Are All States Failing States?

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Op-Ed Foreign Policy
The Failed States Index offers an important barometer of governance and stability, and it succeeds in triggering an annual vigorous debate about places that usually get too little attention in the halls of power.
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This is the eighth year Foreign Policy has published the Failed States Index. During that time it has been both closely followed -- not least, inside the U.S. government and in foreign capitals -- and dependably controversial. No one wants to see his or her country listed among the world's basket cases.

Admittedly, the index's dozen top-level categories, from economic decline to human rights to refugees, are by nature somewhat subjective. And to the governments under the microscope, the criteria seem to penalize states that are poor or struggling for reasons beyond their control, whether lack of resources, disaster-prone climates, or longstanding cultural conflicts. To some, the fact that 20 of the 25 worst performers on the list are in Africa or the Middle East suggests regional bias, or simply that different parts of the world are at vastly different stages of development.

It's easy to complain about your own ranking, and many countries do. But it's far harder to deny the depth, scope, and scale of the problems the Failed States Index shines a harsh spotlight on each year. The list is rigorously put together by the Fund for Peace. It involves analysis of thousands of documents, news reports, and data pertaining to each of the 177 countries tracked. It is an important barometer of governance and stability, and though it could not hope to offer the last word on an issue as complex as state failure, it succeeds because every year it triggers a vigorous debate about places that usually get too little attention in the halls of power -- but often come back to haunt us all later.

There are, of course, other "failed states" indices we could easily devise. All would generate their own caviling, and each would make different groups of people unhappy -- especially those in the developed countries that tend to fare better on the current list. So, in the spirit of equality, here's my list of what some of those alternative approaches might look like:

1. The Failed States … and Counties, Cities, and Towns Index

Even in high-functioning societies, it's easy to find local governments that are every bit as clueless, corrupt, and just plain incompetent as the most infamous underperformers on our annual list. Indeed, the very fact that these leadership failures are going on in more privileged environments suggests a greater degree of failure. What's more, such failed governments can produce much more sweeping global market consequences because they are more connected to those markets. In the past two years alone, U.S. states like California, Illinois, and Michigan have been trading at market spreads comparable to or worse than at-risk eurozone countries like Spain. And market failures aren't the only problems. Given the majority of minority students in U.S. urban areas who drop out of high school and the abysmal security conditions in Mexican border states that trade most with the United States, it's clear that failures of small, local governments have big, global consequences.

2. The Foiled States Index

It would be useful to see a Failed States Index that directed blame where it was due. And sometimes, the blame rests with the other guy. The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spilled over its borders and brought mayhem, refugees, and tragedy to its neighbors. Is that really Rwanda's fault? The conflict in Syria is now doing the same thing, with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Arguably, those countries' openness to refugees should be seen as a good thing. The list goes on: Mexico puts the squeeze on drug gangs and Guatemala feels the pain. Sometimes the cross-border contagion is self-reinforcing, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interdependence has its downsides.

3. The Flailing States Index

If you measure the failings of governments by whether they make the most of what they have, the current index might look a lot different. How much more successful would the United States be if its Congress were not dysfunctional and its political system not so corrupted by money? How much better off would Europe be if Germany hadn't imposed its false gospel of austerity on the rest of the continent? How much would China benefit without a government full of Bo Xilais? Or what if Japan had a real stable leadership for a change? To say nothing of how the Angolas, Equatorial Guineas, Russias, and Saudi Arabias of the world -- petrostates whose underground wealth masks great domestic failures -- would measure up if their built-in advantages were taken into account.

4. The Failed Statesmen Index

Blaming governments is one thing, but institutions are just, as the old saying goes, the lengthened shadow of one man (or woman). Sometimes it's fairer to blame problems on the misguided policies, greed, corruption, or evil of a single individual or small coterie of leaders. This means the solution to state failure in some places might really lie in an actuarial table, the end of a blood line, or a violent act of rebellion (Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan come to mind). And remember that you don't have to be a crazy dictator to impose devastatingly damaging policies. You can be a narcissistic demagogue like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or a democratically selected but utterly misguided mainstream politician like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Whatever the model, just look at the devastating costs from these individual failures -- there's blame enough to go around.

5. The Failing-Their-Own-People Index

This might sound like the list we started out with, but, sadly, it's even bigger. Make an index based on the primary metric of countries failing to meet the terms of the social contract, and it will be so long the countries on it won't just be those that are poor and victimized by conflict, bad neighbors, bad luck, or bad leadership. Why? Just about every state in the world is falling behind in its ability to serve its citizens these days -- because too many of their problems can only be resolved on a global stage and unfortunately the old-fashioned nation-states upon which our global system is built lack the basic instruments of governance necessary to influence outcomes as they once did. Indeed, most states today are less able to control their own borders and their own currencies, project force, or enforce laws -- and are much more dependent on highly mobile, global corporate actors that unhesitatingly play one country against another. So here's a cheery thought to leave you with: The reality is that in some ways all states are faltering, falling behind what they once were and what their citizens expect of them.


This article was originially published in Foreign Policy.

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In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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