Watching the States Get Made

The part of the world the US State Department calls “the Near East” is beset right now with a series of interlinked civil wars that threaten to cohere into a wider and even-worse regional conflagration. As it happens, this disorder is exposing the constitution and construction of the contemporary international system to a degree we don’t often see.

In fact, it’s all there in a single passage from a Reuters story on Yemen today (here). The passage starts like this:

[Yemeni President] Hadi’s flight to Aden has raised the prospect of armed confrontation between rival governments based in the north and south, creating chaos that could be exploited by the Yemen-based regional wing of al Qaeda.

Fighting is spreading across Yemen, and 137 people were killed on Friday in the bombings of two Shi’ite mosques in Sanaa. The bombings were claimed by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and said it was also behind an attack that killed 23 people in Tunisia on Wednesday.

As this opening implies, the crisis in Yemen is not “just” a civil war—as if that weren’t bad enough for the people who live there. In addition, the state has almost-completely collapsed.

The contemporary international system is organized around the principle of sovereignty vested in organizations we call states. On paper, every swath of territory is legitimately claimed by one and only one government, and that government enjoys final authority over all political doings in its patch of earth (and airspace and, when relevant, coastal waters).

In much of Yemen right now, though, at least two rival factions lay claim to political authority in the same territory. They are actively fighting over those competing claims, but no faction is strong enough to win the struggle, so, effectively, there is no sovereign. What’s more, at least one of those factions isn’t just trying to seize control of part or all of an existing state. Instead, it is trying to create a new state of sorts that cuts across the borders of several extant ones.

Okay, so now what? The passage continues:

In [a recent] letter to [the UN] Security Council, Hadi called for a [UN Security Council] resolution to “deter the Houthi militias and their allies, to stop their aggression against all governorates, especially the city of Aden, and to support the legitimate authority”.

Here we see that, to help its cause, one faction is appealing for help to the organization that sits atop the existing system—the UN Security Council. Led for now by President Hadi, that faction bases its appeal on its purported legitimacy.

If asked, the leaders of that faction would probably say that their legitimacy flows from their victory in Yemen’s last national elections. Now, those elections weren’t exactly the freest and fairest on record, and the ongoing civil war makes plain that some segments of the population in the territory claimed by Yemen’s national government don’t recognize the election winners as their rightful sovereign. Those elections were also conducted with significant support from the UN and other governments. So, although they are construed as an internal source of legitimation, they could not have occurred without external intervention. Never mind, too, that the faction making this appeal also happens to be the one that has continued to permit the most powerful state in that system, the USA, to conduct drone strikes and other operations on its territory against one of that faction’s chief rivals in Yemen’s civil war.

Never mind all that. Elections are the mechanism that the organization sitting atop this system formally recognizes as the only rightful source of political authority, so the appeal makes sense.

So, how is the UN responding?

U.N. mediator Jamal Benomar is likely to brief the council on Sunday via video link, diplomats said. The Security Council is negotiating a statement on Yemen that could be adopted during the meeting, diplomats said.

“We join all of the other members of the Security Council in underscoring that President Hadi is the legitimate authority in Yemen,” Rathke said in a statement released in Washington.

Unsurprisingly, we see that the UN responds positively to an appeal that implicitly and explicitly reinforce the order it was established to protect and deepen. Even less surprising, we see this positive response in a case where the party making the appeal happens to be the faction favored by the states that wield the most power in that system. In his statement, UN mediator Benomar implies that the positive response reflects the domestic legitimacy of Hadi’s authority. In fact, the whole exchange reveals how sovereignty flows from the system to its parts as much as the other way around.

Finally, the passage concludes:

[Benomar] called on the Houthis and “their allies to stop their violent incitement” but made no mention of Iran, whose backing for the Houthis has raised U.S. concerns.

Hadi held open the door to a negotiated settlement with a call for the Houthis and other groups to attend peace talks in Saudi Arabia.

