What can the international community do about failed states?



There is no doubt that – in an increasingly interconnected world – failed states constitute a huge challenge for the international community . But exactly what kind of challenge is a matter of debate. For some, it is a normative challenge – how to find a place for them in the global nation-state jigsaw that slowly seems to be coming undone; for others it’s a security challenge – how to contain their contagiousness, and stop them from harbouring criminal or terrorist organisations; and for others still, it’s a moral challenge: how to help those who were caught in the collapse of the state, and are now buried under its rubble. These different perspectives inevitably generate questions on whether the international community should intervene at all, given in particular its dubious track record, so the starting point of my analysis will be to identify the two main reasons behind any form of intervention. I will then look more closely at those areas that need to be improved, drawing from the two main clusters of recommendations around which most of the literature on the subject converges. First of all, I will highlight shortcomings in three theoretical areas of understanding about failed states: the long-term, structural problems that cause their collapse; the local and global dynamics that fuel their internal conflicts; and the normative implications of any type of intervention. Secondly, I will briefly look at those areas of practical intervention that could be improved, not just when a state has collapsed, but also – and most importantly – before it has collapsed.

The grounds for action

The first question that we should tackle is: why should the international community do something about failed states? Is it moving beyond sovereignty when it intervenes in the internal affairs of a country, however weak? And is it really in the interest of the citizens of a collapsed state to see once more a Western polity imposed on them? Analysts like Christopher Clapham have argued for some time in favour of accepting their statelessness as a constitutive element of the international order. In his view, the commercial and NGO sectors are perfectly capable of taking over most of the state’s traditional functions, including justice and personal security. Left to its own devices, he suggests, a collapsed state might actually turn out to be a better polity than anyone previously experienced by its citizens. Indeed, the inhabitants of Somalia might be enjoying the ‘cheapest and most efficient cellphone system on the [African] continent’ , but its real cost goes well beyond the price of a call, and it includes the exposure to predatory criminal networks, the drastic reduction of personal and human security, and the loss of sustainable development prospects.

There are two main reasons why the international community has a duty to act. The first one is humanitarian: to prevent and halt unnecessary suffering of fellow human beings. An estimated 3.3 million people have died in the DRC alone , as a direct consequence of the state’s collapse, and the number of people wounded, displaced, disabled and traumatized is unimaginable. This is a terrible price that not only the current, but also the future generations are forced to bear. Helping them is a moral imperative ‘if we care about global development and peace at all … We cannot stand aside and allow people to starve or be subjected to abuse’ , because ‘war kills development as well as people’ . The second reason speaks instead to the cynics, who don’t see why their taxes should be spent on countries seemingly incapable of standing on their own feet: it is because failed states provide an incredibly fertile ground for terrorism, ‘refugee flows, drug production and narcotics trafficking, … international crime, health pandemics … and … cross-border environmental disasters’ . Indeed, there is growing evidence of ‘a complex relationship between globalizing trends in the world economy and violent conflict in areas and within states at the margin of that economy’ . In this intricate network of criminal and economic interests, several actors stand to benefit from the absence of any security system to obstruct them. Countries who claim to uphold the rule of law can no longer ignore the role played by failed states in the global chain of their domestic problems.

Developing better understanding of the causes, dynamics and normative implications of state failure

If action is an imperative, then the first step towards addressing the problem of state failure is to deepen the theoretical understanding of its causes. While some have pointed out that ‘there is nothing novel about the phenomenon of state failure’ , others have argued that ‘the withdrawal of (the Cold War) powers … paved the way for factions … to be strengthened and for the state to lose authoritative legitimacy’ . In fact, while both of these interpretations have some truth in them, they risk overshadowing those local dynamics, histories and actors that often lie at the heart of a state’s collapse, and that connect with the bigger regional and international picture. Research needs to be broadened on those factors – collapsing income levels, failing democratic procedures, predatory or patrimonial elites, declining government legitimacy, the role of natural resources – that have contributed in many cases to a state’s failure, while recognising the difficulty of ‘deploy[ing] the results of massive surveys of conflict and state collapse to predict failure’ .

The second issue, which requires closer attention by the research community, is the resilience of conflicts spawn by a state’s failure, and in particular the intricate web they weave with the global political economy. Although ‘the presence of economic motives … in wars is not so much a new phenomenon as a familiar theme in the history of warfare’ , it is also true that ‘the globalization of new economic patterns … appears to be increasing the … reliance on commercial exploitation as a quick way to solve the problems of political authority’ . Whatever caused a state’s collapse in the first place is not necessarily what keeps its internal conflict going. Rather than defeating the enemy, these conflict economies have a vested interest in prolonging it, and their ‘crystallisation … within weak states can only be understood within a broader global context’ . For this reason, many institutional efforts have been made to ‘increase the management and transparency of natural resources in conflict-prone regions. The Kimberley Process, the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative are three such examples the EU supports … (but) they are relatively new and do not yet cover the wider range of “conflict resources” which feed into and flow out of conflict’ . This is an area of research where the international community should make more efforts, especially in relation to the role played by the private financial sector – the so called ‘white collar crime’ .

