• The Gender Security Project

The Problematic Notion of ‘Failed States’

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Image: Source

A failed state, also known as a fragile, fractured, rogue, or quasi state in different contexts, as defined and understood through the lens of the Westphalian template, is a state that can no longer properly govern or enforce its laws nor provide basic goods and services to its citizens. Examples of failed states according to the west are Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. The idea of a failed state is a western concept that originated from post-World War II American policy-making and development circles and as such is a heavily contested term.

Justifying Military and Humanitarian Intervention

Western powers love to talk about security threats, whether to their own state or to the international order. The question of failed states arose out of the same concern and are portrayed as direct and indirect security threats which the West should either be cautious about or intervene into, usually on the basis that failed states are vulnerable to terrorism, drugs, trafficking, and violence. These reasons are also used to justify military occupation, “humanitarian”/peace-building/state-building intervention, interference in another sovereign state’s (particularly poor states) domestic affairs and the exploitation of the already vulnerable states for resources. In 2001, the USA led an intervention in Afghanistan to “liberate” its people and introduce liberal democracy. However, twenty years later, even with President Biden’s recent announcement to withdraw all troops, the country is arguably more unstable than it started out. Two decades of external interveners from the west, comprising of groups that were never able to understand the diverse challenges of lived experiences and local realities, has left Afghanistan far from reaching peace and stability.

The rhetoric on failed and fragile states cannot be discussed in isolation from the west’s militaristic foreign policies and economic and diplomatic interventions. Moreover, on the pretext of resolving regional conflicts and countering transnational terrorism/international organised crime, the ‘failed state’ is used as an ideological invention to legitimise US foreign interventions and strengthen its supremacy in the world order, as per Noam Chomsky. Often, the labelling of a state as a failure is conditional to western interests being directly threatened and warrant international intervention, as in the case of Afghanistan, Somalia and Liberia and not in cases such as Sudan and Nigeria. Ultimately, the characteristics which are used to identify a failed state are extremely diverse, ranging from democratic breakdown, war, human rights violation, corruption to ethnic conflict. The ambiguity of what constitutes state failure means not only that divergent states are clubbed together but also that the definition can be tweaked to suit the interests of the western powers that designate which state has failed.

Racist and Imperialist Connotations: The Colonial Legacy

State failure, weakness and disintegration are associated with corruption, political repression, bad governance, poverty, civil war and primordialism and the underlying commonality is that states fail because they do not possess certain political, economic and social capabilities to function as a state. These assertions made by the west are premised on a highly imperial and colonial definition of what constitutes a successful or non-failed state. Colonialism assumed the superiority of western models of governance and organisation and even in the post-colonial era, former colonial powers have strived to make universal the Westphalian idea of the state. As it was then, even now, non-western people are othered and forced to adopt Eurocentric institutions in ordered to be deemed legitimate in the international order. Consequently, the needs, culture, economies and politics of local and indigenous people are ignored or dismissed and the discourse around failed states is framed as though the reconstruction efforts led by the west are in the interests of both the home country and the west.

The African continent is perhaps the best example to illustrate how the lasting trauma of colonisation and neo-imperialism have played out. The decolonisation process in Africa was led by the coloniser countries through haphazardly drawn borders to demarcate the newly independent states. This highly arbitrary division has sowed ethnic and religious tensions which have hampered peace and prosperity in several African states to this day. When western countries come out and label such states as ‘failed’, it is an ahistorical label that privileges the European experience of statehood and that renders invisible the legitimacy of political organisation native and unique to Africa. In particular, the idea of state failure neglects the histories of destruction due to colonisation and obfuscates an intersectional understanding of the causes of conflicts and crises that contribute to contemporary realities. As Jonathan Hill summarises “the identification process of failed states is therefore analytically unhelpful in explaining why states are experiencing the political, economic and social problems that have resulted in their description as failed”. Using this neo-colonial understanding of failed states, western states justify and promote their political and economic domination in the continent.

Questioning the Universality of the Westphalian State

The biggest underlying problem of the idea of state failure is an assumption of the universality of Westphalian statehood. The scholarship and policy rhetoric surrounding failed states assumes the Westphalian state to be the only model of successful statehood and, thus, holds every state to the same yardstick. Ignoring differences in practices, organisation and structures, the whole idea of failed states doesn’t leave room for the fact that many entities have never been actual states (such as African countries after decolonisation or that even the most fragile regions are sub-state areas or territories with limited statehood. The implication is that, for example, a failed state in Africa such as Somalia failed because it failed to become a Westphalian state and replicate its social, political and economic organisation and institutions. Further, the identification of failed states is based on dichotomy of successful/failed state that is built on a homogenous and universal standard.

The imposition of Westphalian statehood is also reflective of the political hegemony exercised by the west towards the rest of the world, a hegemony that is kept alive even though the world finds itself in a more complicated and diverse place from when these norms were formulated. This political hegemony also manifests in the form of the securitisation of failed states, as associated threats like terrorism, immigration and spill-over violence/conflict could be direct or indirect threats to Western states. Conceptualising security solely in state-centric terms makes no difference to the empirical situations and lived realities of those living in so-called failed states. A reworked approach to state failure, if any, would consider not how states in turmoil threaten the security of the west but rather consider the threat to the human security of the populations in the eye of the storm. A shift in this direction would be the first step in correcting the western bias towards the state.


S. Bressnan, (2020, May 13), What’s left of the failed states debate? Putting five hypothesis to the test, Global Public Policy Institute, https://www.gppi.net/2020/05/13/whats-left-of-the-failed-states-debate

F. Cecon, (2014, July 25), International Security and “Failed States”: A Cause for Concern, E-International Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2014/07/25/international-security-and-failed-states-a-cause-for-concern/

R. Gordon, (1997), Saving Failed States: Sometimes a Neocolonialist Notion, American University International Law Review, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/235402172.pdf

J. Hill, (2007, January 18), Beyond the Other? A postcolonial critique of the failed state thesis, African Identities, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14725840500235381

A. D. Morton, (2006, August 6), The ‘failed state’ of international relations, New Political Economy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13563460500204274

17 views0 comments