I think this bit is especially fascinating, because it shows how governments simultaneously play by and against the rules, and how the intergovernmental organizations constituted to codify and enforce those rules try to mitigate the damage by pretending this double-dealing isn’t happening. Iran is the only state specifically described as a transgressor here, but the passage also mentions Saudi Arabia, which has forever meddled in Yemeni affairs, and the US, which has done a lot more meddling in Yemen over the past 10 years or so as part of its so-called Global War on Terror. Talking openly of these double-dealings would underscore how prevalent they are, but these routines contradict the formal rules, so the defenders of the extant order try to minimize those behaviors’ corrosive effects by not speaking of them.

In our daily doings, many of us take for granted the organization of human society into a series of states whose boundaries have already been properly established and whose governments receive their political authority from the tacit or explicit consent of the people they rule. Meanwhile, when events conspire to pull back the curtain a bit, we see a messier scene in which powerful organizations continually engage in rituals and sometimes forceful actions that mostly but not always work to sustain that system; in which authority flows from power as much or more than the reverse; and in which upstarts keep trying (and mostly failing) to get in on the action or overturn the table.

Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

A Rumble of State Collapses

The past couple of years have produced an unusually large number of collapsed states around the world, and I think it’s worth pondering why.

As noted in a previous post, when I say “state collapse,” I mean this:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

The concepts used in this definition are very hard to observe, so I prefer to make probabilistic instead of categorical judgments about which states have crossed this imaginary threshold. In other words, I think state collapse is more usefully treated as a fuzzy set instead of a crisp one, so that’s what I’ll do here.

At the start of 2011, there was only state I would have confidently identified as collapsed: Somalia. Several more were plausibly collapsed or close to it—Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR), and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) come to mind—but only Somalia was plainly over the line.

By my reckoning, four states almost certainly collapsed in 2011-2012—Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen—and Central African Republic probably did. That’s a four- or five-fold increase in the prevalence of state collapse in just two years. In all five cases, collapse was precipitated by the territorial gains of armed challengers. So far, only three of the five states’ governments have fallen, but Assad and Bozize have both seen the reach of their authority greatly circumscribed, and my guess is that neither will survive politically through the end of 2013.

I don’t have historical data to which I can directly compare these observations, but Polity’s “interregnum” (-77) indicator offers a useful (if imperfect) proxy. The column chart below plots annual counts of Polity interregnums (interregna? interregni? what language is this, anyway?) since 1945. A quick glance at the chart indicates that both the incidence and prevalence of state collapse seen in the past two years—which aren’t shown in the plot because Polity hasn’t yet been updated to the present—are historically rare. The only comparable period in the past half-century came in the early 1990s, on the heels of the USSR’s disintegration. (For those of you wondering, the uptick in 2010 comes from Haiti and Ivory Coast. I hadn’t thought of those as collapsed states, and their addition to the tally would only make the past few years look that much more exceptional.)

Annual Counts of Polity Interregnums, 1946-2010

Annual Counts of Polity Interregnums, 1946-2010

I still don’t understand this phenomenon well enough to say anything with assurance about why this “rumble” of state collapses is occurring right now, but I have some hunches. At the systemic level, I suspect that shifts in the relative power of big states are partly responsible for this pattern. Political authority is, in many ways, a confidence game, and growing uncertainty about major powers’ will and ability to support the status quo may be increasing the risk of state collapse in countries and regions where that support has been especially instrumental.

Second and related is the problem of contagion. The set of collapses that have occurred in the past two years are clearly interconnected. Successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt spurred popular uprisings in many Arab countries, including Libya, Syria, and Yemen . Libya’s disintegration fanned the rebellion that precipitated a coup and then collapse in Mali. Only CAR seems disconnected from the Arab Spring, and I wonder if the rebels there didn’t time their offensive, in part, to take advantage of the region’s   current distraction with its regional neighbor to the northwest.

Surely there are many other forces at work, too, most of them local and none of them deterministic. Still, I think these two make a pretty good starting point, and they suggest that the current rumble probably isn’t over yet.

“State Failure” Has Failed. How About Giving “State Collapse” a Whirl?

