Failed States and Failed Civilizations

24 October 2014


The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent “fragile states” is to be considered a euphemism for “failed states” the reader may judge for himself.

The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent fragile states is to be considered a euphemism for failed states the reader may judge for himself.

Why failed states now?

The idea of a failed state (or, if you prefer, a “fragile state”) has been playing an increasingly prominent role in geopolitical thought at least since the end of the Cold War. Failed States and Institutional Decay: Understanding Instability and Poverty in the Developing World by Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz identifies the use of the term “quasi-states” by Robert Jackson in 1990 as the source of the failed state concept. Whatever the provenance, the geopolitical analysis of failed states is an idea whose time has come.

Many factors have contributed to this. Rising instability as nation-states re-aligned themselves after the breakup of the Soviet Union, suppressed ethnic conflicts reemerging, de facto tolerance of “rogue” regimes (which previously would have been drawn into an alliance, but which are now on their own), and the absence of superpower sponsors willing to engage with smaller nation-states in the attempt to gain an edge in global competition, among other factors. While some fragile states were consumed by proxy wars during the Cold War, some vulnerable nation-states received substantial support from superpower sponsors and alliance blocs. A marginal nation-state as an ally in a sensitive region might be too valuable to lose, and so support was forthcoming. Also, both superpower sponsors allied themselves with autocratic regimes that were, to some extent, effective in governing, even if contemptuous of human rights.

Developments in armaments and technology have had the unintended consequence of decentralizing and widely distributing combat power, making asymmetrical conflicts sustainable for long periods of time. Also, the growth of international aid organizations that intervene when governments fail, providing food and medical care, and, in so doing, have the unintended consequence of extending the longevity of states experiencing precipitous decline, especially decline due to failures of leadership (cf. Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two).

Another source of contemporary state failure is what Brennan Kraxberger calls “the overwhelming bias toward preserving existing territories.” I take this feature of the contemporary international nation-state system to be a function of the stagnancy and ossification of the international nation-state system. The nation-state is geographically defined and derives its legitimacy from the territorial principle in law. Thus an international system of nation-states places disproportionate emphasis upon defining geographical territories through unambiguous borders. In the event of any international crisis, the status quo ante is always preferred, to the point of re-constituting failed states simply for the reason of retaining extant borders.

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, Somalia

What is a failed state?

What is a failed state? On the first page of When States Fail: Causes and Consequences by Robert I. Rotberg we read:

Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: BREAKDOWN, PREVENTION, AND REPAIR”

We find a more detailed breakdown of factors of state failure from Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, based on the indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their annual rankings of failed states:

“…failed states are of the sort identified by the Fund for Peace in its Failed States Index, which is based on 12 indicators of state vulnerability: (1) mounting demographic pressures, (2) massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, (3) legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia, (4) chronic and sustained human flight, (5) uneven economic development along group lines, (6) sharp and/or severe economic decline, (7) criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state, (8) progressive deterioration of public services, (9) suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights, (10) security apparatus operating as a ‘state within a state,’ (11) rise of factionalized elites, and (12) intervention of other states or external political actors.”

Marla C. Haims, David C. Gompert et al., Breaking the Failed-State Cycle,

While helpful to a certain extent, there are countless questions that could be raised in regard to the presuppositions embedded in the above definitions. What exactly counts as the factionalization of elites? Might not the Republican and Democratic parties in the US be characterized as a factionalized elites? And would we really prefer an oppressive elite that speaks with a single voice, as in North Korea? In many repressive states a factionalized elite would be a good thing.

If we instead adopt an ostensive definition, and point out examples rather than attempt to formulate what logicians call a “real” definition, we are not much better off. While there is widespread consensus on certain examples of state failure (e.g., Somalia), there are other instances that are much more problematic, and much more political. For example, the Index of Fragile States annually published by the Fund for Peace, which ranges from “very high alert” (with South Sudan at the top of the list) to “very sustainable” (a category including only Finland), places China — by some measures now the largest economy on the planet — as being “high warning,” while Argentina is listed three classes below China as “stable,” only one rung above the US. I would be the first concur that China is problematic on many levels, but to rank it that much higher than Argentina with its severe economic troubles (albeit self-inflicted) strains credulity.

