Fixing Fragile States: Questions and Answers


1) Why will your prescription for treating fragile states work when other attempts have failed?

Social cohesion is a prerequisite for building stable and prosperous states, especially in the absence of strong state institutions. Unified groups of people are both more able and more willing to cooperate to improve governance and to advance a common agenda than are divided populations.

The international community, however, fail to recognize this. Its solution for development overemphasizes economics and formal state structures, offering a standard set of prescriptions—focusing on aid targets, elections, and economic reform—that ignore local sociocultural conditions. This approach undervalues the communal nature of development and ignores the fragmented nature of societies in fragile states.

Development is a group activity. Although economic policy is important, a country’s ability to advance is tied to its citizens’ ability to cooperate—both among themselves and in partnership with the state—in increasingly sophisticated ways.

The international community must develop and promote policies that leverage cohesion in fragmented countries. This calls for a greater emphasis on decentralization, regionalism, bottom-up state building, partnerships with multinational corporations, and closer collaborations with developed countries.

2) How would you implement these ideas?

Strike a much better balance between promoting social cohesion and promoting democracy when dealing with divided polities. Instead of pushing for rapid economic reform and/or a swift move to an electoral free-for-all, we must seek change gradually in countries fractured by identity conflicts. The current overemphasis on ballots, economic reform, and the formal state has left no room on the agenda for fostering social cohesion and making better use of indigenous capacities.

For example, there is much debate in Washington about how to change the nature of the Syrian government but little understanding of the social dynamics within the country—which could produce Iraq- or Lebanon-style conflict if an attempt was made to rapidly dismantle the existing regime. The only way to effect significant change in Syria without sacrificing its stability is to reform economic and political structures in a piecemeal fashion, while introducing institutional mechanisms (such as a national security council) that tie the country’s five major ethnic and religious groups together.

The country’s elite will be much readier to countenance reforms if its interests are protected within a framework that ensures that change will be incremental and gradual. Combining financial incentives, technical assistance in introducing institutional reforms, and access to foreign markets in an attractive package might convince the current regime—or a significant faction within it—to adhere to a strict timetable of change. This would include opening the country more to trade, embracing mechanisms to fortify the rule of law, and improving accountability in local government. The West could ratchet up its assistance as certain milestones are met.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another country where the international community needs to rethink its approach. The DRC’s geography, natural resource wealth, sociopolitical dynamics, and tremendously weak governance capabilities must all be taken into consideration. A brighter future for the country depends on building a series of strong regional governments centered around the state’s largest cities, while reducing the role of the central government to a few major areas (such as monetary policy, standards setting, and national infrastructure).

Multinational companies, in lieu of the government, could play a much greater role in providing security around major natural resource sites and delivering services such as schools, roads, and hospitals to people living in the surrounding area. This approach would promote stability, ensure local populations benefit from their natural resource wealth, and increase popular support for further foreign investments.

3) What examples prove that your approach works?

The success of the great majority of nation-states worldwide is the best example of how cohesive societies have innate advantages over countries divided into competing groups. The richer parts of the world—Europe, North America, Northeast Asia, and Oceania—are all dominated by nation-states. Developing countries based on a common identity—such as Turkey, Botswana, and Chile—are far more successful than their deeply divided counterparts.

Few developing states containing multiple ethnic and religious groups have managed to grow rapidly. The exceptions—state-nations such as India, Singapore, and South Africa—have prospered because they have been able to leverage identities and governing bodies that their colonizers invested sufficient resources and time in building such that they took root and were adopted by their populations.

Somaliland and Somalia offer deeply contrasting examples of the importance of social cohesion and homegrown institutions to state building. Whereas Somaliland has thrived since declaring independence in 1991, building the most democratic state in its region on the foundation of a single cohesive clan with a long history of managing its own affairs, Somalia with its patchwork of competing clans has witnessed the failure of fifteen internationally led efforts to resurrect the country’s centralized state.

The most robust Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, are similarly far more stable and vibrant than their neighbors because they have been able to incorporate their traditional relationships and institutions directly into their governments.

Mali has achieved one of Africa’s best records of democratization over the past two decades despite its poverty precisely because it turned away from a centralized top-down approach to state building and started adapting its governing structures to the area’s very rich and widely shared precolonial societal norms.