Foreign Policy magazine recently published the 2012 edition of the Fund for Peace‘s Failed States Index (FSI), and the response in the corner of the international-studies blogosphere I inhabit has been harsh. Scholars have been grumbling about the Failed States Index for years, but the chorus of academic and advocacy voices attacking it seems to have grown unusually large and loud this year. In an admirable gesture of of fair play, Foreign Policy ran one of the toughest critiques of the FSI on its own web site, where Elliot Ross of the blog Africa is a Country wrote,

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

As Ross and many others argue, the core problem with the FSI is that it defines state failure very broadly, and in a way that seems to privilege certain forms of political stability over other aspects of governance and quality of life that the citizens in those states may prize more highly. In a 2008 critique of the “state failure” concept [PDF] that nicely anticipated all of the recent sturm und drang around the FSI, Chuck Call wrote that

The ‘failed states’ concept—and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states—has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iraq, and the Sudan.

In that essay, Call advocates abandoning the now-hopelessly-freighted concept of “state failure” in favor of a narrower focus on “state collapse”—that is, situations “where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community.” I agree.

In fact, in 2010, while still working as research director for the U.S. Government–funded Political Instability Task Force, I led a small research project that aimed to develop a workable definition of state collapse and coding guidelines that would allow researchers to know it when they see it. The project stopped short of producing a global, historical data set, but the coding guidelines were road-tested and refined, and I think the end results have some value. In light of the FSI brouhaha, I’ve posted the results of that project on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in hopes that they might be useful to a broader audience.

In those materials—a concept paper and a set of coding guidelines—I argue that we can get to a more workable concept by moving away from Max Weber’s aspirational vision of modern states as legitimate and orderly bureaucracies. Instead, I think we get further when we recognize that real-world states are a specific kind of political organization associated with a particular realization of global politics. That realization—the “Westphalian order,” or just “the international system”—constitutes states and delegates certain forms of political authority to them, but national governments in the real world vary widely in their ability to exercise that authority. When internationally recognized governments cease to exist, or their actual authority is badly circumscribed, we can say that the state has collapsed. That kind of collapse can happen in two different ways: fragmentation and disintegration.

When the failure to rule involves the national government’s territorial reach, we might call it collapse by fragmentation. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes final authority within a specific territory and international recognition of that authority, so situations in which large swaths of a state’s territory are effectively governed by organized political challengers whose authority is not internationally recognized represent a form of collapse. In practical terms, these situations usually arise in one of two ways: either 1) a rebel group violently pushes state agents out of a particular area, or 2) a regional government unilaterally proclaims its autonomy or independence and becomes the de facto sovereign authority in that region. In either situation, the rival group directly and publicly challenges the national government’s claim to sovereignty and effectively becomes the supreme political authority in that space. State military forces may still operate in these areas, but they do so in an attempt to reassert control that has already been lost, as indicated by the primacy of the rival organization in day-to-day governance…

State collapse also occurs when the national government fails to enforce its authority in the absence of a rival claimant to sovereignty. This type of failure might be called state collapse by disintegration. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes that a central government is capable not just of making rules but also of enforcing them. Dramatic failures of a state’s enforcement capabilities are indicated by widespread lawlessness and disorder, such as rioting, looting, civil violence, and vigilantism. In the extreme, central governments will sometimes disappear completely, but this rarely occurs. More often, a national government will continue to operate, but its rules will be ignored in some portions of its putative territory.

To distinguish state collapse from other forms of political instability and disorder, we have to establish some arbitrary thresholds beyond which the failure is considered catastrophic. Saying focused on the core dimensions of domestic sovereignty—territory and order—I do this as follows:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

If you’re interested, you can find more specific language on how to assess challenger control and lawlessness in the coding guidelines.

Applying this definition to the world today, I see only a handful of states that are clearly collapsed and just a few more that might be. In the “clearly collapsed” category, I would put Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. In the “probably collapsed” category, I would put Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Those judgments are based on cursory knowledge of those cases, however, and I would be interested to hear what others think about where this label does (Chad? Haiti? Ivory Coast? Sudan? South Sudan?) or does not (Afghanistan? Mali?) fit. Either way, the list is much shorter and, I believe, more coherent than the 20-country sets the Failed States Index identifies as “critical” and “in danger.”