It is perhaps inevitable that any definition of failed or fragile states, or any rankings based on such a definition, will be controversial in some cases and uncontroversial in other cases. State failure is evaluational and not factual; the fact/value distinction (also known as the is/ought distinction) would seem to forbid us from making making any evaluational judgment on the basis of mundane facts. This distinction is not observed in the literature, and I can even imagine that it sounds a bit strange in this context.

Such social science-derived political judgments — like the index of fragile states — derive what legitimacy they aspire to precisely from their factual basis, drawing on extensive statistics and social science research. If there were a way to conceptualize state fail in purely factual terms, this would be appropriate; or if there were a way to base an evaluative judgment of state failure on the basis of evaluational criteria, this too would be appropriate. But the subtle shift from factual survey to evaluational judgment is not merely politically problematic, but also logically problematic.

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Beyond state failure: civilization failure

Let us consider political order (and its failure) at a larger scale — larger in both space and time — than the political order represented by the nation-state. Martin Jacques has introduced the idea of a “civilization-state” to identify China, and the idea is also applicable to India (European civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state). I wrote about Martin Jacques’ conception of a civilization-state earlier in Civilization States and their Attempted Extirpation. China and India as nation-states are part of the international nation-state system, but they also represent the contemporary development of ancient civilizations that can be traced all the way to separate origins during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

How do we identify and differentiate civilizations, and, once we have done so, how do we identify a particular civilization with a present-day nation-state? In accordance with the paradigm of the geographically-defined nation-states, we typically differentiate and identify on the basis of geographical regions. Less often, we make these differentiations and identifications on the basis of the ethnicity of the population, or by other markers of ethnicity, such as language. All of these can be made to work in some contexts, and yet all are problematic.

There are a few familiar lists of civilizations from which we might draw, as, for example, those of Toynbee and Huntington. These, too, are problematic. Toynbee identified a Syriac civilization, and in so far as Syria today is the remaining legacy of Syriac civilization, Syria could be considered a civilization-state, and a failed civilization-state at that. Of Toynbee’s Syriac civilization Walter Kaufmann wrote:

“…no ‘Syriac Civilization,’ for example, ever existed, though it may possibly be convenient in some contexts to lump together the many kingdoms that existed between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to give them some such name as this; but this fictitious civilization could hardly be studied very fully without reference to its two mighty neighbors.”

Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy

Perhaps a better procedure would be to recur to those half dozen or so civilizations that had their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — another list that would consist minimally of the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt (not clearly distinct from Mesopotamian origins), Peru, and Central America. (On early civilizations cf. my post Riparian Civilization.) However, limiting ourselves in this way to a small class of “founder” civilizations would mean that we would miss out on a lot of the most interesting developments in the history of civilization. Western Civilization, for example, is a distant descendant of the Mesopotamian founder civilization, but only after one branch of that civilization moved west and encountered a series of other civilizations, such as Viking Civilization, that ultimately changed its character decisively.

Of these founder civilizations, all have some living presence today, sometimes a mere remnant absorbed into another civilization, and in other cases a vital and distinct tradition remains to this day. If mere longevity is the criterion for civilization failure, none of these civilizations could be said to have failed. Of course, longevity is not the whole story. To cite my own western civilization once again, we have the catastrophic experience of the failure of the Western Roman Empire as an atavistic memory that continues to inform our historical conceptions to this day, two thousand years later. And then, in the very different kind of civilizational transition, the medieval world gave way to the modern world, and again after a three hundred years of modernism without industrialism, modern western civilization gave way to industrial-technological civilization. In all of these transitions, something is lost and something is gained. Shall we call the losses civilization failure? If so, what shall we call the gains?

There are no easy answers as to what constitutes a civilization and what constitutes civilizational failure. Books have been devoted to the topic, and more will yet be written. The really interesting intellectual questions are those that are revealed to us after we make the attempt to differentiate civilizations and define civilizational failure. Any initial effort will fall short, and the ways in which we discern the inadequacy of our initial intuitions has much to teach us. This must be regarded as an ongoing inquiry, and not a question that can admit of a definitive answer.

