Rethinking Failed States

“Happy New Year from Mexico, speaking of failed states.” So I wrote to a friend at the State Department regarding an upcoming conference in Libya.  I had been teased by several people already for vacationing in Mexico, supposedly the world’s most dangerous country by some amorphous criteria, as a “break” from covering Libya and, before that, Afghanistan. But my friend, who of course must remain anonymous, wrote back, “Happy New Year from Washington, DC, that semi-failed state.” 

Of course, the narrowly averted “fiscal cliff” was on his mind. Generally, a “failed state” is one that has lost control of its territory and borders, lacks a clear governing authority, doesn’t provide services to its citizens, and doesn’t participate in the international community. Mexico obviously has problems with the control criterion. But in a Foreign Policy piece last June, Elliot Ross attacked the magazine’s notorious annual Failed State Index and suggested only somewhat facetiously that the criteria were so vague and subjective that the US could be listed on the grounds of

the deeply corrupt political system that makes legislative progress virtually impossible, inhibits the establishment of truly pluralistic multiparty politics, places the bulk of power in the hands of unaccountable corporations, and offers only the very rich the chance to pursue successful political careers.

And this was before President Obama’s reelection and the “fiscal cliff.”

Indeed, only Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland were in the “most stable” category in the magazine’s June 2012 index; the US was in a far less select “stable” category.

Mexico did not make the 2012 list, though Colombia (with a much better economy and less drug violence) did. I did have some second thoughts about spending nine days in Mexico while walking around Mexico City—doing more walking than I would have if it had been safe to hail a cab on the street—and noticing that even the traffic cops wore bullet-proof vests. (A South American journalist friend said he doubted they were good quality, since he’d seen Mexican policemen who were killed by bullets in the chest.) But in most of Libya there are no cops and in many places no one directing traffic or doing anything about lawbreakers.

Both Mexico and Libya look like failed states from certain angles, especially from the perspective of the Potomac. But the view from inside is often different, and the reasons are telling.

What was most surprising was that in contrast to the alarmism and depression that are crowding out revolutionary enthusiasm in Libya, Mexicans seem to be stoical about their problems. Asking Mexican friends and acquaintances about the drug violence, I expected to hear stories of horror and despair. But only the South American journalist friend obliged. Perhaps out of nationalistic pride, Mexicans instead shot back that the real problem is in the United States, the country that’s the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs (as well as everything else).

Granted, I visited Mexico City and the area around Manzanillo, not northern Mexico, where corpses hanging from bridges and decapitated bodies are a common sight. But a few months ago in small Libyan cities that are quite safe by American standards, I heard many acquaintances complain of the collapse of public safety. Some of the incidents they mentioned were ominous, like nighttime attacks by Islamic extremists on the election posters of female candidates for Parliament this fall, or beatings of liberals. And some of what they didn’t think was ominous struck me as just as bad, like the frequent demolitions of ancient Sufi shrines in mosques. But the Libyan perspective is that the sky is falling, and the reason they think so is that they’re a tiny, close-knit, and relatively homogenous society where centuries of ironclad tradition were replaced by four decades of Qaddafi’s control. Mexicans, on the other hand, are a numerous and multicultural people familiar with the unruly nature of a highly imperfect democracy. The expectations of any given citizens have something to do with whether they think their country is failing, and I suspect that assessment has quite a lot to do with how well a country fares. While many Americans are very critical of the performance of our government, it would be hard to find a large group who would seriously maintain that we are in any way “like” Somalia (the most failed state on the 2012 list) or even Libya.

Incidentally, that June Foreign Policy list ranked 49 countries as more failed than Libya, and puts Georgia just one notch better and Colombia two, which is absurd. Georgia and Colombia have functioning police, courts, and military, collect taxes, and provide a reasonable array of government services. Libya does not.  Colombia is by all accounts doing much better than it was, with far more of the country under government control. Libya remains a mosaic of city-states, some relatively functional, others, like Benghazi, not. Libya’s border with Tunisia is plagued with problems and frequently closed (I have friends in Zwara, the closest city to the border, so I hear quite a lot about this). Then we could talk about Egypt, ranked 31—well yes, it’s running out of money, but if an American ambassador had been murdered there, it’s hard to believe no one would have been brought to justice.

At the very least, the ranking shows that it’s harder than it seems to determine what truly makes a country a “failed” state.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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