Failed States

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2

(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)

Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.

Feeble States MapAs mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.

For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.

Islamist Organizations Greater Middle East MapOne of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.

Combat Fatalities MapAlthough actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.

Separatist Movements MapEven many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali OLF Mapinsurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.


Border Disputes MapThe next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.”, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:

Tiran Island MapBoth of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.

The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.

Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”

Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.


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The Failure of the Failed State Index

The use of the term “failed state” has surged over the past fifteen years, as can be seen in the Google N-Gram posted above showing the frequency of the term’s occurrence in scanned books. A January 8, 2011 Google news search for “failed state” yielded—in the first twelve articles alone—stories on Sudan, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Belgium, and Nigeria. The first pick, from the Huffington Post, claims that South Sudan is a “failed sate in waiting,” a charge later echoed in The Telegraph. Remarkable: here we find a state that does not yet exist, yet has already been declared dead. Other assertions of state failure seem equally rash; while Mexico and Egypt have problems aplenty, neither is close to systematic state breakdown. But a determined enough critic can apparently find evidence of state failure almost anywhere. A recent AlterNet posting, leaning on the work of Noam Chomsky, declares that the United States is a “semi-failed state,” and goes on to assert that Victorian Britain “meets many of the formal criteria of failed statehood.” If Victorian Britain, which dominated almost half the world, was a “failed state,” we might as well toss the term out.

Needless to say, more precise definitions have been proposed. The Fund for Peace, which along with Foreign Policy magazine has established the influential Failed States Index, has put forward the following criteria of state failure:

  • loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
  • erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
  • an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

The checklist seems reasonable at first glance, but is difficult to use in practice. The last criterion is seemingly impossible to reach; the state of Somalia controls virtually nothing, yet remains a full-fledged member of the international community.* Other problems further undercut the proposed criteria. An “inability to provide reasonable public services” reflects a broader failure of government rather than that of the state per se, as regional authorities can in some instances deliver. “Erosion of legitimate authority” is a trickier concept, as one first has to assess where legitimacy lies. At the popular level, according to the Fund for Peace, delegitimation occurs through the loss of “confidence in state institutions and processes, [as demonstrated by] widely boycotted or contested elections, mass public demonstrations, sustained civil disobedience…” Yet North Korea, which has experienced none of these things, is deemed an almost completely “deligitimated” state. For all we know, most North Koreans view their government as legitimate; propaganda, after all, often proves effective. North Korea apparently earns its non-legitimate status in the index on the basis of its “massive and endemic corruption” and “the lack of transparency, accountability and political representation,” features that do indeed pertain. But both endemic corruption and lack of representation mark some of the world’s most solid states, including China. The Fund for Peace also views the “violation of human rights” as an indicator of state failure, but massive repression, unfortunately, can solidify the standing of a precarious state, as was recently witnessed in Iran.

The Failed State Index uses twelve indicators, which in turn are divided into a variety of sub-indicators. Some of the metrics are classified as social (demographic pressures, human flight), others as economic (GDP decline, uneven development), and still others political (violation of human rights, intervention by other states, and so forth). Taken together, these various markers can indeed highlight a general level of overall disfunctionality in any given country. But failure in this sense is not the same as state failure. State-run structures of control can remain strong in the face of precipitous economic decline or of human rights outrages. By viewing the “state” as a kind of political-social-economic totality, the Failed State Index loses sight of the state itself, which strictly speaking refers to the institutions of central governmental power, especially in their coercive function. It thus classifies moribund states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium, as much less threatened with collapse than cohesive and repressive states prevailing over dismal economies, such as North Korea and Eritrea. While North Korea might justifiably be called a failed country, there is little evidence that its state apparatus it tottering. Regarding it as such seems like a case of perversely wishful thinking.

If the Failed State Index is a promising but problematic analytical tool, the map that accompanies it on the Foreign Policy website is something else altogether. At first glance, it appears the cartographers have mapped sovereign states from red to green, while using white as an unmarked category to include both dependent territories, such as Greenland and Puerto Rico, and key disputed lands, such Western Sahara and the Hala’ib Triangle (claimed by Sudan, administered by Egypt). Closer inspection, however, reveals a stunning lack of consistency. The regions depicted in white turn out to have nothing in common. Some are dependencies and a few are disputed territories, but others range from autonomous areas, to insular portions of sovereign states, to fully independent countries. Meanwhile, the world’s hottest territorial dispute, Kashmir, is essentially invisible: the area controlled by India is mapped as part of India, the area controlled by Pakistan is mapped as part of Pakistan, and the area controlled by China (Aksai Chin) is mapped as if it were a lake (or perhaps desiccated lake, given that it is portrayed exactly like the Aral Sea!).

A few of the oddities on the map deserve special mention. The cartographer’s most glaring gaffe is the excision of the island of Newfoundland from Canada. France too is shorn of most of its islands; the map implicitly refutes French sovereignty over all of its overseas departments (Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion), even though they are as much parts of France as Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the United States. In the Caribbean, several independent island countries (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, and more) are denied sovereignty, mapped instead as white splotches. Further south, Chile has been divested of its half of Tierra del Fuego. Some autonomous island groups, such as Portugal’s Azores and Finland’s Åland Archipelago, are mapped in white, but not Denmark’s autonomous Faroe Islands. Taiwan, a de facto sovereign state not recognized by most other independent countries, is shown in white, but Kosovo, which fits the same category, is colored. A too-large West Bank is mapped in white, but in the accompanying tables it is aggregated with Israel. Elsewhere the mapmaker takes islands belonging to one country and assigns them to another. The coloration scheme shows Socotra as part of Somalia rather than Yemen, Rhodes as part of Turkey rather than Greece, and the Florida Keys as part of the Bahamas rather than the United States. Similar errors abound. Have the editors of Foreign Policy and the creators of the Failed State Index never checked their own map?

