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Failed States and the International System

Updated on December 28, 2012

The threats posed by failed states, once thought to be limited to their own boarders, are now acknowledged as potentially international as lack of an effective global government permits the chaos to spread. The phenomenon that is ‘failed states’ has continued to perplexed and bedevil theorists and analysts of international relations (hereinafter, IR) since the end of the Cold War. The end of bipolarity plunged the world into disarray and there has been a growing developed-world consensus that sees failed states as the pre-eminent global threat. Failed states are, of course, still regarded as an anomaly in the international system due to the idealised Westphalian concept of a 'state' that stresses the principle of the inviolability of borders. The biggest challenges to the international system are failed states, for they are not bound to abide to any international law nor can they participate in the international system i.e. Somalia is unable to truly sign any international treaties due to an ineffective/non-existent government.

The concepts of states and sovereignty are each socially constructed. They are defined and redefined by the rules, actions and practices of different agents, including in the case of states, by themselves. For the world’s powerful states and international organisations (hereinafter, IOs), it appears that failed states and their potential externalities i.e. security dilemmas (Somalia getting invaded by Ethiopia in 2006) and an overflow of refugees into neighbouring countries borders are now core security concerns in IR. For example, the United States’ latest “National Security Strategy”, released in May 2010, proclaims the “dark side” of globalisation- international terrorism, the spread of destructive technologies, economic upheaval and a changing climate-to be the gravest threat to US national security; thus America seeks to rebuild some of these failed states, whose weakness supposedly permits some of these risks to develop and multiply. So I ask is international system/community ill-equipped to deal with failed states? Furthermore will powerful states like the US, UK & EU need to have ‘Failed-State Policies’ in order to deal with them and preserve the idealized Westphalian sovereignty and international trade?


By definition, state sovereignty is supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community in a defined territory, thus in the international system, a state is a border-bound entity expected to perform certain functions. Whereas in the new distressing phenomenon of a failed state, states become incapable of maintaining themselves as members of the international community and would jeopardize their own populace and terrorize their neighbours through civil war, warlordism, refugee inflow, and political instability much like Somalia. This then creates a spectrum of functionality, with strong states at one end, failed states at the opposite extreme and weak or fragile states somewhere inbetween. State failure can transpire in many ways such as security, economic development and growth, political instability, income distribution and so forth. According to Rotberg, nation-states fail because they can no longer deliver positive political goods to their citizens. Their governments lose legitimacy, and in the eyes and hearts of a growing plurality of its citizens, the nation-state itself becomes illegitimate. This then makes in easy for that failed state to become a breeding ground/haven for terrorist organisation which threaten Western livelihood as exemplified by Yemen who's borders contain at least three Al-Queda and Taliban training grounds.

With this, the presence of gangs, criminal syndicates, arms and drug-trafficking dramatically increase as a result of the state’s inability to provide security from violent non-state actors and thus people seek protection from warlords or other armed rivals of the state i.e. usually terrorist organisations or rebel groups. Another indicator of a failed states concerns their inability to control their borders and/or significant chunks of their territory, again, with this we have these criminal syndicates, warlords and terrorist organisations fighting over territory for profit or strategic reasons; for instance the terrorist group Al Shabab in Somalia, according to Al Jezzera, control up to 80% of central and southern Somalia which it uses a strategic plan to recruit and mount attacks against the government. The only way the international system has attempted to deal with Somalia or any failed state is through the means military intervention and providing humanitarian aid. In 1992, the clan warfare and warlordism that wrought Somalia was put to ‘an end’ when the international system decided to act in Somalia in order to depose the then ‘president’, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who was often described as a warlord. He was one of the main targets of, alongside other warlords, Operation Restore Hope in the UN and US joint military operation; the UN Security Council Resolution 733 and the UN Security Council Resolution 746 led to the creation of UNOSOM I, which was the first mission to provide humanitarian aid and help restore order in Somalia after the collapse of its government. In a case like Somalia, are military interventions needed and the answer is yes. The logic behind this is simple, as a failed-state, Somalia has lost its function to monopolize violence and law thus allowing opposing militia to privatize force; this in turn leads to warlordism, criminality through trafficking (people &drugs), terrorism and exclusively in Somalia, piracy. The fixity of the failed-states by the international community and powerful states reminds us that the multiple diseases that plague these places are very resistant to being cured, whether by domestic actors or outsiders.