The few countries (among them Canada, India, Spain, and Switzerland) that have successfully overcome a division into multiple identity groups centered in different geographical areas have all used federal structures to allow the expression of localized identities within the context of a unified national polity. By contrast, most fragile countries are centralized in ways that accentuate their difficulties, such as is the case in Bolivia, Pakistan, and the DRC.

Where states contain many different identity groups living side by side, leaders need to forge a national unity around common symbols and values. Tanzania has sought to integrate its diverse population by emphasizing social and political inclusion, espousing a national ideology that its citizens can believe in, using Swahili to bridge the country’s linguistic diversity, creating a new consciousness through education, ensuring that quarrels are settled justly and money is distributed fairly, and promoting tolerance of difference. Senegal, despite an unfavorable geography that has encouraged a secessionist movement in its south, has been able to foster a national identity among its other inhabitants through their shared Islamic heritage and customs.

4) What fragile states present the greatest risk to the United States and surrounding regions?

Today, Pakistan is the most important fragile state to the United States because Pakistan’s inability to control the tribal areas along its northern border has allowed al-Qaeda to regroup and a number of terrorist groups to target U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s fragility and its resulting hospitability to terrorists also endanger neighboring India and, indeed, the wider world.

Pakistan’s fragility defies an easy solution. Decades of political, economic, and social exclusion have left many of Pakistan’s people—most noticeably those in the tribal belt—badly estranged from the state, making any resolution of its deep troubles unlikely in the short term. Weak government, profound social cleavages, a military deeply entrenched in politics and business, bad relations with its neighbors, and now a growing insurgency all work to exacerbate the country’s failings. It is likely that we will be trying to fix Pakistan for decades to come.

Lebanon’s fragility has allowed Hezbollah to grow into the second-most potent terrorist organization in the world, a state within the state. It poses a threat to democracy within Lebanon and to Israel to the south, and helps Iran expand its influence and military capabilities well beyond the Persian Gulf.

The DRC presents what is probably the world’s greatest humanitarian and governance challenge, with direct implications for hundreds of millions on the most impoverished continent and indirect implications for the security and well-being of people everywhere. It destabilizes states throughout Africa, at least half a dozen of which were drawn into its civil war in recent years, spawning Africa’s first “world war.” Its subversive impact extends more widely still, for its anarchic conditions nourish terrorists, arms traffickers, and criminal networks hostile to international security.

5) Will we see more fragile states developing in the future? At a greater rate? Why? How?

Several factors virtually guarantee that fragile states will be a major problem for generations to come. In the first place, their problems are very hard to resolve. Second, globalization and technological change exacerbate the dangers they pose. Third, trends such as the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, rising mineral prices, and greater environmental destruction all suggest that the difficulties fragile states face are only going to increase going forward. Unless the international community changes its current approach—which has proven so ineffective in the past—the number of fragile states is sure to grow.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan nexus and the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon nexus will be major areas of concern for a long time. Despite the apparent stability imposed by its authoritarian state, Syria is actually one of more fragile states in the Middle East and shares many of the same sociocultural dynamics of its two divided neighbors. As noted above, this superficial stability could shatter if change is introduced too quickly. The United States will be forced to be heavily engaged in the Middle East for a long time, because of the region’s geopolitical importance (which will not change until we lessen our dependence on oil and gas); because the region’s states are too fragile and dysfunctional to resolve their problems without outside assistance; and because they thus end up harboring terrorists that pose a threat to our own interests.

Oil and gas also make the Caucasus an area of major concern to U.S. interests. Georgia matters because it provides the key transit conduit for Azerbaijani and Central Asian petrochemicals. As Russia’s recent invasion shows, its weak social cohesion leaves it easily vulnerable to any powerful outside force that seeks to undermine its unity. Although it might be repugnant to both Georgians and the West, consolidating the country around its more cohesive parts—and accepting the loss of the two separatist enclaves that recently declared independence—would probably be the best way both to ensure its stable development going forward and to reduce the ability of Russia to destabilize it. The neighboring “frozen conflict” between Azerbaijan and Armenia should also be a much higher priority for the United States now because it poses the same risk to energy supplies—and is actually a more combustible military situation.

Any oil-rich region composed of fragile states—such as parts of Africa—will likely be of vital concern to us in a world where energy supplies grow scarcer.

Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Latin America all have their own set of fragile states suffering from weak social cohesion. Countries such as Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Sri Lanka are likely to continue to struggle with conflict unless they formulate policies that directly address their fractured natures.