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The question of 'failed states'

Minh Nguyen*

A version of this paper appeared as the JRS Occasional Paper, no.8, March 2005. Full paper published as part of the View on the Asia/Pacific series.


During the 2004 Federal election campaign, the Australian Government flagged for the third time in as many years the idea of a 'preemptive' – or more accurately, 'preventative' – military attack against an anticipated threat to Australia's security.  On previous occasions, the public had been largely hostile to the idea of a unilateral invasion of Iraq.  But now the US-led invasion is tragic history, its consequences have left many Australians questioning some of the primary assumptions in the anxious rush to war, particularly the notion of 'rogue states' and the potential threat these states pose to Australia's security interests.

In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the concept of 'failed states' is becoming fashionable among government and private security analysts in Australia.  Failed states are said to be the new challenge for the new century and whereas threats to world peace once came from strong tyrannical ('rogue') states, the post-cold war challenges now originate mainly in failed states.  Since mid-2003, the concept has supplemented, if not supplanted, rogue states, while the spectre of an 'arc of instability' has replaced the 'axis of evil'. 

Although widely referred to, the concept of failed states is not only indistinct; it is highly controversial because of the political and security implications of labelling a state as having 'failed'.  A state that has been declared as having failed becomes a candidate for intervention in its internal affairs by another state or international organisation, or worse still, marked for a preventative military invasion.

Origins of the concept

While talk of preventative military action may be in vogue, the idea is hardly novel.  The US Government considered such a policy "morally corrosive" during the height of the Cold War but despite its unpopular origin, the idea of prevention resurfaced as a mainstream government policy following September 11, 2001.  The document that entrenched the idea in US foreign policy, the National Security Strategy of September 2002, [2] from its very first pages drew a connection between the idea of prevention and the apparent dangers posed by failed states.  "America is now threatened less by conquering states than [it is] by failing ones", the paper says.

Government officials and security think-tanks in Australia soon followed the US lead.  In Australia, the concept of failed states was introduced to popular acclaim with the release of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) 2003 policy report, Our Failing Neighbour, [3] which argued the case for intervening in the troubled Solomon Islands, during the Government's deliberations over the issue.

Although scholars have been debating the concept of state failure for over a decade, as an actual phenomenon, what is now known as failed states has been part of the political reality for as long as the international system of states has existed. [4]   Historically, the notion of state failure was a colonial preoccupation.  At the zenith of European expansion, the failure of Pacific indigenous efforts at self-government had frequently provided the opportunity and justification for great power interventions.  Powerful states often intervened in weaker states to quell social disorder that threatened their security and trade interests. [5]    "At other times," Robert H. Dorff, a US Army scholar noted, "the weak state provided an opportunity for territorial expansion by the great power." [6]  

Contemporary interest in state failure re-emerged as a humanitarian concern in the early 1990s shortly after the collapse of the Soviet alliance.  With the end of the Cold War and the acceleration of globalisation, a wave of state formation and disintegration pushed the issue of failing states to the forefront of the international political and human rights agenda.  Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner were among the first commentators to use the term 'failed states' in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article. [7]   They were concerned about "a disturbing new phenomenon" whereby a state was becoming "utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community." 

A failed state in the context of international relations usually refers to a political entity within a given territory that has lost its domestic 'authority' and 'legitimacy'.  Failed states could be defined narrowly or broadly.  In the narrow sense, the given political entity has lost its authority over its population and is unable to sustain a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory". [8]   In the broad sense, state failure is said to occur when "the basic functions of the state are no longer performed". [9]   But it is "a deeper phenomenon than mere rebellion, coup, or riot.  It refers to a situation where the structure, authority (legitimate power), law, and political order have fallen apart". [10]

A security threat?

It is no coincidence that the proliferation of international terrorism, transnational criminal activities and Western interests in failing states are all occurring at the same time in history.  There are obvious examples where state failure had intermeshed with the covert world, for example, Somalia and past and present Afghanistan.  This said there is always a tendency to generalise the dangers of state failure to the extent that any state considered failing or failed is potentially a 'basket case' of international criminal activities and terrorism. 

According to former US president Jimmy Carter, failed states "can become havens for terrorist ideologues seeking refuge and support.  Failed states are the breeding grounds for drug trafficking, money laundering, the spread of infectious diseases, uncontrolled environmental degradation, mass refugee flows and illegal immigration." [11]   No matter how fashionable it is to demonise failed states, however, such an alarming assessment paints a misleading picture of the phenomenon and can lead to an unhealthy policy obsession with state failure and militarism.

