The Liberal Ironist recalls (as did conceptual forebear Richard Rorty) the words of George Orwell: “The democratic vistas seem to end in barbed wire.” Today the conventional wisdom is that the threat posed to a world order based in Liberalism is no longer the highly-ideological and expansionist authoritarian states of yore but collapsed and often-ungovernable states–the failed states. The latter half of the Aughts demonstrated that this narrative was somewhat simplistic; consider not the aggressive revisionism by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kim Family Regime in North Korea and even the increasingly-globalized People’s Republic of China but also the violence visited on the protesters of Arab Spring this year, particularly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Still, in the conventional view their very capacity must grant authoritarian states the means of transforming themselves, and the link between a country’s economic development and its political development are now well-established, even if there is more than 1 course which this development process might take. In its July-August 2011 issue, the contributors to Foreign Policy reflect a general understanding that failed states do in fact pose the most-enduring threats to World peace; however, this affront doesn’t always come about for the expected reasons and tends not to proceed from the very weakest states. Some of the least-developed states simply possess none of the geographic advantages which would facilitate their development; some of them have been all but cannibalized by kleptocrats both murderous and mild; some have been roughed up by outsiders who then either abandoned them or failed to anticipate the convulsions of faction they would experience after such disruption. (Iraq and Afghanistan are the most-obvious contemporary examples but Cambodia and Lebanon are still less-stable than they could be due to foreign interventions that are decades past.)
In the middle of every summer Foreign Policy offers its 2011 Failed States Index, cataloging the states which at an extreme exist only in name, often more of a “mere country” than a state, tenuous oligarchic confederations which have utterly failed at the most-basic test of the legitimacy of government–the protection of their subjects from violence. These countries, 1 of the following articles on failed states notes, actually vary in whether a pervasive state of political violence and poor public service provision are a consequence of radical collapse of the state (as the conventional narrative emphasizes) or were the brutish long-term design of its leadership.
Grotesque as it appears, many failed states are in their extremely weakened state because of the intentions of leadership. James Traub, author of the aforementioned article, is spot-on in mentioning Sudan, Pakistan and Myanmar in this connection.
The Liberal Ironist has long had an interest in failed states. They are “where history seems to happen,” if you define history as political violence and public prestige battles. More than offering many morbid stories for our consumption, however, failed states offer a moral caution. Many people of an ideological bent on both the right and the left think of normal politics as inherently-corrupting and of the state as an alien oppressor of normal human aspirations; in reality it is their only possible guarantor. The 20th century made clear the evils that political ideologies hateful of the mundane can visit upon humanity and so highlighted the importance of the responsible use of state power; but if the decay of countries such as North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq under Saddam Hussein are actually a perverse effect of dictators working to keep a whole country fenced-in, the examples of the “Democratic Republic of Congo,” Yemen, Afghanistan, and of course Somalia compellingly demonstrated the attendant evils of not having a state at all. Thomas Hobbes made a terrible misjudgment in Part II of Leviathan when he reasoned that the rule of law could not soundly be imposed upon the head of government; but his picture of precariousness of life in the absence of a viable state from Part 1, Chapter XIII of Leviathan remains, in the Liberal Ironist’s mind, the first and last word on the subject: “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
There are those who have said “There can be no peace without justice.” The Liberal Ironist thinks of the failed states and retorts: There can be no justice without peace, so to secure a minimal conception of justice 2 institutional conditions must be met–1) Max Weber’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the hands of the state, and 2) for the state to be able to adjudicate contentions of opinion peacefully. The state must wield power, and must be amenable to reason–or there is no justice to be had. Read about the failed states.