply an ally to support and an enemy to eliminate (Curtis, 2015). This tactic is noted in the GPF’s definition of failed states in which they say ‘foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fuelling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse’, with end goal being to instil a form of western democracy in its place (Global Policy, ND). Animasawun and Saka comment that ‘democratisation, as propounded and promoted by the West since the end of the Cold War, has produced consequences that are inimical to internal peace and security in many countries of the world’, possibly most profoundly in Afghanistan and Somalia (Animasawum and Saka, 2013). This rather poignant statement rather encapsulates the struggle felt by failed states in the 21st century and in many ways perfectly reflects the neocolonial tendencies of the capitalist, free market countries of the west that Naomi Klein would argue has led to a culture of ‘disaster capitalism’ (Klein, 2007). With ‘more Department of Defense contractors in Afghanistan today than there are uniformed U.S. military personnel’, the way in which western states attempt to take advantage of the catastrophes they have been largely at fault for may come to define the struggle of the failed state far into the future (Schwartz, 2011)

Since 9/11 the main security concern in the west has been terrorism, and more specifically how ‘one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan, became the base for the deadliest attack ever on the U.S. homeland’ (Krasner and Pascual, 2005). The emergence of terrorism in states such as Afghanistan and Somalia and the resulting foreign policy arguably perpetuates state failure in the 21st century more than any other factor. The issues in Afghanistan revolving around Al-Qaeda and more recently Islamic State are well documented, but in Africa the focus is much less apparent. However, with Boko Haram being recently officially named the ‘deadliest terror group in the world’ just days after the November terror attacks in Paris and ‘self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate’ Al-Shabaab being on the constant rise, the west is beginning to pay more attention to Africa as a threat (Glazebrook, 2015, Crisis Group, 2014). However, looking into the future an even more daunting issue may be the effect of climate change or ‘climate terror’. Effects of climate change in countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan creates ‘underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit and may lead to state failure’ even though they contribute relatively little to greenhouse gases. Quoting Noam Chomsky, Colin Fleming notes that ‘terrorists “draw from a reservoir of anger, fear and desperation”’ and there will be an ‘overwhelming abundance of all three’ if climate change is not dealt with (Fleming, 2011). Climate change then represents somewhat of a two-pronged attack in which both climate change itself and the resulting unrest and extremism will only further affect the prosperity of these failed states far into the 21st century.

In defining a failed state there are multiple features and characteristics that build upon the simplified GPF classification. The Fund for Peace splits these into social, economic and political and military ‘indicators’ comprising of factors such as state legitimacy, group grievance, poverty and economic decline and external intervention to name a few. Countries are rated on a scale of 0.00 to 10.00 on all of these twelve categories, with the resulting total being used to rate the fragility of a state. South Sudan tops the 2015 list with a total of 114.5 followed by Somalia with 114.0. Afghanistan places eighth scoring 107.9, showing a rise of 1.4 from the previous year (FFP, 2015). While this ‘fragile states index’ (FSI) is widely seen as a barometer for state performance, it has been criticised for being inaccurate and counter-productive as it ‘dangerously conflates key concepts in what makes a state a state’ and therefore clouds the judgement regarding what constitutes it being deemed ‘failing’ or ‘failed’ (Beehner and Young, 2014). To return to Somalia as an example, Mwangi Kimenyi describes the state as in a ‘precarious equilibrium, resulting in what may appear as paradoxically both a functional and stable, stateless society’, suggesting that, while obviously flawed, the state is operating to some degree and is in fact not completely failed. Jeffrey Herbst supports this, outlining that ‘focusing on state breakdown is a mistake, because societies and economies can function in the absence of states, while state authorities in postcolonial environments are often inhumane and ineffective’ (Herbst, 1997). Relating back to Afghanistan, this can clearly be seen in the tyrannical warlord central government whose actions were arguably as bad if not worse than the Islamist factions the United States and UK were fighting. Elliot Ross furthers this critique of the FSI, describing it as ‘a sloppy cocktail of cultural bigotries and liberal-democratic commonplaces — a faux-empirical sham that packs quite a nasty racialized aftertaste’ that Claire Leigh feels ‘could even exacerbate the instability it seeks to describe by undermining citizens’ confidence in their country’s ability to transform itself.’ (Ross, 2012, Leigh, 2012). As a result there has been a move to somewhat abandon the failed state concept and replace it simply with the term ‘fragile’. A main reason for this comes again from Leigh who believes that the term ‘Failed means there is no way back’, with the discourse representing a ‘binary division between those countries that are salvageable and those beyond redemption’ (Leigh, 2012). Animasawun and Saka note ‘an observed pattern of lumping states together under the category of ‘failed states’’ since the early 2000’s ’despite the fact that they do not share many similarities, with disregard for the conceptual issues and practical challenges peculiar to each state’, resulting in ‘misleading generalisations in policy responses to states in the ‘failed state’ category’ such as Somalia and Afghanistan (Animasawun and Saka, 2013).