Thirdly, humanitarian interventions are very contested, not only because of concerns that they might constitute a Trojan horse for darker imperialistic motives, but also because they raise a number of legal qualms. The shortcomings of the current international normative framework to deal with sub-state violence arise mainly from the ‘state-centric framework within which the donor countries and international organizations, especially the UN and its agencies, necessarily’ have to operate when dealing with failed states. Addressing these legal aspects forces the international community to think whether it might have reached a moment in history when a global nation-state system might no longer be viable, in the context not only of failed states, but also of the emergence of new supranational polities such as the EU . The international community must begin to reflect courageously about the extent to which it needs to reform its global governance structures to accommodate these new challenges, and more immediately address the shortcomings of an international legal framework which poses huge restrictions on border modification .

Improving actions to prevent conflict and build long-term peace

Policy stemming from the above-reflections is already being implemented on the ground, through a number of peacekeeping operations and conflict-transformation initiatives. The first, and most logical, step the international community should take in this respect is to deepen the learning about the best practices and mistakes of the most recent interventions. Nick Grono summarized the inadequacies of traditional approaches to failed states as little attention span, historical imprecision, tunnel vision and lack of conceptual understanding . Several other analysts and academics have brought these (and other) shortcomings to the attention of policy-makers , but the crucial challenge is to ensure that these recommendations are taken on board, for example by building a political case for long-term engagement in peacebuilding and peacekeeping operations. This is not always an easy task, given the reluctance of political actors to sacrifice resources and lives in favour of international interventions, and more generally their aversion to joining the policy dots.

Implementing targeted policies that address the causes of a state’s collapse means devoting more attention to the nexus between policy fields that until recently were considered relatively independent. Policies relating to home security, financial flows, cross-border migration, drug-control, ODA and international trade are now recognised as interrelated, and contributing to the structural weakness and eventual collapse of a state. The EU and DFID, for example, have devoted considerable efforts in the last few years to ensure high standards in policy-coordination, in ‘recognition that peacebuilding and conflict prevention are not simply sectoral policies but represent a broader approach to policy-making … (so) every measure at the disposal of the EU – be it in the field of health, trade, governance – may thus contribute to conflict prevention’ . In practice, there are still huge discrepancies, especially in relation to trade and conflict prevention , and policy coordination is still far from perfect between the different EU pillars and the 27 Member States.

Finally, there are different ways to approach a failed state, once the causes and dynamics of its collapse have been observed. Some are more intrusive, such as peacekeeping operations, or military endeavours that aim to avert humanitarian disasters, but others are more subtle. Joseph Nye, for example, has talked about the EU’s soft power as a means to achieve important political goals, one that has often been overlooked by traditional approaches to failed states and conflict, but has so far been quite successful in the South Caucasus. In this sense, preventing ex ante – rather than addressing post facto – state collapse is a more long-sighted (and cost-effective) way of dealing with the problem, and the international community should give more practical recognition to effective conflict prevention, for example by establishing and supporting appropriate early-warning systems . Of fundamental importance is the need for the international community to back the right actors in their peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts, and in particular to recognise the positive role that local and international civil society organisations can play in strengthening social networks and building peace.


Lev Tolstoy once said that all happy families resemble each other, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This is true of failed states too. Whatever perspective the international community might take on the reasons behind their failure, it must recognise that there is never a simple cure that can be administered at reasonable doses, and that will act as a universal panacea. Each state failure is the result of multiple forces and dynamics, some external, many more internal, which have singularly converged to cause the collapse. Given the vast complexity of the issue, it is not surprising that in most cases the international community has failed to address the problem of failed states in an effective manner. But highlighting past mistakes to make sweeping generalisations about one-size-fits-all solutions would be arrogant as well as ineffective. There is no one answer to the question: ‘what can the international community do about failed states’? There is only a mutually-supportive and policy-savvy experimentation, coupled by a committed determination to find lasting solutions on a case-by-case basis.



  • Berdal, Mats & Malone, David M. (2000) Greed and Grievance, Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Publishers)
  • Kaldor, Mary (2003) Global Civil Society, An Answer to War (Cambridge: Polity Press)
  • Rotberg, R. (ed. – 2003) When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Articles in periodicals

  • Barkin, Samuel J. The Evolution of the Constitution of Sovereignty and the Emergence of Human Rights Norms in Journal of International Studies, 1998, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 229-252
  • Fearon, James and Laitin, David, Neotrusteeship and the Problem of Weak States, in International Security, Vol 28, No. 4 (Spring 2004), pp. 5-43

Chapters in Books

  • Clapham, Christopher (2003) The Global-Local Politics of State Decay, in Rotberg, R. (ed.) When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
  • Herbst, Jeffrey (2003) Let Them Fail: State Failure in Theory and Practice, in Rotberg, R. (ed.) When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

World Wide Web (WWW) Sites


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