*On May 19, 2010, Somalia asserted its own unchallenged diplomatic standing by recognizing Kosovo, and thereby giving that partially recognized state a tad more international legitimacy.

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Is Belgium a Failed State? Does It Matter?

News stories have been coming out for months on the continuing failure of Belgium to form a government after the June 2010 election. On January 6, 2011, the BBC announced that two Flemish parties were yet again demanding “adjustments” to a compromise plan crafted by the mediator of the Belgian king. On the face of it, the controversies—focusing on tax policies, regional subsidies, and proposed readjustments of administrative and electoral divisions in the suburban fringe of Brussels—don’t seem insurmountable. But Belgium’s underlying troubles go much deeper.

The main problem stems from the country’s stark cultural and economic divide between the generally well-off Flemish- (Dutch) speaking north and the somewhat poorer Walloon- (French) speaking south. Almost all institutions are divided along these lines. Most significantly, no political party is pan-Belgian; even the Greens split between the Flemish Groen! and its Walloon counterpart, Ecolo. Local governments on either side harshly restrict the public use of the other region’s language. Flemish voters, moreover, continue to push for higher level of autonomy, many calling for outright independence. Exasperation over subsidies flowing to the socialist-ruled south helped the separatist New Flemish Alliance to gain first place in the June elections (although with twelve parties gaining seats in the Chamber of Representatives, it received a modest 17 percent of the total vote). As the New Flemish Alliance seeks the end of Belgium, it is hardly surprising that its parliamentarians would stymie the formation of a new government.

The prolonged inability to constitute a government is nothing new to Belgian politics. After the June 2007 election, 196 days passed before an interim government emerged. Belgium itself is thus coming to be seen as a political failure. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, recently proclaimed in a contentious Der Spiegel interview that his country “has no future” and will “eventually evaporate of its own accord.” He also flatly opined that “Belgium is a failed nation.” That last assessment is difficult to dispute, inasmuch as a “nation” is formally defined as a group of people united in their belief that they form a political community. Such national identity is sorely lacking among a large percentage of the Belgian population. Whether Belgium is a failed state is a different question. “Comatose” may be a better description.

State failure is generally seen as political catastrophe of the first order, bringing economic collapse, political chaos, and overwhelming insecurity. Yet the foundering of the Belgian state is associated with none of these things. To be sure, the financial consequences could be unwelcome, as credit-rating agencies are threatening to downgrade Belgium’s ranking, undermining governmental bonds. But overall, the abeyance of the national government has been rather inconsequential. The Flemish region and Wallonia, along with multi-lingual Brussels, have gained increasing autonomy over the past several decades. Before the latest crisis hit, the central state was already sharply limited, its powers and prerogatives having been pushed both down to the country’s three regions and up to the European Union.

De Wever’s image of an “evaporating” Belgium seems apt. A violent dissolution of the state is certainly not in the offing. The New Flemish Alliance is a staid, center-right party, not interested in intensive struggle. As most Walloons and more than a few Flemings retain vestigial allegiance to the country, complete dissolution seems unlikely. Any attempt to formally dismantle the state, moreover, would stumble on Brussels, the bi-cultural city-region that both groups claim for their own. Belgium will thus likely remain an officially sovereign country, but could still steadily diminish in its scope, perhaps eventually becoming a mere shadow of a state.

The gradual diminution of the Belgian state points to a major flaw in the standard geopolitical model. In most analyses of world politics, the sovereign state is held to be the essential, all-important unit. In both international law and popular perception, the independent country is regarded as an individual, distinct from all others, possessing an integrated geographical body, and acting with purpose and volition. Together, the 200-odd sovereign states form the international community, in which they interact as fully autonomous, juridically equal individuals. Compared with the level of the sovereign state, all other rungs of the spatial hierarchy are relatively insignificant. Independent countries are what ultimately matter, more than provinces, regions, or even autonomous areas, and certainly more than multi-state blocs such as NAFTA, ASEAN, or the Arab League.

Yet in the case of Belgium, the sovereign, internationally recognized state is simply not the most important government in the land. Wallonia and the Flemish Region are much more significant—as is the European Union. In this instance, as in many others across the globe, the standard model misses a much more complex reality. Regardless of how we conceptualize them, mutually recognizing official states are not necessarily what count. Some states, like Belgium, are fading; others, such as Somalia, are little more than fictions. Power is exercised at all levels of the spatial hierarchy, from the village to the United Nations. In some cases the “state” level is of less significance than others. In the state-based model, the pretense of power is often confused for its actual existence.

The failure of the Belgian state goes curiously unnoticed in the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy’s influential “failed state index.” Strikingly, Belgium is classified here as one of the world’s most stable states, with a lower possibility of collapse than France, Germany, or the United States. This seeming paradox is explained by the fact that the index does not actually measure “state failure” at all, but rather the likelihood of systematic societal breakdown. Such collapse is not an issue in Belgium; as Der Spiegel put it in 2008, “Belgium is the world’s most successful failed state.”

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Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

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