The failed state is to post-modernity what the nation-state was to modernity. It’s a recent development that is a hallmark of our age – like a state, but incapable of exercising sovereignty over all of its nominal territory. And while it might sound a little far-fetched, the failed state isn’t just coming to the West. It might already be here.
A failed state is a state no longer exercising effective control over the whole of its nominal territory. This can take a number of forms in practice, such as:
One or several of these factors can be present in a failed state. Once a state is “failed,” this often means widespread crime, corruption and outsized influence by non-state actors.
You and anyone else can have an opinion on whether or not a state is failed. Politicians have less leeway, as calling a state “failed” can result in serious geopolitical consequences. As a result, most politicians would be hesitant to describe any state as “failed.”
The “Fragile States Index” (FSI) is calculated by the U.S.-based think tank Fund for Peace. They use a number of objective and subjective factors to determine whether or not a state is failed (or “fragile” as they call it) by scanning media for indicators of social, economic and political failure or fragility in a country.
Among the top-ten most fragile states include: South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe. Haiti is the first representative from the Western Hemisphere at number 12. The next appearance in the Americas is Venezuela at 46, followed by Colombia at 71. Of the 10 most stable countries, eight are in Europe (Finland, Norway and Switzerland get the gold, silver and bronze respectively) and two are in Oceania (unsurprisingly, Australia and New Zealand). The most stable non-Western country is Singapore at 161, followed by Japan at 158 and Mauritius at 151.
The FSI does not hold a monopoly on deciding what nations are and are not “failed.” It is, however, the only major organization ranking countries.
Most people under 40 were probably introduced to the concept of a “failed state” by Somalia, after the collapse of its dictatorship in the early 1990s. This led to an extended American adventure in Somalia, resulting in the events described in Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. Not only were American lives lost, but so was a significant amount of American prestige, as Washington neocons got their first bitter taste of “nation-building” in a nation which didn’t want to be built. The central government collapsed and nothing effectively replaced it.
To this day, some organizations operating within Somalia claim to be the ruling authority. Others claim to be separate, but completely legitimate nations. And those who must do business in Somali waters arm themselves via floating barges filled with guns and ammunition to fight off pirates.
As with most things, the answer to this question depends on how we define “failed state.” For example, the presence of terrorism within a state doesn’t necessarily make it a failure, but rampant terrorism is a signature feature of a failed state. No one would suggest that the 9/11 attacks on America make it a failed state. However, the constant terrorist attacks against the Afghan state might be an argument in favor of Afghanistan as a failed state.
A more useful concept in terms of understanding whether or not failed states are coming to Europe is the so-called “No Go Zone.” United States President Donald Trump made headlines when he suggested that Sweden was on the verge of civil war or collapse. The press quickly lambasted him. How could this possibly be true of a country ranking in the top ten most stable countries in the world?
There are two answers to this question: First, the Fragile States Index measures how failed a state is, not how likely it is to become a failed state in the near future. Second, the manner by which Sweden might become a failed state could be something completely novel – and why wouldn’t it be, as Sweden would be the first failed state in Western Europe?
Yugoslavia might be the model for this. Remember, Yugoslavia was a stable nation until it wasn’t. It then turned into a bloodbath that defined a generation. While it’s tempting to blame this on Communist rule, nowhere else in Europe has there been similar levels of bloodshed. Other multinational Communist states such as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union broke apart with very little fuss and almost no spilled blood.
A little-known story about 21st-century Europe is that it’s filled with secessionist movements. Catalonia, a region currently part of Spain, made headlines when it voted overwhelmingly to declare independence.
In fact, there are dozens of secessionist movements in Western Europe operating at any given time. Some are more serious than others. For example, Catalonia voted decisively to leave Spain, which led to a constitutional crisis. Scotland came pretty close to voting to leave the United Kingdom. Some other active secessionist movements in Western Europe include:
If any of these secessionist movements gains enough traction to break apart a Western European nation state, that could result in civil war and failed states without help from any other factors.