International terrorism

A popular concern is the idea of 'saving' failed states in order to fight international terrorism.  Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the revelation that the terrorist network Al-Qaeda operated training camps in Afghanistan, conventional wisdom has linked international terrorism with failing or failed states.  The fear among Western policy makers is that state failure is fomenting security threats that could have ramifications not just locally but across globe. [12]   Despite the view that a direct link exists between state failure and international terrorism, recent evidence suggests that such a link cannot be assumed.

Using evidence from a study by Ulrich Schneckener, [13] German researcher Daniel Lambach argues that effective terrorist networks have requirements that are not always well served in failed states – communications technology and human and financial resources for recruitment, training, planning and logistics purposes, for example.  The September 11 attack is a reminder of an act of terrorism that, although conceived and planned in Afghanistan and other 'failing states', relied on many developed states for its operation, including recruitment in Germany and Spain and the "extensive use of banks in the United States." [14]   Foreign affairs academic Richard Devetak has argued that a hospitable environment for terrorist groups is more likely to be "poorly governed, corrupt or sympathetic states like Afghanistan under the Taliban, Yemen and Kenya, but also Pakistan and Indonesia among others." [15]

Illegal migration

In the last few decades, the world has witnessed increasing flows of cross-border migration, with a substantial number of illegal immigrants being assisted by people smugglers. [16]   People smugglers supply sophisticated false documents and use clandestine, often dangerous methods of transporting people while exploiting the desperation of those willing or forced to migrate.  Ever since the large wave of Afghani and Iraqi refugees and migrants arrived on Australia’s shores in the late 1990s, it has often been assumed that most illegal migrants originate from failing or failed states – people desperately searching for a better life in the West, or people enlisting the service of people smugglers operating in failed states.  However, as with international terrorism, the evidence for this is only partial.

Studies into this area suggest that most international migration occurs in countries that are emerging from extreme poverty, building infrastructure, and accumulating savings.  Research by Ronald Skeldon prepared for the International Organisation for Migration [17] has found that "the principal reasons for illegal migration are not to be found in absolute poverty but in the increased knowledge of opportunities available elsewhere – the very product of development", which is hardly a description of a failing or failed state.

China is an example of a poor but fast developing country.  China is also the source of the largest group of unauthorised entrants (both economic migrants and refugees) to Australia until the year 2000. [18]   The US State Department has pointed out that Chinese illegal migrants tend to come from developed areas that have the infrastructures needed to provide required communication and transportation to the West. [19]   They must also have access to significant funds (usually through loans), as fees for people smugglers or 'snakeheads' can be quite significant.

In contrast, most citizens in failed states will have less exposure to the 'lures' of the West, and will be more concerned with escaping immediate violence or scraping together a living than with occupying their time thinking about a better life in the West.  They may also be "too ignorant of other opportunities, and too far removed from transportation and communications networks [to] initiate, facilitate and sustain international migration", according to former Australian Federal Police adviser, John McFarlane. [20]

War and civil strife can increase cross-border migration as people attempt to escape danger and violence, particularly now that refugee movements are "central to the objectives and tactics of war", a major UNHCR report says. [21]   Cross border migration can also be indirectly promoted by political uncertainty as territorial borders become porous with the loss of central control. [22]

Although the evidence suggests that failed states can potentially create internal displacement and refugee outflows, there is little evidence of a direct link between state failure and illegal migration except that some refugees might be desperate enough to seek the services of criminal gangs.  Yet since the 2001 Tampa crisis and September 11, connecting dots between failed states and illegal migration and people smuggling has also become popular. 

Money laundering

Drug, terrorist and criminal money laundering have also been linked with state failure.  Australian commentaries on this topic have often focused on the Pacific islands as an example of failing states providing opportunities for money laundering, tax evasion and fraud.  "When you have a failed state, it's a state that can be exploited by people such as money launderers …" Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said shortly before the deployment of troops to the Solomon Islands in 2003.  According to the Federal Police Commissioner Mike Keelty, "The activity is fostered by island countries with few resources to sell other than their financial names." [23]

Yet despite the textbook example of the Pacific island Nauru – which until recently was a regional financial centre for money laundering and identity fraud – there is little else to suggest a connection between state failure and money laundering.  Using a number of political and economic indicators, one of the most comprehensive empirical studies on international money laundering was unable to establish a nexus with state failure. [24]   The explanation for this is hardly surprising, "money launderers or their clients attach high importance to keeping their money safe and like to exploit legal protections to do so, which is no easy task in politically or economically failing or failed states", the study says. [25]


