All State Collapses Are Not Created Equal

In June 2011, Yemen suffered a state collapse. A nonviolent uprising that started haltingly in January gained momentum the following month, after President Ben Ali was toppled by protests in Tunisia and as Egypt’s anti-government movement was also gaining steam. In March, when bloody repression failed to break Yemen’s encamped protest movement, elements of the state’s security forces began peeling off to support the demonstrators. Internationally brokered negotiations over a transition deal with President Saleh cycled through hope and frustration until late May, when fighting erupted between loyal and breakaway factions of the armed forces. An attack on the presidential palace in early June seriously injured the president, who then fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, leaving Yemen and the rest of the world uncertain who, if anyone, was steering the fast-disintegrating ship of state. Over the ensuing month, the economy has crumbled, private militias have seized new territory, and a longstanding independence movement in South Yemen has taken further steps toward secession.

By state collapse, I mean a situation in which an internationally recognized state fails to provide public order in at least half of its territory or the capital city for an extended period of time–say, a month or more. Failures of public order are indicated by: pervasive lawlessness, evidenced by behaviors like rioting, looting, and vigilantism; the successful provision of public order by an organized challenger, usually either a rebel group or breakaway regional government; or some combination thereof. By my reckoning, the clock started ticking for Yemen after Saleh fled in early June; a month later, public order still has not been restored, and conditions only seem to be deteriorating further.

Some Yemenis and outside observers initially responded to suggestions that Yemen was collapsing by insisting that, “Yemen is not Somalia!” Saying that Yemen has collapsed, however, is not the same thing as saying that it is has slipped into chaos or anarchy, which is what I think those reactions are all about. Even within a category as bleak as state collapse, there are variations of degree and type. These variations suggest that there are many possible futures for Yemen, and some are less gloomy than others.

Take Albania, for example. In early 1992, looting, banditry, and rioting spread across the country during a period of political polarization wrought by the ruling Communist Party’s narrow victory in competitive elections the previous spring. Albania’s economy essentially ground to a halt, and output declined sharply for the next few years. In spite of this disintegration of central state authority, however, the country never slipped into civil war, and politics regained an equilibrium of sorts by the early 2000s.

Nicaragua offers another counterpoint to the state-collapse-as-black-hole narrative. In the spring of 1979, a newly unified Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) launched a successful offensive against Nicaraguan government forces, eventually fighting its way into the capital and forcing President Somoza from power. The country’s civil war sputtered along for some time–thanks in part to covert U.S. support for the Sandinistas’ rivals–but the FSLN managed to consolidate power throughout much of the country fairly quickly, and long-term outcome has been pretty good. In 1990, just a decade after the collapse of the Somoza regime, Nicaragua saw its first-ever peaceful transfer of power between elected presidents when the National Opposition Union’s Violeta Chamorro was inaugurated after her surprise victory over Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

Without question, Somalia has suffered the most severe state collapse in recent memory. Two decades after the fall of the Siad Barre regime, the “country” is really just a space on the map described wishfully by some as a nation-state. That said, improved governance in the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland show that even a collapse this complete doesn’t permanently doom the whole territory.

I think it’s impossible to predict with confidence where Yemen is headed in the next few years. The level of violence it has suffered so far in 2011 already differentiates it from a case like post-Communist Albania, where widespread lawlessness and economic collapse were not accompanied by civil war. Even so, I hope that comparisons with other recent cases of state collapse show that saying this condition now holds is not equivalent to a prediction of everlasting doom.

Who knows–with careful study, those other cases might even suggest courses of action, for Yemenis and for foreigners, that could help steer the situation away from the worst possible outcomes. My own research to date has focused exclusively on the onset of state collapse, not the end of it, so I don’t have much to offer on that topic at the moment. One useful place to start the search, though, might be State Failure, Collapse and Reconstruction, an edited volume from 2003 that is more sensitive than most treatments of the subject to the complexities of state collapse and the state-building efforts that usually ensue. I’m also intrigued by the guidance offered by Stephen Krasner, former director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and a professor of mine in graduate school, who has argued that the international community ought to recognize new forms of shared sovereignty as a way to help establish minimally effective governance in collapsed states (link).

I’ll close on a semantic note: my avoidance of the terms “state failure” and “failed state” is deliberate. In my opinion, those terms are too vague and too pejorative to be useful any more. For a thoughtful discussion on this point, see Chuck Call’s 2008 essay in Third World Quarterly, “The Fallacy of the ‘Failed State'” (link). I prefer “state collapse” because it connotes a process of institutional disintegration without hauling all the normative baggage now attached to “state failure.”

POSTSCRIPT: In a July 11 post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel, Jeb Boone, managing editor of Yemen Times, writes that, “While Sana’a’s power brokers look to posture themselves to take seats of power, the Yemeni government has lost total control over the rest of the country.” For a detailed description of the country’s regional fragmentation, see his whole post here.

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