Thursday, May 04, 2006

MFS1: Introduction

Musings on Failed States, Part 1

Because there are no more exams to grade and because I’m not quite ready to jump into the summer’s big project, I want to begin a series of posts on the issue of failed states. Why? Perhaps it’s a way of making the psychological transition from failed exams (the teaching function) to nation-states (the research function). It’s a transition that can be conceptualized something like this:

FAILED exam - i - nation STATE

(Okay, I admit I got way too much sun sitting through the commencement ceremonies last Saturday.)

The real answer to the question of why I want to write about failed states is this: A couple of posts on other blogs along with a couple of comments from a reader of Swords Into Plowshares have prompted me to begin thinking about failed states in somewhat different terms than I have in the past. So, I want to do the blogging equivalent of thinking out loud with some posts I’ll label “Musings on Failed States,” or MFS for short.

By way of introduction, let me share the posts and comments I’ve been trying to tie together.

First of all, in an exchange in the comments here, a reader mentioned a preference for limited government. (Something similar appeared in another comment recently. Apparently the blog has been infiltrated by libertarians.) That would have been unremarkable (after all, some of my best really self-interested friends are libertarians) and insufficient to prompt me to think about failed states except that, at about the same time I was responding to one of the comments, I read Matthew Gross’s post (here) pointing me toward an anguished commentary on post-Katrina New Orleans by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King.

Clearly, the United States has failed New Orleans thus far. Why? One possibility--just a possibility--is that those who are most committed to the proposition that government shouldn’t do much are not likely to be very good at doing what government must do. To put it differently, you might like going to a doctor who doesn’t believe in surgery, but when you conclude that you really do need surgery, she's not likely to be the one you want to have operating on you.

But what does any of this have to do with failed states? Perhaps nothing, but our failure to render adequate assistance to New Orleans makes me wonder just how different a typical failed state would be from a libertarian’s ideal state. (Of course, there is no "typical" failed state. Perhaps there's also no "ideal" state for libertarians.) The practical differences between, say, Somalia and some imaginary laissez-faire paradise would no doubt be enormous, but I suspect (1) the theories of "governance" would not be that different and (2) the practical differences could perhaps best be explained by reference to a tipping point that separates freedom from anarchy. (This needs more elaboration, I know, but I'll come back to it in part 2 on the "Zone of Democracy.")

A more systematic (although still highly problematic) way of thinking about this issue was presented, fortuitously, by a post I read at Coming Anarchy that pointed me in the direction of the Failed States Index recently published by Foreign Policy. The Index is based on an evaluation of the instability of states in twelve areas. Here are the top--or rather, the bottom--ten states in the ranking:

  1. Sudan
  2. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  3. Ivory Coast
  4. Iraq
  5. Zimbabwe
  6. Chad
  7. Somalia
  8. Haiti
  9. Pakistan
  10. Afghanistan

(Four more Stans appear among the bottom 45 on the list. Oddly, Berserkistan is nowhere to be found.)

There's much more to explore. In addition to the "Zone of Democracy," I want to consider the role of war in prompting (or preventing) state failure. There are also human rights issues to consider. But all of that must wait for MFS2 and beyond.