Although the recent examples of Afghanistan and Haiti are not encouraging enough to make military interventions the remedy for failed states; however there is hope, looking at Liberia and Sierra Leone, we can see that military interventions have been pulled back these states from the edge of sheer chaos in the recent years, and delivered them at a sound peace. Somalia is a state that can no longer control its borders; it has lost its ability to maintain its territory, as a result, there is an overflow of refugees fleeing the war torn country.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is not that the answer to failed states is to send in an army, but rather that, at times of absolute calamity, the international system and powerful state can change the directions of failed states by applying force to depose dictators or thwart their plains for gaining more power. But intervention is itself a sign of failure, a failure to anticipate the moment of crisis, this is perfectly exemplified Operation Restore Hope whose mandate was to use "all necessary means" to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid in accordance to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter but sadly failed in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993) in an unsuccessful attempt to catch the warlord Aidid. Although some of these operations were not successful, military interventions still remains the best hope for failed-states; in the realist assumption, military intervention are only necessary if a) the benefits outweighs the cost and b) to protect national interest i.e. resources or to keep influence in that region. In addition, in recent years, America has again been active in that region, carrying out air strikes in Somalia against suspected jihadist camps. It supported Ethiopia’s military invasion in 2006 to defeat the Islamist militias that had taken power in Mogadishu (arguably causing even more chaos)…the waters off the Somali coast, moreover, have become one of the prime zones of piracy at sea, disrupting shipping through the Suez Canal. Even China has felt the need to send warships to the Gulf of Aden to protect its shipping. Any new policy toward failed states needs to focus on prevention rather than reaction, not only to avoid the need for military force, but also because in many places intervention simply will not be possible; the prime example of the dreadful consequences of ignoring early signs of warnings is, of course, Rwanda, where U.N. officials and the Security Council ignored repeated warnings of an impending genocide and reacted late to stop the killing.

All in all, the international community is ill-equipped to deal with failed states as military interventions are signs of a failure to anticipate early warning signals of a state in disarray. The only way the international community can remedy failed states is by a 'bottom-up' approach in which they examine the causes on the anomaly and find a peaceful, less violent way of dealing with it.


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    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 5 years ago from Pune( India)


      I read this article because we in India surrounded by failed nations.If we can not stop them then India will become failed state.Millions of people are entering India through Bangladesh order, Mynamar ,SriLanka,Pakistan.Our borders are porous so any body can enter and settle , these people they work on low wages and never go back.

      There are terrorists among them, cause to worry.

      pramod gokhale

    • profile image

      John B 5 years ago

      Nice hub dude....and yes it's very true that the international community plays a blind eye to failed states as it sees them as more trouble as they're worth. In their eyes failed states are a playground for them to test out their new technologies e.g. the waters of the coast of Somalia have at least four naval warship from different countries all showing off their new toys instead of tackling piracy at land (where piracy has always been traditionally defeated).

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 5 years ago from India

      Good Hub, i like it. Thanks for the above good read.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      It is unlikley that much will ever happen in you indicate, it has been neglected for decades by the international community.

      Somalia is the setting for all of my novels. In "Forty Days to Armageddon "WWIII begins with pirating in Somalia. Up and interesting.

    • Enock Vera profile image

      Enock Vera 5 years ago from Leicester, United Kingdom

      Very true, but the only problem is that some of the states are home to stateless peoples. By this I mean their loyalties are to their clan or tribe, making it much harder to impose statehood on them. Perhaps the best solution is to have them have autonomous entities within one big 'state' like the United State of America. that way they still retain their clan/tribe loyalties and rules but refer to themselves as X instead of belonging to clan A or tribe B.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Well said, Enock. The international community has made an earnest effort to stop failed nations from wrecking their neighbors and the entire global community. Unfortunately this is a tricky business and their efforts have been spotty at best. I agree that we need to anticipate the extreme problems of these nations in advance and help them vigorously in remedying them. Force is a failure and most times causes more pain then gain.