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State Weakness and State Failure

State Weakness and State Failure Genesis and Consequences State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century by Francis Fukuyama; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2004;

Review Article

State Weakness and State Failure

Genesis and Consequences

State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century

by Francis Fukuyama; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2004; pp ix+160, $ 21.

When States Fail: Causes and Consequences

edited by Robert I Rotberg; Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2004; pp 336, $ 65.

State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror

edited by Robert I Rotberg; Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2003; pp 456, $ 24.95.

Beyond State Crisis: Postcolonial Africa and Post-Soviet Eurasia in Comparative Perspective

edited by Mark R Beissinger, Crawford Young; Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington DC, 2002; pp 504, $ 24.95.


tate failure is a recent addition to the lexicon of contemporary political analysis. Of course, any new category in social scientific discourse is unlikely to graduate immediately to the status of a full-fledged concept; for a while, it should be expected to function as a placeholder, whose utility will be tested by the extent that social scientists succeed in explicating the causal mechanisms-cum-processes behind the category. But we need not subscribe to a Foucauldian view of the mutual imbrication of knowledge and power to realise that in addition to such an “internal”, purely academic evolution, the “external” normative-political resonance of a concept often plays no mean role in ensuring its circulation, while by the same token arousing strong resistance and hostility in others.

“State failure” occupies an already ambiguous status in this respect. Some suspect that this (and contiguous categories) have been deployed to pejoratively tar certain developing states and their ruling regimes. However, while such caution is welcome, it is important here to avoid too quick and too reductionist a sociology of knowledge. In fact, in the post-cold war world there is scarcely a region of the world free of the troubling constellation of phenomena for which “state failure” is a placeholder. It would be an illusion to believe that because the academia of the north Atlantic rich capitalist democracies have been the first to coin the category, therefore the phenomenon to which it refers is confined to their zone of concern, leaving the rest of us the luxury of being unbothered. To take but one instance, in Latin America, Colombia’s problems, whatever be their consequences for the US, are likely to impinge far more directly on Brazil. As for India, even a cursory glance at its neighbourhood suffices to disclose a less-than-pleasant reality: even if we avoid the contentious label of “failed”, the list of “troubled” polities includes pretty much all of India’s neighbourhood, viz, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan. Only about Nepal can we hope, without by any means being able to guarantee, that it is on the upswing. This harsh reality should give us pause before we move too quickly to a tainting by association whereby the category of state failure itself is dismissed.

Fukuyama on State-Building

Having said this, the first of the books under review here, by Francis Fukuyama, which was originally delivered as a lecture series at a north American university, quite candidly takes the threat to the west after the events of September 11, 2001 as its own point of departure. The origins of the recent spurt of interest in state failure, Fukuyama points out, has to do with the mutation of the idea of failed states into a first-order “security” threat as far as the better-endowed states of the international system are concerned. September 11 has altered the calculus of threat and vulnerability and there is a far greater realisation amongst the powers that count (in any conventional structural realist reckoning) of the perils of interdependence in a globalised world.1

Quite remote from his earlier tone of triumphalism in his “end of history” thesis incarnation, Fukuyama more than a decade after the end of the cold war is concerned about the fate of the project of grafting “liberal modernity” in different parts of the world. Conceding that the task is indeed a complicated one, he makes a plea to factor in local cultural preferences and needs in order to craft better institutions. Fukuyama does not assume that there is a quick fix universal theory of institutions that merely needs to be reproduced in different contexts. On the contrary, he inquires if such a theory exists in the first place and second, if it is does so whether it is likely to have any purchase at all in the complex world we inhabit. Stemming from an explicit liberal provenance, Fukuyama places particularly strong emphasis on securing property rights through the rule of law. Among the betterknown right wing scholars he cites in this context is Milton Friedman who he argues came to the late, but nevertheless emphatic, realisation that the establishment of the rule of law must sequentially precede privatisation. This emphasis on the priority of state-building is accompanied by a related claim that “state strength” is more important than “state scope”; i e, how capable a state is in its core domains matters more than that its performance of a broad range of functions.

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

One interesting part of the author’s argument on state-building is when he turns the spotlight on US foreign policy and dubs its intervention in Iraq a failure; this, he claims, derived from the failure of the US department of defence to prepare adequately for the magnitude of the needed post-war state-building tasks. He sarcastically remarks that “state-building is something needed not just in collapsed or weak third world states but occasionally in Washington as well” (p 138).

Among the new lines of thinking proposed, though by no means fleshed out, in Fukuyama’s tract, is his critique of Charles Tilly’s well known claims regarding war and state formation in Europe. In Tilly’s now famous phrase “war made the state and the state made war”; that is to say, state-building occurred in and through interstate military conflict. Fukuyama contests this logic of state formation in much of the developing world. Also consistent with his stress on state-building is Fukuyama’s scepticism about any generic positive correlation between democracy and development. Again, however, this claim is far from fully fleshed out; in particular, it contributes little to the earlier well known results of Adam Przeworski (2004) and his collaborators.

