Defining Ideas

Instability In The Middle East

Thursday, May 7, 2015
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

What is a failed state? This is a matter of degree, but we can say that a U.N. member state fails to the extent that it cannot prevent armed challengers from exercising substantial (if often chaotic) control of large parts of the country. Or in other words, a state fails when its ability to provide public order is seriously compromised and it loses control to local mafias or rival proto-states in a large part or all of the country. State failure is particularly extreme and clear when the central government disintegrates in the capitol city, and warring militias divide up the center.

Today, this definition might take in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Central African Republic, DRC, South Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan (maybe), and India (maybe, since Naxalites have great influence in a stunning amount of territory. But of course the India state has substantial capability in other areas).

So far, no state’s failure has posed a really major security threat to the U.S. This could change, however, if Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Russia failed, in the sense of a disintegration of the center that was not followed by a quick return to a coherent government. Pakistan has not had control of large parts of its territory for some time. This was not a big issue until these areas began to generate an insurgency and related movements that could threaten stability and control at the center.

Three of these four are nuclear powers, which is why their collapse could pose a major security threat to the U.S. Would the nuclear weapons be secure against capture by terrorists or armed groups who might sell or lose them to terrorists? Would the manner of collapse imply partial or temporary rule by crazy or desperate types who might be inclined to threaten to use or sell them? Would neighboring states, or the U.S., feel compelled to undertake preventive attacks? (A major civil war and collapse of the central government in Saudi Arabia would pose a different class of threats, including regional war and disruption of the world economy.)

A state that had the capability to develop nuclear weapons is not the typical candidate for failure, fortunately. This doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, and in the case of North Korea, the regime is sure to dissolve before long—how chaotically we can’t say. But most actual cases of state failure between the end of the Cold War and 2011 were in relatively weak, poor states, whose neighbors are also weak, poor states. They were mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. A number of them have recovered, at least from abject failure—Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Burundi, Mozambique, and Angola. Some have not (Somalia, DRC) or have newly entered it (CAR, Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan).

The failure of such states poses no direct threat to the U.S. They can pose indirect threats in various forms: (a) they can become jihadi training grounds or jihadi “raw material” export zones; (b) the disintegration of public health systems raises the risk of pandemic viruses; (c) refugee flows to Europe can have bad downstream consequences for the U.S. More long-run indirect effects include (d) destabilizing and lowering growth rates both in the affected country and the region, contributing to worse economic performance that is not good for us, and (e) contributing to a broader sense that the post-1945 U.N. system is not working and is due for a major breakdown and violent revision.

The failure of states in the Middle East since the Arab Spring poses greater and more immediate threats to U.S. security.

An imperfect but decent proxy for the amount of state failure in the international system is the number of ongoing civil wars. This number increased steadily from the end of the World War II to the early 1990s, when it reached a remarkably high level following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time almost three in ten countries with a population greater than half a million was experiencing a civil conflict that had killed at least 1,000 people. Total deaths were substantially greater in a large majority of these—median total deaths for wars in progress in 1994 were at least 30,000.

Since the mid 1990s we see some decline and a leveling out, despite the outbreak of several large-scale conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Quite a few civil wars, many of them long running, ended in the second half of the 1990s, in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa (though almost as many started in the late 90s in Africa).

Since 9/11 and the Arab Spring, however, new state failures have been concentrated in the MENA region, with dramatic instances in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Three of these were middle-income countries not too long ago. Syria and Iraq had developed business sectors. Iraq, Syria, and Libya had all attempted nuclear weapons programs, with various degrees of competence. Although civil wars are not new to this region – or to these states, excepting Libya—the degree of state collapse is of a whole new order in all of them. Further, the prospects for a return of stable central control in Syria and Iraq do not seem good.

State collapse and failure in this region is much more consequential for U.S. economic and security interests than in sub-Saharan Africa because it raises the risk of a spread of civil wars and state failures to other states in the region that are important for regional and international stability—Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Pakistan. Refugees put direct strains on neighboring states’ economies and political balances. Regional conflict over the failed states increases militarization, cross-border support for insurgents or opposition movements in regional adversaries, and risks of regional interstate military conflicts (including, to give just one example, more war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon). State failure encourages the transnational jihadi movement, gives it recruits and training, some of whom will return to plot attacks in their home countries and perhaps in Western countries as well. And all this takes place in a region with states that have the capability (before they suffer major failure or collapse) to mount serious nuclear weapons programs, or to purchase weapons.

A major driver of the spread of state failure in this region is the stunning success of the transnational movement of violent jihadis. This is a movement explicitly aimed at producing state failure of U.N. member states whose rulers are seen as beholden to the U.S., Europe, and an infidel-run international system. The popularity of the movement among young Muslim men has the effect of rendering all states in the region more brittle. Any shock to the capabilities of a state’s coercive apparatus relative to potential armed challengers is much more likely to develop into a civil war, because the movement makes it much more possible for would-be rebel groups to get past a threshold of military viability. As long as this movement inspires a high degree of passion and attracts funds from some wealthy state and non-state supporters, the risks of continued state failure will be significant in this important area.

The U.S. does not have the capabilities it needs to deal with failed states, in the sense of bringing them out of failure. But it is not clear that any third party does. Political order has to be built by locals. There have been circumstances, such as in Germany and Japan immediately after World War II, when U.S. support could make a big difference for state building in the aftermath of state failure (of a sort). But these circumstances appear to be unusual and do not obtain in the post-colonial world and present international system. U.S. state building interventions have failed, for similar core reasons, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency by a foreign power is basically “shuffling the deck chairs,” unless the supported government is highly capable – and if it were, we would not need to intervene heavily in the first place.

The U.S. probably does have policy instruments that can lower the risk of contagion of state failure, if skillfully applied. But as I suggested in the last memo, there is a moral hazard problem that is very tricky. In many areas, the more we do, the less the governments whose states we aim to shore up do. Unstable, coup-prone regimes have an aversion to developing strong, capability militaries, and would rather rely on foreign strength. Further, the more we do, the more we play into the hands of the transnational movement and help them to recruit.

All things considered, the post-war U.N. system built by the U.S. has been remarkably successful. Despite the three-fold increase in the number of independent states, the incidence of interstate war has been virtually nil, relative to the number of contiguous states. Around 55% of the 165 or so non-micro-states in the system have never had a civil war, and this includes many post-colonial states that started their independent lives with low incomes and very weak institutions. A good number of these states have grown economically, some a lot and some a moderate amount, despite all manner of handicaps. Life expectancies have shot upwards almost everywhere. The long “third wave” has spread democratic institutions and practices to a majority of states in almost every region, and to the point that self-avowed autocracies are nearly extinct.

An important deficiency of the U.N. system is that it has no legal, orderly, and practical way of managing the reconfiguration of states. It is based on a powerful commitment to the sanctity of member states’ borders. This commitment arguably has tremendous value, as a kind of implicit arms control agreement: If stronger states could and regularly did seize parts of other states, everyone would have an incentive to arm up. If rebel violence can get a state and international recognition, then this may be a powerful inducement to rebel or to keep trying. So it is arguably a norm worth paying costs to uphold.

But for some cases it does complicate the policy problems posed by failed states. Although carving up African states is almost always proposed in the media as the “obvious” fix for civil conflict and state failure there—the “bad colonial borders” meme—in my view this is almost never going to be a particularly successful or good answer south of the Sahara. (See South Sudan, for example.) However, I have a hard time imagining durable solutions to the problems being posed by state failure in the Middle East without some significant reconfigurations, though I don’t know just what they should look like or how to get there. 

About the Author

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security