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Definition: failed state from Collins English Dictionary


1 a weak state where social and political structures have collapsed to the point where the government has little or no control

Summary Article: Failed States from Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The metaphor of “failed states” or “failing states” enjoys considerable popularity among commentators of global developments and policymakers alike, although both the concept and the reality of states thus described are contested. The debate on failed states started in the late 1990s in response to empirical observations made since the beginning of the decade on what is seen commonly as a loss of the monopoly of violence in the Weberian sense by states, often in an environment of violent conflict. This debate developed against the background of changes in the global order after the end of the Cold War, responses to the apparent decline of empirical statehood in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the post-Soviet empire as well as increased international perceptions of threat and disorder.

Despite the occurrence of empirical observations at a global scale, the academic and political debate mainly focuses on Africa, namely, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (in some—misguided—cases this is even extended to cases of “bad governance” and gross human rights violations such as in Zimbabwe or Sudan). In failed or failing states, governments are challenged by armed groups, often with specific regional or transnational entanglements. These governments are losing control over large parts of state territory and are no longer able to perform key state functions such as the provision of public goods and security. In a limited number of cases, new forms of stateness have arisen from violent conflict. Somaliland and Puntland, which historically have been part of the independent state of Somalia that went into fully fledged civil war in 1990, are examples of this.

Academic Debate

The nature of the African state in particular has been questioned for some time. Among others, Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg have focused on problems of limited forms of sovereignty, which they labeled quasi states—that is, those states which merely display symbols of stateness but do not enjoy their empirical substance. These states survived during the Cold War because the principles of international law protected their very existence (under sovereignty, territorial integrity, or noninterference). William Reno referred to these cases as “weak states.” But once the regime-stabilizing function of the Cold War had come to an end and the first violent conflicts developed in Africa, these states came under stress. Numerous authors tried to label these developments and, in doing so, gave meaning to the processes unfolding at that time. Some simply described their observations using the term state collapse or state failure. Others tried to develop a more analytical language and referred to processes of state inversion, state dysfunctionality, or state decay. From a more general, global perspective, which also takes into account developments in the Balkans and in the territories of the former Soviet Union, some authors imagined these developments as complex political emergencies or new wars—the latter pointing to an erosion of the state monopoly of violence, the rise of interstate wars (as opposed to intrastate wars), and the precedence of wars over questions of identity (rather than ideology). Concerning Africa, Christopher Clapham highlights the apparent existence of “degrees of statehood,” stopping short of developing a systematic typology. Gero Erdmann tries to close this gap when he combines territorial and functional variables to define three degrees of “incomplete stateness”: state failure, state decline, and state decay, the latter characterized by a partial or total loss of the monopoly of violence.

Political Debate

In international politics, in particular in development as well as in security politics, the debate on failed and failing states, first, is an extension of the debate on governance of the 1980s (bad governance was singled out as the most important factor in understanding Africa's economic decline), and, second, post-9/11 arguments in the context of the global War on Terror and its securitizing effects. Thus, in the context of the developmental debate, the World Bank discovered “low income countries under stress,” and the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development talks of “difficult partnerships”—both institutions refer mainly to post-conflict countries where the traditional instruments of development policy increasingly have failed and had to be replaced by new approaches. In (security) politics actors often use the language of fragile states or failing states when referring to a group of countries in which, according to their reading, the monopoly of violence has been lost as a consequence of violent conflict. In these cases, the international community quickly designed policies of humanitarian intervention, postwar reconstruction, conflict prevention, and, after September 11, 2001, a variety of anti-terrorist interventions to deal with what was perceived as the most pressing security threat faced by the United States and its allies.

A Global Studies Perspective

First and foremost, speaking about failing states is a distinctive way of framing empirical observations and, as such, it reflects certain implicit or explicit political interests. However, seen from a comparative perspective of historicity of stateness, the empirical observations since the mid-1990s as highlighted earlier can be reinterpreted in a different way. The African state (and possible others as well) has not failed, but what clearly has failed is the postcolonial social construction and related imagery of “the state” in Africa (or even “the African state”). The common frame of reference for mainstream academics and practitioners is the notion of the (nation-)state as it seemingly has developed in Europe since the 17th century. This image mirrors the definition of stateness as coined by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), which is built around the trinity of territory, people, and sovereignty. Related to the rise of the nation-state is the emergence, after 1648, of the so-called Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states. Analysis on failing states and policy responses to failing states are driven by an implied need to restore this particular idea of a specific regime of territorialization, always following normative models based on Western experiences.

This argument draws on a number of important academic insights. Both the discussion on the historicity of social institutions of domination in Africa as well as socio-anthropological bottom-up perspectives on how public authority actually works in an environment of weak stateness have drawn attention to a broad spectrum of empirical types of authority, which work against most of the assumptions of the common wisdom and its Weberian inspiration. The empirical types of exercising authority (especially in Africa) range from stateless societies, decentralized power, local polykephaly, and oligopolies of power to precolonial empirical statehood. Early states and stateless societies coexisted. Historically, the decentralized use of force and local pluralism in law seem to be the standard case, not the exception. Historians and anthropologists stress the autochthon foundations of the African state and the successful appropriation of colonial institutions. Sociologists have conceptualized the longue durée of exercising authority as a process of sedimentation in which historically grown and practiced claims of domination are continuously superimposed by new generations of social institutions of domination. In this context, the recent realignments between local warlords and foreign companies have been described as a déjà vu of 19th-century alliances between fragmented authorities and commercial entities of European origin.

