The concept of a failed state is one which is often associated with nonwhite and Third World countries, whether developing or underdeveloped. While the advanced countries, including the United States, will point to these nations as examples of what not to become, some voices are pointing to America itself as an example of a failed state and a failed democracy.
Nation-states fail for a number of reasons, such as internal violence, a loss in legitimacy of the government, and the inability of the state to deliver to its citizens. The concept of state failure is an old one, and history shows that most nation-states have failed rather than endured.
The Fund for Peace publishes an annual report called the Fragile States Index, which examines qualitative and quantitative data on 178 countries, the pressures they experience, and the extent to which those pressures surpass their capacity to manage them. Using criteria such as human rights, the rule of law, state legitimacy and economic decline, nations are given a score ranging from 0 for the most “sustainable” countries, to 120 for nations under the highest state of “alert,” and states in-between ranging from “stable” to “warning” status.
Two prime candidates for failed states are Libya and Syria, which are among the most deteriorated nations of the decade. Libya is the 23rd-most fragile nation in the world, with a score of 96.3 out of 120 on the index. With the NATO-backed 2011 uprising leading to the end of Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, the NATO allies had no robust reconstruction plan to stabilize the country. Oil production collapsed, and with it the economy. Beset by rival warring militias controlling various territories and resources, and even rival governments, Libya’s Porous borders have allowed for the smuggling of people and weapons, the infiltration of ISIS, and a migrant crisis in which 150,000 passed through the North African nation to Europe in each of the past three years, with more than 11,200 people drowning in the Mediterranean.
Some 300,000 Libyans have been displaced and 1.3 million require humanitarian assistance. Claims of human rights abuses are rampant — including slave labor, sexual slavery and the detention and beating of sub-Saharan African migrants. A UN-backed government has failed to solve issues of security, stability and energy shortages in Africa’s most oil-rich nation, and the resulting power vacuum has allowed extremist groups to gain a foothold. Once ruled by a highly centralized government during the Ottoman Empire and up to the autocratic Qaddafi regime but now lacking a cohesive political structure, the nation is on the brink of chaos.
Syria is the fifth-most fragile nation in the Fragile States Index, with a score of 110.6 out of 120. Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000, cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protesters in 2011, leading to unrest and a civil war. An estimated 400,000 people have been killed since 2011, 6.5 million have been internally displaced — 2.8 million of them children — and an additional 5 million have left Syria. Syria has emerged as a stage for non-state actors such as ISIS.
Ranked 158 out of 178 nations on the Fragile States Index, the United States is not in as dire a situation as Libya or Syria in terms of instability, by any stretch of the imagination. However, America is not among the most sustainable countries, and has emerged as a country on the decline in 2017 due to dramatic spikes in three criteria: Security Apparatus (security threats facing a nation, crime, arms proliferation and police and military monopolies on the use of force), Group Grievance (social and political divisions in society, such as inequality, group hatred and oppression and communal violence), and Factionalized Elites (nationalism and xenophobia by ruling elites, extremist rhetoric ).
These upticks were attributed to the divisive and vitriolic 2016 presidential campaign, with its wedge issues and racial undertones, and polarizing xenophobic and Islamophobic messaging. Further, high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black people sparked protests throughout the country, reflecting America’s heightened racial tension.
According to the Failed States Index, Americans suffer from economic distress and widening inequality over the past decade as people slip through the cracks. Although the overall economy is improving, society as a whole is not well, and even white Americans are experiencing increased death rates due to suicide and alcoholism.
“Inequality is difficult to measure because depending on how the population is divided up, there are very different results in terms of how much the ‘winners’ are winning and how much the ‘losers’ are losing,” the report said. “[V]irtually everybody has running water and toilet facilities. However … there are losers in this economy, including many in mining, manufacturing and retail. And even running water, though virtually universal, is not always as dependable as once taken for granted, as evidenced in Flint, Michigan and many other communities across the country.”
A report from Harvard Business School — entitled “Why competition in the politics industry is failing America: A strategy for reinvigorating our democracy” — has concluded that the U.S. political system, “long the envy of the world,” is the major barrier to solving virtually all of the country’s problems. The authors, Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, found that the political system is not broken, but rather is doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is represent the interests of political parties and their industry allies rather than serve the public interest.
According to the authors, compared to other advanced nations, the United States has stalled or reversed on tolerance and inclusion, public education, health, safety, environmental quality and other issues. “There is a long list of culprits commonly blamed for our political problems: the influence of special interests, the role of big money, the decline of bipartisanship, the polarization of the American public, and, most recently, the proliferation of fake news,” the report says. “Many of these play a role, but they are symptoms. The underlying root cause is the kind of political competition that the parties have created, including their insulation from new competition that would better serve the public interest.”
The HBS report calls for a number of reforms to America’s system of elections and governance, including nonpartisan redistricting, ranked-choice voting with instant runoffs, ending partisan rules in Congress, reforming money in politics and ensuring Democrats and Republicans are always threatened with potential competition from other political forces.
Others have weighed in on the issue, which has become timely in the age of Trump but precedes him and points to a larger challenge. Foreign Policy noted that the United States has the makings of a failed state and a banana republic. “Our government has ceased to function. Party politics and gross self-interest has rendered the majority party oblivious to its responsibilities to its constituents and the Constitution of the United States,” wrote Foreign Policy, decrying the attack on basic freedoms such as freedom of religion and separation of powers, as Republicans allow Trump to profit from the presidency and promote policies that benefit his cronies and harm the majority of Americans. New York Magazine pointed to Trump’s firing of FBI James Comey as evidence of erosion of the rule of law and the use of national institutions for personal gain, signs of democratic collapse and part of a disturbing trend among established democracies.
In his book “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy” Noam Chomsky argues that while the definition of a failed state is imprecise, there are certain characteristics, which pertain to the United States. “One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression,” Chomsky wrote. “And if they have democratic forms, they suffer from a serious ‘democratic deficit’ that deprives their formal democratic institutions of real substance.”
Like other failed states, the United States, Chomsky contends, fails “to provide security for the population, to guarantee rights at home or abroad, or to maintain functioning (not merely formal) democratic institutions.” Pointing to the “sharp divide” between public opinion and public policy, he says the American system is in trouble and headed towards the end of equality, freedom and democracy. The U.S. government is behaving in ways that increase the likelihood of nuclear war and environmental disaster.
If the U.S. is a failed or failing state, one of the benefits of acknowledging this reality would be society’s ability to intervene in its socioeconomic and political institutions, take corrective action and enact the necessary reforms to reverse course and stem the tide. This assumes, of course, that the nation possesses the will to act, or even appreciates the scope of the crisis.