Mick Keelty and others have pointed out that an estimated 80% of heroin trafficked illegally into Australia is sourced from the Golden Triangle region, most of it from Burma. [26]   The link between state failure and the cultivation and processing of narcotics seems more evident than that with international terrorism, illegal migration or money laundering, particularly in the example of the three major drug producing countries, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia.  All these states are attempting to deal with significant insurgency groups and all have significant drug production and trafficking records. [27]

Providing the land and climate are suitable, failed and failing states create an ideal environment for the cultivation, production and transportation of illicit drugs.  "[A]narchy and lawlessness is good for business", Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said of the drug trade. [28]   The drug trade provides easy cash for both desperate farmers trying to live off their war-ravaged land and local warlords and gangs eager to enlarge their military capability.  This could be seen in today's Afghanistan, "with lawlessness rising, the farmers are finding it more and more attractive to sow poppy all over the country." [29]

Playing dress up

The concept of 'failed states' for Australia was not shaped by the September 11 attacks, unlike the US and the UK, but by the Solomon Islands intervention in 2003.  Before that, and despite the war against Afghanistan, the Government said little about failing or failed states let alone the idea of intervening in a failed state to fight terrorism. [30]    As late as January 2003, Alexander Downer was dismissing the idea of intervening in the Solomon Islands as a "folly in the extreme".  "It would not work," he said, "no matter how it was dressed up". [31]   In case the point was missed, a major Government policy paper added a few weeks later, "Australia is not a neo-colonial power.  The [Pacific] island countries are independent sovereign states". [32]

Six months later, it seems Alexander Downer discovered a way to 'dress up' Australia's new-found foreign policy assertiveness.  With the release of the ASPI report on the Solomon Islands, the concept of failed states apparently gave the Government the rhetoric it needed.  As Tony Wright of The Bulletin explained, "It was not so much that the Solomon Islanders should have assistance foisted upon them – it was a matter of Australian security.  A failed state such as the Solomons could become a danger to Australia". [33]  

By September 2003, Alexander Downer was at the UN General Assembly saying that, "It is no longer open to us to ignore the failed states … Old shibboleths – such as the excessive homage to sovereignty even at the expense of the preservation of humanity and human values – should not constrain us."  The Government has not accused any other states of being failures.  It has, however, referred to the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq as former failed states. [34]   It is no coincidence all three states have been subjected to intervention with Australia's involvement in recent years, invited or otherwise.


The Government's approach to the idea of state failure suggests that policy precedes concept and not vice versa.   It seems the Government is only willing to use the label, state failure, against a particular state, when it intends to intervene or has already intervened in that state. [35]   The use of the concept is therefore highly nuanced: a state is considered 'failing' only when Australia or another powerful (usually Anglo-Western) nation declares it to be so, and only according to set policy objectives.  Similarly, the term 'failed state' has been applied after the fact to describe the former situation of a state in which intervention has already occurred.

It also appears from the evidence that Western leaders and commentators may have overstated or at best offered a misleading impression of the threats posed by failing or failed states.  There does not appear to be a strong correlation between state failure and some of the worst forms of transnational criminal activity like terrorism and money laundering.  Where there is a link, state failure by itself does not necessarily account for the activity.  Other factors, such as corruption or poor governance – which exists in both strong and weak states – are also important considerations.  Despite this, the Government and some policy makers continue to make unqualified assertions about the security threats of failed states.

The widespread fear of a failed state at Australia's 'doorstep', coupled with the Government's readiness to exploit this concept makes the idea of state failure a potentially dangerous policy for Australia.  Apart from absolving the West of any responsibility for its policies, the danger in treating state failure as an anomaly is that it justifies even more intrusive forms of intervention in developing states, [36] particularly the Pacific islands.  In the worst case, as Prime Minister John Howard suggested during the 2004 election campaign, it can even lead to a US-inspired preventative military assault.  Such thinking is only a step away from advocating a US 'deputy-sheriff' role for Australia in the region.

However, inventing more rights for Western intervention in developing states will not likely solve long-term regional and global insecurity, particularly if the concept of state failure is based on crude generalisations and questionable presumptions.  It would be more constructive to talk less about 'our failing neighbour' and more about our failing neighbourhood, Australia included; less about interventions and more about conventions, both regional and international, and what Australia should do to contribute to them.  This will not happen until Australia accepts that international terrorism and crime are not mere symptoms of state failure, but also of an unfair and unfettered international political economy that Australia must do more to help change.