Civilization-states and state failure

In general, civilization-states are too big to fail. (Perhaps the smallest nation-state that could be identified as a viable civilization-state is Iran, and there are those who would argue that Iran is a failed state — I would not make this argument.) Too big to fail civilization-states find themselves propped up by the international nation-state system, not unlike a puppet regime, but here the puppet is not a particular leader whom more powerful leaders want to keep in office, but a particular kind of state structure that more powerful nation-states want to keep intact. The catastrophic failure of a nation-state implies the possibility of the failure of the international nation-state system predicated upon the viability of the nation-state, and the breakdown of the nation-state system is an existential threat to all nation-states. This explains, in part, the semi-hysterical response on the part of elites drawn from the leadership of nation-states to the breakup of nation-states (which has happened repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, and has therefore provided ample opportunity for political hysteria of the most polished and authoritative kind).

There is, however, a relationship between failed states and failed civilizations: failed states are, at least in some cases, symptoms of failed civilizations. In more detail: there is a poorly defined relationship between state failure and civilization failure in regions where a tradition of civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state; there is a slightly more well-defined relationship between contemporary state-failure and civilization failure where a tradition of civilization did coalesce into a civilization-state. Thus if contemporary China or India were judged to be failed states (which is, needless to say, a judgment I would not make), then there would be reason to consider whether we could judge the civilizations of China and India to have failed.

But an incipient civilization-state, which initially fails to unify the geographical region of which it is the central political entity, fragments into multiple states, each of which aspires itself to be the civilization-state, and each of which lacks legitimacy in this role because too much constitutive of that civilization lies outside its borders. Thus if, for example, we were to judge, say, France of Germany as failed states, there would be very little reason to maintain that western civilization had failed, because western civilization has so many representative nation-states as the bearer of its traditions (or, at least, some subset of its traditions).

The relationship between state failure and civilization failure is not robust because it admits of countless exceptions. A civilization that is productive of a sequence of failed states might be judged to be failed, but in another sense it could be considered successful merely in terms of fecundity: if a civilization continues to produce states, even if every such state fails, the tradition of civilization remains vital in some way. A tradition of civilization in this case may represent a particular perennial idea, something to which the human mind returns like a moth to a candle flame. Every implementation of the idea may prove disastrous, but the idea is as definitive of the human condition as civilization itself.

If a civilization-state can fail, this would represent the failure of the contemporary iteration of an ancient tradition of civilization. If it is controversial to identify some nation-states as failed, it is even more controversial to identify an entire civilization as failed. It is considered to be in bad form to compare civilizations and to rank any one as being better than any other. If we are ever going to get the point at which we can formulate a science of civilization, or, at very least, a theory of civilization, we will have to get past this proscription on the use of comparative concepts in the study of civilization.

In The Future Science of Civilizations I noted how Carnap distinguished classificatory, comparative, and quantitative conceptions as all playing a role in arriving at a scientific conception of a body of knowledge. Civilization, or the study of civilization, must pass through these stages of conceptual development, and in this process it must not allow itself to be threatened by its past errors if it is ever to make progress. As Foucault said, and as I have quoted many times, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”

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6 Responses to “Failed States and Failed Civilizations”

  1. Laurence Bergin said

    Reblogged this on Laurence Bergin.

  2. Jakob Wedman said

    Very interesting blog about civilizations! have you read Oswald Spengler?

    • geopolicraticus said

      I haven’t studied Spengler in detail, but I am aware of his work (Joseph Campbell mentioned Spengler often in his lectures, and that is where I first heard of him). I plan to look into Spengler in more detail at some time. Are you familiar with Otto Neurath’s short work Anti-Spengler? It helps to put Spengler’s work into historical context.

      Best wishes,


      • Jakob Wedman said

        Thanks for your reply! I have not read anything by Neurath but I studied Philosphy of Science in 1995-1998 long before first reading Spengler (2007-2008). I recently found your blog and after reading this post I read the post about inverting the Maslovian pyramid and I found it very Spenglerian if transferred to the the failure of civilisations; when a culture ages and loses it’s raison d’être it fails.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Thanks for pointing this out. I hadn’t noticed a connection between my post on the inversion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what I’ve written about the central projects of civilizations as their raison d’être, but perhaps there is a relationship. Both an individual and a civilization lacking a raison d’être are deracinated and adrift. I am working on more material in relation to the central projects of civilizations, but in the meantime you may find it interesting to read my Civilizations and their Central Projects.

          Best wishes,


  3. […] Failed states and failed civilizations Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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