The core political message that the reader takes away from Fukuyama’s short tract, therefore, is his emphatic reminder that state-building remains an unfinished project in many parts of the world. It is politically naïve to imagine that we need to constantly engage in state contraction, as much recent policy orthodoxy would have it.

Robert Rotberg’s Two Volumes

Robert I Rotberg in his two-volume edited study assembles a collective sifting through the empirics of state behaviour to both evolve a conceptual toolkit for problematic states and to empirically audit its content through a number of case study chapters. According to Rotberg in his introduction, it is best to think in terms of a wider continuum that, besides failed states, includes weak states, failing states and collapsed states as well. A critical pause is in order here to disaggregate conceptually what these various appellations convey. The primary motivation for this effort, Rotberg is quick to remind us, is the absence in the existing literature of “…sharply argued, instructive and well delineated cases” [Rotberg 2004:2]. If one were to concede the validity of this claim, Rotberg’s endeavour may be welcomed. However, the extent of success in addressing these lacunae is quite another question, meriting further discussion.

In terms of analytical heuristics, Rotberg begins by examining the primary functions of statehood. States are meant to provide “political goods” of which the most basic remains “human security”. Failed states in this calculus, simply put, are states that do not meet this basic criterion. They reveal a marked inability to ensure the protection of life of their own citizenry and are faced with severe legitimacy issues. How is this any different from a “weak”, “failing” or “collapsed” state? According to Rotberg,

Weak states (broadly, states in crisis) include a broad continuum of states: they may be inherently weak because of geographical, physical, or fundamental economic constraints; or they may be basically strong, but temporarily or situationally weak because of internal antagonisms, management flaws, greed, despotism, or external attacks. Weak states typically harbour ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other inter-communal tensions that have not yet, or not yet thoroughly, become overtly violent [Rotberg 2004:4].

Not all weak states in this schema inevitably morph into failed states. Weak states which do end up as failed states show signs of discontent and eventually create political space for “emerging rebels” who are not inhibited when it comes to the use of “overt violence” for the purposes of power aggregation. A third category of states which also enters this catalogue is referred to as “collapsed states”. Rotberg points out that not all failed states necessarily end up as collapsed states. Collapsed states are “…a rare and extreme version of a failed state. Political goods are obtained through private or ad hoc means. Security is equated with the rule of the strong” [Rotberg 2004:9].

At a more fundamental level, Rotberg does draw attention to inadequate institutional designs that are also symptomatic of failed states. It is not just the inability to guarantee the basic security of its citizenry – “essential freedoms” remain a serious casualty as well. Failed states are distinguished by their complete inability to maintain even a semblance of law and order, and at their worst tend to “…prey on their own constituents” [Rotberg 2004:6]. But Rotberg also notes that since failed states are in the last analysis humanly created disasters, they are therefore also subject to human intervention, which promises and on occasion delivers “repair and revival”.

One angle explored by several of the more imaginative chapters in Rotberg (2004) is to ask questions about the forms of political sovereignty in the contemporary international system. Christopher Clapham’s contribution, for instance, seeks to historicise the emergence of the modern state and advances the claim that the “universality” of the state form still remains a fragile and tentative reality. Clapham claims that:

[t]here are now significant areas of the world in which the existence of a state is little more than a pretense, maintained by the international system because it lacks any intellectual or legal framework other than statehood through which to understand and cope with developments on the ground. Legal fictions are of course a commonplace, in both domestic and international law, but they need to be recognised for what they are [Rotberg 2004: 82].

Clapham cites a series of African examples, Rwanda, Lesotho, Ghana and Uganda, to reveal the “shallow” nature of these processes. In other words, “grafting” the Westphalian-cum-Weberian construct has led to its fair share of failures in the contemporary international system.

In another piece, Jeffrey Herbst shares Clapham’s scepticism when he points out bluntly what the empirical record amply shows: namely, that state failure is a “normal” historical fact rather than a rarity. Herbst’s argument is at its provocative best when he moots the idea of “decertification” in order to challenge “fictitious” statehoods. Arguing that the international performative dimensions of statehood serve more as a distraction rather than an accurate reflection of reality on the ground, Herbst points out that “[d]ecertification would be a strong signal that something fundamental has gone wrong in a country, and that parts of the international community are no longer willing to continue the myth that every state is always exercising sovereign authority” [Rotberg 2004: 313]. Somalia, for instance would be a prime contender for Herbst’s project of “decertification”.