[*] Thanks to Nina Riemer, Peter Stapleton, Margaret Press RSJ and Patty Fawkner SGS for their comments and editing.

[2] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html.

[3] Elsina Wainright, Our failing neighbour: Australia and the future of Solomon Islands, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 2003.

[4] See Jon Fraenkel, "Political Instability, 'Failed States' and Regional Intervention in the Pacific", paper presented at Redefining the Pacific: Regionalism – Past, Present and Future," Dunedin, New Zealand, 25-28 June 2004, www.otago.ac.nz

[5] Robert H. Dorff, "Addressing the Challenges of State Failure", paper presented at Failed States Conference, Florence, Italy, 7-10 April 2000, www.ippu.purdue.edu

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner, "Saving Failed States", Foreign Policy, no.89, Winter 1993.

[8] Max Weber, "Politics Politics as a Vocation", speech at Munich University, 1918.

[9] William Zartman, "Introduction: Posing the Problem of State Collapse", in William Zartman (ed) Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Colorado and Lynne Rienner Publishers, London, 1995.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jimmy Carter, "The Human Right to Peace", Global Agenda, 2004.

[12] Commonwealth of Australia, "Annual Security Outlook 2004," ASEAN Regional Forum, 2004, www.dfat.gov.au

[13] Daniel Lambach, Failed States and Perceptions of Threat in Europe and Australia, Paper for the Conference", paper presented at the New Security Agendas: European and Australian Perspectives conference, London, 1-3 July 2004, www.staff.uni-marburg.de/~lambach

[14] 9-11 Commission, 9-11 Commission Report, 2004, www.9-11commission.gov

[15] Richard Devetak, "Globalisation's Shadow: Political Violence in a Global Era," Around the Globe, 1(2), August 2004

[16] Alexander Downer, "Australian Aid - Investing in Growth, Stability and Prosperity," Eleventh Statement to Parliament on Australia's Development Cooperation Program, September 2002, www.ausaid.gov.au

[17] Ronald Skeldon, "Myths and Realities of Chinese Irregular Migration," IOM Migration Research Series, no.1, International Organization for Migration, Geneva, 2000.

[18] Ibid.

[19] US Department of State, "Why Do They Leave Their Homes?" www.state.gov.

[20] John McFarlane, "People Smuggling: a Serious Issue in an Unstable Region," Platypus Magazine – Journal of the Australian Federal Police, October 1999, www.afp.gov.au, citing research by US scholar Jack A Goldstone.

[21] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, The State of the World's Refugees: 50 Years of Humanitarian Action, UNHCR, 2000, www.unhcr.ch.

[22] McFarlane, op. cit.

[23] Mick Keelty, "Transnational Crime, Police Peace Operations and Asia-Pacific Security," paper presented at the Meeting of Australia CSCAP, University House, 8 February 2001, www.afp.gov.au.

[24] Peter Reuter and Edwin M. Truman, Chasing Dirty Money: The Fight Against Money Laundering, Institute for International Economics, 2004.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Adam Graycar et al, "Global and Regional Approaches to Fighting Transnational Crime," International Policing Conference, Adelaide, 6 March 2001, www.aic.gov.au

[27] Mick Keelty, op. cit.

[28] Original emphasis. Antonio Maria Costa, "Drugs: Cash Flow for Organized Crime - The Economic Addiction to Illegal Drugs," address to the Diplomatic Academy, Warsaw, Poland, 1 February 2005.

[29] Arif Jamal, "Opium Production Resumes In Afghanistan," Eurasianet, 12 March 2002, www.eurasianet.org.

[30] See Lambert, op. cit.

[31] "Neighbours cannot be Recolonised", The Australian, 8 January 2003.

[32] Australia, Advancing the National Interest, Australia's Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003, p.93.

[33] Tony Wright, "High Noon in the Solomons", The Bulletin, 7 September 2003.

[34] For example, Alexander Downer said, "Afghanistan once was … a failed state and a haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists", in his speech to the National Press Club, "Australia and the Threat of Global Terrorism - A Test of Resolve", 13 April 2004.

[35] Lambach, op. cit.

[36] Rita Abrahamsen, "Democratisation – Part of the Problem or the Solution to Africa's 'Failed States'?" paper presented at The Global Constitution of 'Failed States': the consequences of a new imperialism? conference, Sussex, 18-20 April 2001.


Minh Nguyen is a researcher at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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