When writing on such a dense topic as this it is almost impossible to cover every issue contributing to a state failing. However, the main aim of this essay was to outline what contemporary issues in the 21st century not only reinforced perceptions of current failed states but also challenged the very legitimacy of the term ‘failed state’ itself in modern political discourse. This essay has rather categorically used western foreign policy and its implications as an overwhelming reason for state failure in the 21st century, not intentionally but instead based upon the evidence put forward by numerous academics and writers. It has been observed that it is also not simply the policy itself but also the way in which the term ‘failed state’ is used to ‘delineate the acceptable range of policy options that can then be exercised against those states’ – leading some academics and writers to call the concept a ‘myth’ (Ross, 2013, Bøås and Jennings, 2007). While this may seem biased, this essay sees no other option but to highlight this prominent issue and how it affects developing ‘failed’ or ‘fragile’ states. Looking forward, the impact of climate change may in fact overtake the impact of any human effect purely due to the fact that it is largely inevitable, but until then and equipped with the evidence of today, there can be no denying the distressing effect countries such as the United States and UK have on countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia. It must also be said that this is irrespective of the intentions of such foreign policy as it would be trivial to turn such a topic into a conspiracy theory. No matter the intention, there is an almost overwhelmingly powerful argument that can and has been made for this issue being the quintessential factor in the 21st century failed state debate.



Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. (2012). 10 Reasons Countries Fall Apart. (Global Policy, https://www.globalpolicy.org/nations-a-states/failed-states/52061-10-reasons-countries-fall-apart.html?itemid=id#30491)

Animasawun, G. and Saka, L. (2013). Causal analysis of radical Islamism in northern Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. (African Security Review, 22(4), pp.216-231.)

Beehner, L. and Young, J. (2014). Is ranking failed or fragile states a futile business? (Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/07/14/is-ranking-failed-or-fragile-states-a-futile-business)

Bøås, M. and Jennings, K. (2007). ‘Failed States’ and ‘State Failure’: Threats or Opportunities? (Globalizations, 4(4), pp.475-485.)

Brinkerhoff, D. (2014). State fragility and failure as wicked problems: beyond naming and taming. (Third World Quarterly, 35(2), pp.333-344.)

Britannica, (ND). Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (http://www.britannica.com/event/Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan)

Crisis Group, (2014). Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War. (Crisis Group http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/horn-of-africa/somalia/b099-somalia-al-shabaab-it-will-be-a-long-war.aspx)

Curtis, A. (2015). Bitter Lake. (BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gyz6b/adam-curtis-bitter-lake)

Fleming, C. (2011). Climate Terror: Global Warming, Failed States, and the Rise of Terrorism. (The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/colin-j-fleming/climate-terror-global-war_b_427608.html)

Fund for Peace, (2012). Afghanistan Country Profile. (http://www.fundforpeace.org/global/states/ccppr11af-countryprofile-afghanistan-11t.pdf)

Fund for Peace, (2015). The Fragile States Index 2015. (http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2015)

Glazebrook, D. (2015). ‘Deadliest terror group in the world’: The West’s latest gift to Africa. (RT. https://www.rt.com/op-edge/323656-deadliest-terror-boko-haram/)

Global Policy, (ND). Failed States. (https://www.globalpolicy.org/nations-a-states/failed-states.html)

Hanlon, Q., Shultz, R., Godson, R. and Ravich, S. (2012). States in the 21st Century. (Geopolitics, History, and International Relation, 4, p.28.)

Herbst, J. (1997). Responding to State Failure in Africa. (International Security, 22(2), p.175.)

Howard, T. (2014). Failed states and the origins of violence. (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.)

Kimenyi, M. (2010). Fractionalized, Armed and Lethal: Why Somalia Matters. (The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2010/02/03-somalia-kimenyi)

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine. (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.)

Krasner, S. and Pascual, C. (2005). Addressing State Failure. (Foreign Affairs, 84(4), p.153.)

Leigh, C. (2012). Failed States Index belongs in the policy dustbin. (the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/jul/02/failed-states-index-policy-dustbin)

Marten, K. (2007). Warlordism in Comparative Perspective. (International Security, 31(3), pp.41-73.)

Ross, E. (2012). The failed index from hell*. (Africa is a Country. http://africasacountry.com/?p=52349)

Ross, E. (2013). Failed states are a western myth. (the Guardian.                 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/28/failed-states-western-myth-us-interests)

Rotberg, R. (2002). Failed States in a World of Terror. (Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/fragile-or-failed-states/failed-states-world-terror/p4733)

Schwartz, M. (2011). Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis. (Congressional Research Service. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R40764.pdf)

Sekhar, C. (2010). Fragile States: The Role of Social, Political, and Economic Factors. (Journal of Developing Societies, 26, pp.263-293.)

Sluka, J. (2002). Comment. (Anthropology Today, 18(2), pp.22-27.)

Vázquez del Pino, T. (2011). Afghanistan: the ‘failed state’ as status quo? (European View, 10(2), pp.187-194.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s