One way out of the spiral of apocalypse for states, Jens Meirhenrich argues in another piece, is to build sufficient “stakes” in statehood. How does one effectively generate these stakes? According to Meirhenrich, “[t] hese stakes can revolve around property, rights, representation, influence, power, or other commodities

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

deemed valuable by interacting agents bargaining over the state’s future. Stakes need to engage people living in the state’s shadow” [Rotberg 2004:154].

We shall now briefly turn our attention to Rotberg’s other collection, Rotberg (2003), which undertakes empirical case studies of polities differentially placed on the continuum of weak, failing, failed and collapsed states. Distinguishing between cases of undisputed failure (Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Somalia), states that are “dangerously weak” (Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan) and those that remain “safely weak” (Fiji, Haiti and Lebanon at the time of writing) Rotberg seeks to unravel different scenarios of state unease.

Given an accent here on failed states, we shall concentrate on the chapters devoted to the sub-Saharan African experience. René Lemarchand draws attention to the grotesque consequences of state failure in the Democratic Republic of Congo in what he labels a classic case of a neopatrimonialist regime. The role of “external actors” is particularly important, but General Mobutu Sese Seko’s domestic politics also comes in for scrutiny. Lemarchand observes that

[w]hat set Mobutu apart from other neopatrimonial rulers was his unparalleled capacity to institutionalise kleptocracy at every level of the social pyramid and hisunrivalled talent for transforming personal rule into a cult and political clientism into cronyism [Rotberg 2003:31].

In his chapter on Sierra Leone, William Reno recounts how illicit diamond mining played a huge role in determining political outcomes within that country. According to Reno, Sierra Leone witnessed a serious undermining of its formal political institutions and this combined with a “militarisation of politics” created a potent brew generating an all-round crisis of legitimacy [Rotberg 2003:84]. In the case of Sudan, Gérard Prunier and Rachel M Gisselquist argue that inter-family competitions within the Arab elite and exclusionary politics has resulted both in periodic “coups” and “civil wars” [Rotberg 2003:113]. However, the severest instance of state failure remains Somalia. In their chapter on this case, Walter S Clarke and Robert Gosande point out that there was a “chronic” quality to Somalia’s failure and eventual transition to “collapse” [Rotberg 2003:156].

By Rotberg’s chosen criteria of failure to provide fundamental “political goods” all these states qualify in their inability to guarantee basic “human security” to their citizenry. However, a focus on outcomes and baseline definitions does raise the question of a potential neglect of deeper histories and trajectories of these states given the more immediate imperatives of marrying cases to typology.

Comparing State Crises in Sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia

Mark R Beissinger and Crawford Young in their edited volume tread ground similar to that of Rotberg in focusing on “state dysfunctionality”. However, the specific research strategy they opt for is more focused. Instead of looking at all failed or weak states around the globe, they choose to compare two large regions: post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa and post-Communist Eurasia. The juxtaposition appears rather bold, considering there are several differences one can catalogue between the two regions, the most obvious being the substantially higher level of economic development of the Eurasian area, despite the output decline of the years after the breakdown of communism. However, the connecting thread as far as Beissinger and Young (hereafter B&Y) are concerned is the state crises that afflict both these areas. The idea of each region serving as a “mirror” of the other where “paired analogous processes and outcomes” come under the scanner deserves credit for its ambition and novelty.

B&Y are to begin with on the same register as Rotberg when they catalogue the characteristic features of state failure. These include the inability of the state to meet the essential needs of its citizens, rent-seeking, and pronounced cultural conflict, on occasion. Unlike Rotberg who is willing to define state failure in terms of an overarching single criterion, namely, the incapacity of the state to meet human security, B&Y look at state failure more in terms of a range of symptoms rather than any single facet.

One basis on which B&Y argue for some commonality between these two seemingly disparate regions is the timing of state genesis. According to Beissinger and Young, both Africa and post-Soviet Russia were “late” interlopers in making claims to modern statehood. However, the similarity ends here. In Africa, they argue that the imperial legacy has played itself out differently, with far greater impact on existing institutions and political culture.

In contrast, Beissinger and Young point out that in the case of post-Soviet Eurasia the role of the imperial past has been far more subdued in shaping current resolutions of statehood. However, the authors are cautious enough not to postulate any telos based on the varied impact of these lineages. To be more explicit “…there no longer appears to be a clearly defined end point to the processes of adaptation in course” [B&Y 2002: 467]. However, the overall thrust of their argument is that while the telos of “liberal democracy” appears suspect in both the regions, perhaps more plausible is a “…broad weakening of the very fabric of stateness” [B&Y 2002: 470]. The challenge of the future really then is to finesse “effective political authority” but there remain no clear answers and B & Y’s volume does not offer much concrete assistance on this score.

