Mar 21, 2011 | Event Summary

One of my lasting impressions from the ISA Convention in Montreal last week is that the international community needs to rethink the post 9/11 assumption that failed states should be viewed through a security rather than a humanitarian lens.   There is a remarkable degree of consensus among SSR donor states’ national security strategies that failed states are the weak link in global collective security and that citizens in the developed world are more threatened by state weakness than state strength.

Several different panels challenged this global failed states narrative, asserting that with some exceptions these states tend to only threaten the security of their own citizens rather than the international community, and that “ungoverned spaces” in failed states are not anarchical, but instead governed by an array of non-state actors. 

One panel discussed Stewart Patrick’s forthcoming book, “Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security,” where he argues that the relationship between state weakness and threat is based on conventional wisdom rather than empirical evidence, and is more complex than usually assumed (some of his earlier work on the subject is available here). His book develops a detailed index of state weakness and tests the correlation between state weakness and threats from transnational terrorism, WMD proliferation, transnational crime, energy security, and global infectious disease, finding that the more serious security threat comes from stronger developing countries, who have higher capacity but critical weaknesses (such as corruption). Part of the explanation for this surprising result is that non-state security actors rely on the machinery of globalization–banks, internet access, airports–to operate, and cannot function well where these things do not exist.

These findings call into question the shift from a humanitarian to a security focus in our policy towards failed states and statebuilding in the aftermath of 9/11. Our attempts to “impose order” on the world’s ungoverned spaces are hindered by a poor understanding of the role of the non-state security and justice actors who provide state-like functions in these societies. Another panel, featuring the authors of “Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty,” observed that in and of themselves, ungoverned spaces are not a danger to national or international security. Rather, it is the contestation between state and non-state authority that tends to produce violence. Thus ungoverned spaces in weak states (rather than failed states) are more threatening.

My overall impression is that we should be much more critical of the assumption, now adopted by both the security and development communities, that all failed states represent a threat to global security. Though this is undoubtedly true in some cases, the assumption that all failed states are something to protect against or contain implies an overarching concern with those outside these states, rather than the citizens within who are most affected by state failure.