By Brennan Kraxberger
Book Review: Fazal, Tanisha M. 2007: State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation. Princeton University Press.
The world community – including scholars and journalists – devotes significant attention to the creation of new states. In 2011, South Sudan was born. A decade ago, Timor Leste (East Timor) garnered international recognition as a sovereign state. And we could add Eritrea and the post-Soviet states to the list.
But what about state death? For many, this question is received with confusion and mystery. In recent generations, we’ve grown accustomed to the occasional partition of states, but other types of territorial changes have basically ceased.
Tanisha Fazal’s book State Death is only a few years old, but it is already clear that it will be a classic. It holds appeal on two main levels. First, for those interested in the longer sweep of international relations, the book is a thoughtful survey of previous patterns of conquest and territorial changes. Second, and of most relevance to readers of this site, is the book’s incisive argument about a key driver of state failure.
One of the great strengths of Fazal’s work is its mixing of historical and contemporary analysis. She looks at the period of the early 1800s up to the present, and examines why and how states cease to exist (i.e. through direct conquest or loss of control over their foreign policy). Since 1816, she found that 66 of 207 states died, or lost their status as sovereign states. Put another way, just over 30 percent of modern states have succumbed to state death. In the United Nations era (1945-present), though, state death has basically ceased. From a temporal perspective, state death was a prominent phenomenon in the century after the Napoleonic wars. In terms of the geography of modern state death, Fazal concludes that buffer states – those wedged between more powerful neighbors – have been especially vulnerable to extinction.
At first glance, the recent absence of state death would appear to be a great achievement. In the pre-World War II context, state death typically involved conquest and bloodshed. Over the last six decades, a “norm against conquest,” supported by the United States and other major powers, has provided protection against state death. This norm against conquest has been beneficial in obvious ways. Even so, the assurance of state survival – if only through international recognition at the UN – has facilitated catastrophic outcomes for some countries.
As Fazal persuasively argues, lack of state death has facilitated state failure in key cases. Since the rulers of critically weak or failed states know that they are safe from external conquest – though not foreign intervention – they have fewer incentives to promote constructive state building.
This key argument is not entirely new. Charles Tilly, Robert Jackson, and Jeffrey Herbst have all provided similar arguments about state building. Nonetheless, Fazal’s book – starting with the provocative title – is uniquely thoughtful and candid about the consequences of the contemporary international order for state building. Though some find it deeply unsettling to again allow state death – hopefully through humane and orderly processes – this structural change would be a key step forward for fragile states.
Brennan Kraxberger holds a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Iowa. He has published scholarly work in journals such as African Affairs, Africa Today, Third World Quarterly, Progress in Development Studies, and Journal of Asian and African Studies. He also maintains the blog Failed States and Geopolitics.