Traditional political science-based arguments on failing states are also challenged by recent debates emerging from critical or new political geography. The empirical observations depicted earlier can also be interpreted in terms of an unbundling of sovereignty and territoriality. Obviously the notion of sovereignty underlying this debate differs from conventional wisdom. Mainstream international relations notions of sovereignty depict it as the ultimate ordering principle of international relations, which separates the inside and the outside, the domestic and the foreign. The notion of sovereignty, which is constitutive for an alternative perspective advocated here, is concerned mainly with the social production of sovereignty. Hence sovereignty, most generally defined as the recognition of the claim by a state to exercise supreme authority over a clearly defined territory, is not a single norm, but an institution comprising several, sometimes conflicting, norms and is associated with a bundle of properties, such as territory, population, autonomy, authority, control, and recognition. The different ontological properties of sovereignty in fact need to be deconstructed in their specific historical and geographical contexts. As John A. Agnew (2005) holds, “Sovereignty is neither inherently territorial nor is it exclusively organized on a state-by-state basis” (p. 237).

In parts of the world, and most clearly in substantial parts of Africa, this “unbundling” of sovereignty and territory is fairly evident. It can be described conceptually as a dialectic process of (violent) ways of deterritorialization and forms of reterritorialization. In some empirical cases, states have lost their significance as the dominant form of organizing people and territory; in others, new forms of para-stateness have arisen. Rather than describing these phenomena in terms of “failing states” and prescribing the quick fixes of international development or security politics, those scholars with heterodox approaches to the study of political order have given up attempts to use questionable analytical categories and policy recipes. Instead, in a very modest way, they propagate the need to map the variety of overlapping and competing institutional orders and to chart the different ways of exercising authority or claiming sovereignty in Africa (for examples, see Thomas Callaghy, Ronald Kassimir, and Robert Latham on transboundary formations and Ulf Engel and Andreas Mehler on a typology of how African states lose the monopoly of violence). At a more generalizing level of theory building on the place of failed states in the global order, the remapping of authority in Africa and other parts of the world has led to a questioning of linear narratives of global history based on Weberian or Westphalian ideals.

See also:

Cold War, Global Conflict and Security, Global Governance and World Order, Law, International, Legitimacy, Nation-State, Sovereignty, Westphalia, Treaty of, and the Post-Westphalian World

Further Readings
  • Agnew, J. Sovereignty regimes: Territoriality and state authority in contemporary world politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95 : 437-461., .
  • Andersen, L.(2005). International engagement in failed states—choices and trade-offs (DIIS Working Paper No. 2005/20). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Institute for International Studies.
  • Callaghy, T.,Kassimir, R., &Latham, R. (Eds.).(2001). Intervention and transnationalism in Africa: Globallocal networks of power. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clapham, C. Discerning the new Africa. International Affairs, 74 : 263-270., .
  • Cliffe, L.; Luckham, R. Complex political emergencies and state: Failure and the fate of the state. Third World Quarterly, 20 : 27-50., .
  • Engel, U.Mehler, A.(2005). “Under construction”: Governances in Africa's new violent social spaces. In Engel, U. & Olsen, G. R. (Eds.), The African exception (87-102). London: Ashgate.
  • Erdmann, G.(2003). Apokalyptische Staatlichkeit: Staatsversagen, Staatsverfall und Staatszerfall— strukturelle Probleme der Demokratie in Afrika [Apocalyptic statehood: State failure, state decline and state decay—structural problems of democracy in Africa]. In Bendel, P. et al. (Eds.), Staat in der Transition(pp. 267-292). Opladen, Germany: Leske + Budrich.
  • Forrest, J. B.(1998). State inversion and nonstate politics. In Villalón, L. A. & Huxtable, P. A. (Eds.), The African state at a critical juncture. Between disintegration and reconfiguration(pp. 45-56). Boulder, CO: Rienner.
  • Jackson, R.; Rosberg, C. G. Sovereignty and underdevelopment: Juridical statehood in the African crisis. Journal of Modern African Studies, 24 : 1-31., .
  • Mbembe, A.(2002). At the edge of the world: Boundaries, territoriality, and sovereignty in Africa. In Beissinger, M. R. & Young, C. (Eds.), Beyond state crisis? Postcolonial Africa and post-Soviet Eurasia in comparative perspective(pp. 53-79). Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  • Reno, W.(1998). Warlord politics and African states. Boulder, CO: Rienner.
  • U.S. Agency for International Development.(2005, January). Fragile states strategy. Washington, DC: Author.
  • World Bank.(2002, September). World Bank Group in low-income countries under stress: A task force report. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
  • Zartman, W. I. (Ed.). (1995). Collapsed states: The disintegration and restoration of legitimate authority. Boulder, CO: Rienner.
  • Zaum, D.(2007). The sovereignty paradox: The norms and politics of international statebuilding. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Websites
  • Foreign Policy:
  • National Security Council:
  • Engel, Ulf
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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