GG2022 – ‘Fragile States’ and ‘Failed Policies’: Two Global Public Policy Challenges at Eye Level

By Dominik Balthasar - 29 January 2013
‘Fragile States’ and ‘Failed Policies’: Two Global Public Policy Challenges at E

The recent, hasty military intervention of France in Mali provides the latest clue of the West’s ‘failed policies’ towards ‘fragile states’ and the issues they face. Rather than learning from the miscarried engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, the West seemingly sustains its misconceived policy, according to which it was possible to adequately address the challenges arising from religious fundamentalism, international terrorism and state fragility by military means. Even the West’s military operation in Libya in 2011 – the spill-over effects of which are well-known to have contributed to the current crisis in Mali – did little to spark greater self-scrutiny towards past policies. Precipitous in nature and officially restricted to a few short-term military objectives, the intervention in West Africa is likely to contribute to Mali’s political fragmentation, enhance its institutional ‘fragilization’, and spark a regional confla­gra­tion, than it is to bring about peace, prosperity and stability.

What next for Mali? No matter what shape the international military engagement in Mali will take, it is most likely that Mali will provide the latest arena for yet another Western-led attempt to rebuild a state that has been fragile and ‘fragilized’. Thus, in the remainder of this piece I detach myself from the specific case of Mali, turning more towards an exploration of some of the underlying reasons for why past policies towards ‘fragile states’ failed so utterly. Why have they gone wrong and what can be done about them?

‘Fragile States’ and ‘Failed Policies’

‘State fragility’, with its repercussions on national development and international security, re­mains one of today’s most pressing global public policy challenges, partly because this phe­no­menon is considered “the source of many of the world’s most serious pro­blems” (Fukuyama 2004). The issue’s urgency is reflected in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee agenda as well as the 2011 World Development Report, and has been evi­denced by long-drawn international engagements in Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afgha­nis­tan. Yet, while foreign military contingents have incrementally left these war zones, ‘state fragility’ is cer­tain to stay, both, in these polities and the world at large, partly because, “[f]rom a his­to­rical perspective, much of the developing world today is characterised by states in the pro­cess of formation” (CSRC 2005) – a process that is inherently prone to cri­ses, conflict and fragility.

Whereas ‘fragile states’ pose a challenge to the ‘international community’, the latter’s failing policies constitute a vital defiance to the respective countries and their popula­tions. This is not only because current approaches to state-building focus heavily on the military side of the equation, but also because they fail to bring about the envisioned stability and prospe­rity. Military intervention in Iraq has left the country with a significantly diminished GDP per capita (UNDP 2012), and Afghanistan is not only far from reaching acceptable levels of security and resilience despite an ‘investment’ of approximately US$ 2.5 trillion by the US federal govern­­ment alone (Costs of War 2012), but it continues to have the highest infant mortality rate in the world (Global Health Facts). Similarly bleak is the international commu­ni­ty’s state-building record in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Somalia, all of which not only remain a far cry from achie­ving the Millennium Development Goals, but continue to feature amongst the list of top ten ‘failed states’.

Getting State-Building Wrong

While a myriad of factors can be cited to ac­count for why Western policies towards ‘fragile states’ have failed, a central underlying problem lies in the way these polities have been con­ceptualized. Having conceived of ‘fragile states’ as pathologic deviations from the contem­porary moulding of Western countries, it has invariably been neo-liberal inter­pre­­ta­tions of the state that have guided the inter­national community’s handbooks on how to ‘fix’ fragile states (Ghani/Lock­hart 2008; Kaplan 2008). Even though “[t]he inadequacies of neo-liberalism have spawned a wide­spread questioning of this dominant worldview” (Sand­brook 2010), the basic ideological components of the Washington Consensus have remained largely intact (Stiglitz 2004). In the scholarly literature, this is reflected in the recent emer­gence of concepts such as ‘hybrid political orders’, which have come to praise earlier negative interpre­ta­tions of non-state orders as au­toch­thonous ways of state-building.

However, the concepts’ underlying proposition that a hybridity of ‘political orders’ is desirable for the advancement of ‘fragile states’ is highly problematic, not least because it undermines the centrality of the state. Moreover, the promotion of pluralism as constituting both the means and ends of state-building can only be sustained through some form of historical amnesia. While the perpetuation of pluralism sits well with the deeply engrained ‘diversity myth’ that particularly the United States embraces regarding its own history, Schwartz (1995) reminds us that ‘Americanization’ had been “a process of coercive confor­mity” and that the USA “was characterized by ethnic dominance, not ethnic pluralism.” Hence, while Western countries preach an adherence to liberal pluralism throughout the world, their own states and national unities were not founded on diversity and tolerance, but homogeneity and conformity.

Furthermore, current approaches towards state-building continue to commit the mistake of reducing state-building endeavours to questions of institutional capacity. Conse­quent­ly, the international community’s agenda puts technical issues concerned with capacity building at centre stage. Yet, as governance is about the relationship between the state and socie­ty and as “it is in the realm of ideas and sentiments that the fate of states is primarily determined” (Holsti 1996), there is a need for ‘bringing the nation back in’ (Helling 2009). States are not hollow social constructs, but are intimately intertwined with the formation of national identities. Thus, the assertion that the goal of rebuilding societies “should not be to impose common identities on deeply divided peoples but to organize states that can administer their territories and allow people to live together despite differences” (Ottaway 2002) needs to be rejected, as this wrongly suggests that it is possible to ‘organize states’ while leaving the ‘identity’ of their populations untouched.

What Next?

Despite the failure of the international community’s past policies towards ‘fragile states’ there are no indications that its global approach towards state fragility is about to change. The West seems to unquestionably continue to trust its ‘tried and tested’ policy: a cocktail made up of military intervention and neo-liberal prescriptions for reconstruction, which entail a diktat of democracy, gender equality and free market mechanisms, amongst others. While all these neo-liberal elements of a pluralist society might be desirable in and of themselves, the dominant actors of the international community need to appreciate that what is required to sustain states should not be confused with what is required to initiate them. Moreover, rethinking current approaches towards ‘fragile states’ is not only necessary to facilitate political stability and economic development, but also to curb the challenge of international terrorism, which is believed to thrive in states that experience fragility. Thus, rather than subjecting policies towards ‘fragile states’ to a doomed ‘war on terror’ – a war that has been ineffective at best – state fragility should be taken seriously in its own right, if we want to prevent a country like Mali from becoming another Somalia.


Dominik Balthasar is a fellow of the GG2022 program and a post-doctoral fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the framework of the Transatlantic Post-Doc Fellowship for International Relations and Security (TAPIR), 2012-14. This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows. For more information on the GG2022 please see here.

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