More important, this is a topic that still greatly interests me, so I would love to have this conceptual work critiqued, put to use, or both. Fire away!

International Politics and the Production of Arab National Councils

One of the many interesting things the “Arab awakening” of 2011 has given us is the opportunity to witness the reproduction of the international system in real time with uncommon clarity.

By “international system,” I mean the institutions around which global politics is organized and the norms and values on which those institutions depend. This system may feel like it’s a feature of our natural environment, but it isn’t. As anthropologists are especially adept at showing, the political systems that we take for granted are really constructs we produce through everyday practices and representations.  These constructs often become so deeply embedded that it’s hard to imagine a world without them, but they are not inevitable, and their dependence on human practice means they are forever vulnerable to challenge and change. In a way, these systems are like ant hills. We collectively build and rebuild them as we follow our daily routines, often without even being told to do so. Even though the hill is constantly under repair, its residents and constituent materials always changing, we still perceive it as a fixed feature of the landscape.

The defining feature of the contemporary international system is the organization of politics at the global level around relations among nation-states. The nation-states on which this system is predicated are, in the ideal, hierarchical political organizations with unified authority over specific swathes of territory. This authority is legitimated through mutual recognition; you are the rightful ruler of your territory because I recognize you, and I am the rightful ruler of my territory because you recognize me. In practice, this system means that every bit of (populated) territory is assigned to a specific state; each of these states is supposed to speak with one voice; and international relations is supposed to be about official representatives of these states talking to (or, increasingly rarely, fighting with) each other.

Because this system presumes the existence of unified, sovereign governments, its constituents get very uncomfortable when the identity of another member becomes unclear. Unfinished revolutions are one way that can happen. When states say they no longer recognize an existing government as the legitimate representative of another state, the design of the international system compels them to anoint a successor as quickly as possible. That successor can’t be any old organization, however; it has to fit the template of a state. It ought to speak with one voice for the entire territory over which it claims authority, and, ideally, it ought to have some capacity for backing that claim to authority with force.

In Arab states experiencing revolutions this year, international demand for a successor to regimes declared illegitimate has encouraged the rapid formation of national councils to which international recognition could be readily transferred. The “national council” meme got started in Libya back in February, when rebels in Benghazi announced the formation of a council that would unite new governing bodies and military forces across “freed” parts of Libya. Two weeks later, France became the first country to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s legitimate government, and many other countries soon followed. At the time of its formation, the TNC papered over regional divisions that are becoming more apparent now that Gaddafi has been driven from Tripoli. In the meantime, though, international recognition legitimated military cooperation with rebel forces and gave the TNC access to badly needed funds.

The Libyan national council’s success at attracting international recognition and support has spurred imitation. Opposition forces in Yemen followed suit in August, and Syrian dissidents did the same in early October. Neither of these councils has won international recognition yet, in part because they haven’t shown many signs of being able to seize and sustain control of territory–one of the pillars of national sovereignty under the current system.

The important point here, though, is that these national councils have not arisen organically from domestic politics. There is undoubtedly some domestic logic to their creation–unified and coordinated revolutionary movements usually stand a better chance of toppling incumbent rulers than fragmented ones–but there is a strong outward-facing element as well. I think these councils came into being as quickly as they did–and maybe even at all–in response to pressures from foreign governments whose endorsements and material support they thought they needed to win their revolutions. Tellingly, SNC spokesman Ghalioun said at the international press conference announcing the council’s formation that one major benefit of the SNC’s existence “would be to provide a single body with which other countries could coordinate.”

Without question, the establishment of a unified and credible alternative government is a convenience for other states cheering for the fall of the incumbent regime. What often goes unrecognized in this process is the potential for unintended consequences. In the short run, this rush to unity could have some positive effects by hastening the successful conclusion of these revolutions. At the same time, international pressures to present a unified face may accelerate or even prevent political bargaining among opposition factions in ways that could undercut the viability of the regime that follows.


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