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‘Failed States’ and the North

Justin Frewen

The current wave of interest on the part of the international community, or more
precisely the more economically developed regions in the North such as the EU, to
intervene in states classified as having failed, is not a new one. As Rondinelli and
Montgomery observe:

History is replete with attempts by foreign governments either forcibly or through

diplomatic pressure to impose governance institutions on other states. For centuries,
European powers displaced indigenous governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America in
the quest to build colonial empires. (2005: 15)

The present approach to state-building can arguably be traced back to the post World
War II occupations of Japan and Germany and the provision of US aid through the
Marshall plan to assist in the reconstruction of Europe. Further historical traces can also
be seen in the United States led military interventions in Southeast Asia, Latin America
and Africa to remove ‘hostile’ regimes and rebuild conflict-ravaged countries as
‘democratic market’ economies. However, striking discontinuities also exist with these
previous state-building efforts, the majority of which can be attributed to the end of the
Cold War and the attendant change in the ‘character of conflicts’.

So, why do certain states become involved in trying to assist ‘failed states’ identify and
implement solutions to their internal conflicts and/or political instability?

Explanations tend to fall broadly into two camps. The first of these might be referred to
as that of the liberal internationalists or liberal cosmopolitans, who emphasise the moral
imperatives of providing assistance to protect the rights of those living under dictatorial
or harsh authoritarian regimes. The second would be the realist camp, which contends
that ‘failed states’ are a source of insecurity to the whole global community including,
most importantly, the North.

Of course, in reality, those advocating for direct intervention or the provision of

assistance to countries suffering from domestic conflict often draw upon the arguments
of both the liberal internationalist and realist camps. The 2003 invasion of Iraq
demonstrates this rhetorical approach where both security and humanitarian concerns
were raised at different stages to justify the US-led invasion.

In either case, however, states that are subject to ‘interventions’ or that become the
recipients of assistance programmes

are generally regarded by the international development establishment as displaying

characteristics of ‘failed states,’ i.e., their state apparatuses are unable to exercise full
control over their respective territories, are unable to fulfill domestic and international
development and legal obligations, lack effective national judicial systems to ensure the
‘rule of law,’ do not demonstrate the requisites of liberal democracy, and are unable to
prevent their territories from being used in the perpetration of economic and other
crimes. (Guttal 2005a: 40)

Of course, the international development establishment or community is not composed

of all states equally but is rather predominantly comprised of states located in the North.
It is therefore these states and, in particular, the US which sets the international agenda
as to which states might be ‘eligible’ for ‘failed state’ status.

There is one other category of state that is generally considered as requiring state-
building support. These are states that are emerging from a period of domestic conflict.

As the World Bank reported in 2006, some 20 million people worldwide lost their lives
through civil wars with another 67 million being displaced. In the fifteen years leading up
to 2006, some 16 of the 20 poorest countries in the world had suffered from a major
armed conflict.

However, despite an annual increase in the number of new conflicts breaking out since
the end of the Cold War, the total number of ongoing armed struggles experienced a
decline for the first time since WWII, as the number of resolved conflicts exceeds new
conflicts. This positive development meant that the period between 1992 - the high point
for internal conflicts in the post-World War II era - and 2003 saw a reduction of 40% in
the number of state-based conflicts worldwide.

The success of state-building operations has varied considerably, with most failing to live
up to expectations, even when they were relatively modest. According to Paris and Sisk,
the operations of the international agencies in Liberia and Timor Leste “prematurely
reduced their efforts to secure peace in the wake of conflict”, in Bosnia and Kosovo,
there was an increase in the frustration levels with the international community as
“international state-building efforts have lingered on in seeming perpetuity, while
reconciliation and institutional reform efforts have stalled” while post-invasion
Afghanistan and Iraq are experiencing critical and exceptional difficulties in their
attempts to construct “effective and legitimate governmental structures”.

Serious questions have also been raised as to the sustainability of the international
community’s institutional reform efforts in what were hitherto generally regarded as the
most successful state-building operations in countries such as Cambodia, Burundi and
the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other commentators would argue though that while the record may be far from perfect
in terms of the assistance and backing the international community has provided to
‘failed states’, failure to provide such assistance would significantly raise the risk of
violence re-erupting with the consequent humanitarian risks for the indigenous
population as well as provoking potential security risks for the international community.

Given the immense challenges inherent in assisting ‘failed states’ the international
community, particularly states in the North, is now cooperating to an ever greater extent
to deliver the state-building support. In this respect, the partnership which has
developed between the EU and the UN over the past decade or so, has assumed an ever
greater importance. Contributing almost two fifths of the UN’s budget, the EU has
emphasised its strong commitment to a policy of international multilateralism. Seeing
the UN as a critical component of its’ external policy efforts, the EU has tried to use the
UN as the ideal forum for the construction of an international structure founded on
‘universal’ rules and values, that will facilitate a rapid response on the part of the
international community to any global challenge, threat or crisis that might emerge.

This policy of international cooperation can be seen clearly in the high level of
coordination between the EU and the UN in the area of state-building, both in the areas
of peacekeeping and peace-building. In Chad, the EU, through its member states,
provided a bridging operation until the UN was in a position to establish its own regional
mission there. The UN for its part has also provided support to the EU, as in Kosovo
when its Interim Administration set the stage for the formation of the European Union
Role of Law Mission.
Given the considerable resources needed to assist ‘failed states’ in their reconstruction,
critics have raised the question as to why the EU or other bodies are willing to engage in
provide state-building support? For some, the motive is at best a selfish one. Through
engaging in the rebuilding of the institutions and socio-political framework, the donor
states are able to obtain substantial leverage over the future direction of the ‘failed
state’ in question. In many instances, the ‘failed state’ is coerced into adopting “a
market-based capitalist economic system, twinned with a political regime that is willing
to promote and defend free market capitalism.” (Guttal 2005b: 73) Rather than enabling
a ‘failed state’ devise its own socio-economic and political solutions, it is forced to adopt
a particular political system and enter the international economy on terms not of its own

However, whatever the rationale behind the involvement of the UN and other regional
bodies such as the EU in ‘failed states’, one thing is certain and that is that the increase
in state-building efforts we have witnessed over the past decade is only likely to
continue, at least for the foreseeable future. It is important therefore that we pay
attention to the rationale for and how exactly these state-building efforts are being
conducted, whose interests are actually being served by such interventions and whether
they are being undertaken as yet another means to increase the influence and promote
the interests of the North at the expense of the South.

Guttal, S. (2005a) ‘Reconstruction: A Glimpse into an Emerging Paradigm’, Silent War
The US’ Ideological and Economic Occupation of Iraq, (Focus on the Global South
Guttal, S. (2005b) ‘The Politics of Post-war/post-Conflict Reconstruction’, Development,
Paris. R. & Sisk, T. D. (2007) Managing Contradictions: The Inherent Dilemmas of
Postwar Statebuilding,, accessed
16 March 2008
Rondinelli, D.A. & Montgomery, J.D. (2005) Regime Change and Nation Building: Can
Donors Restore Governance in Post-Conflict States? Public Administration Development
World Bank (2006) Post-Conflict Fund and Licus Trust Fund Annual Report 2006,