Conclusion: Two Lines of Thought

We find two lines of thinking engaging us after reading these volumes. Neither can be dealt with adequately within the space of a review, so we shall only offer some preliminary comments, while deferring a fuller exploration for another occasion. The first is a consideration of the problems of state failure in the south Asian region. As mentioned earlier, several of south Asia’s polities undoubtedly either qualify or come uncomfortably close to this rubric. Nor should we labour under the illusion that India itself is happily immune from the syndrome; while the country has the enormous resilience of a consolidated democracy, state weakness remains endemic here, even if it remains confined to certain domains and regions. Obvious examples would be the spread of Naxalism across six states, and the persisting situation in north-east India, which one scholar has quite rightly characterised as one of “durable disorder”.2 It is not a question of the politics of labelling; if some find the term state failure objectionable, it could perhaps be changed, but the phenomena it refers to is inescapable in south Asia, and a certain unflinching steadiness of gaze is required to face it for what it is.

The second line of thought these books provoked in us relates to the academic point of strategies of sound social science research. Judging by the material here, the literature on state failure, and on state weakness more generally, cannot at this

Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006 stage of its evolution be said to be a mature body of work. It suffers from several maladies, none of them damning of the enterprise or insuperable, but which nonetheless deserve to be noted. (We leave out here Fukuyama’s short tract, which is more in the nature of a “think-piece” than a coherent programme of inquiry). One is the syndrome of post-hoc empiricism, in the sense that many of the authors work by first observing the current state of a polity and then slotting it into a particular category. There is a cataloguing of symptoms, supported by country-specific narratives. The more fundamental weakness here appears to be this: there is no systematic attempt to explicate the causal mechanisms-cum-processes that underlie state weakness.

If we are to believe authors as diverse in their intellectual trajectories as Jon Elster and Charles Tilly, it is this quality that distinguishes the best social science research.3 In its absence what remains unclear from these books is how the various symptoms described connect together. This is particularly important because states may suffer from several of these maladies and still do not come anywhere close to failing. Also, it is only a focus on causal mechanisms that can explain what is the real heart of the matter, namely the dynamics of the process: how states transit across the continuum, from stable to weak to failing to failed to collapsed states. Questions abound. Are the conditions for state failure proposed in these works necessary or sufficient conditions? Is there perhaps a critical mass or cascade-type or tippingpoint-type phenomena at work here, such that once certain thresholds are crossed, the same processes that are mere maladies become catastrophic? We do not know, and more important, the use of historical cum case narrative methods as the exclusive research mode in these volumes is in any case not geared to generating robust answers.

Of relevance here are two important reviews of the current state of best practice social science research protocols, one on comparative politics by David Laitin (2002), and the other on international relations, by James Morrow (2002).

Both are consistent with a stress on causal mechanisms-cum-processes, but their arguments have the added usefulness of being directed to the nuts and bolts questions of toolkits for empirical research. Laitin and Morrow argue for a tripartite strategy, one that would iteratively move back and forth between three prongs: historical cum case narratives, statistical/ quantitative methods, and formal modelling (principally using game theory). Both authors illustrate their claims with a detailed discussion of certain research domains where this has led to the discarding of earlier loose claims, and generally knowledge cumulation and increasing robustness of research results. If Laitin and Morrow are on the right track – and we believe they are – there remains some distance still to be travelled by the state failure literature.

But of course, while social science has its protocols, the urgency of certain themes is such that we are not allowed the luxury of waiting. No topic could be more urgent on this list than state failure. Towards the task of initial clarification of the contours of this theme, the books reviewed here make an important contribution.




1 For a classic account of Structural Realism or Neorealism see, Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1983; Reprint edition, first published, 1979.

2 Baruah, Sanjib, Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005.

3 See for instance, Elster, Jon, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1989 and by the same author ‘A Plea for Mechanisms’ in Hedström, Peter and Swedberg, Richard (eds), Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 45-73. Also Tilly, Charles, ‘Mechanisms in Political Processes’, Annual Review of Political Science, 2001, pp 21-41.


Laitin, David (2002): ‘Comparative Politics: The State of the Sub Discipline’ in Ira Katznelson and Helen Milner (eds), Political Science: The State of the Discipline, WW Norton and Co, New York, pp 630-59 and Morrow, James, ‘International Conflict: Assessing the Democratic Peace and Offense-Defense Theory’ in Ira Katznelson and Helen Milner (eds), Political Science: The State of the Discipline, WW Norton and Co, New York, pp 172-96.

Przeworski, Adam (2004): ‘Democracy and Economic Development’ in Edward D Mansfield and Richard Sisson (eds), The Evolution of Political Knowledge, Ohio State University Press, Columbus.

Institute for Studies in Industrial Development New Delhi

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Economic and Political Weekly October 7, 2006

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