June 30, 2013

If Skills Sold: Failed States Edition

A new Guardian op-ed declares that failed states are a "myth" that was "invented" in order to support Western interventions in the global South. While it is plausible that some within the NGO community are invested in the concept of failed states and some in the national security and foreign policy community do need the concept to rationalize certain forms of intervention1, the op-ed fails down in assuming conspiracy over a more mundane and yet complex set of dysfunctions.

The clue lies in the article's claims about how political scientists received the notion of failed statehood:

Back in the 90s, few political scientists showed any interest in the concept of failed states, and binned it on arrival. The problem was that it didn't offer any insight as a mode of analysis: a civil war is a civil war. A famine is a famine. A political crisis is a political crisis. A failed state is just rhetoric without a substantial theoretical or historical basis.

The author's notion of what makes a good "mode of analysis" is very contestable, but accept for the moment that he is correct. It tracks with perennial Internet mocking of #aspenideas, Thomas Friedman, coverage of Africa, and a host of other things by academics and subject-matter experts. The complaint is always the same: there needs to be more complexity, nuance, depth and less big--and wrong--ideas. 2 The author cites approvingly an binning of conflict and misfortune into a set of discrete categories---civil war, political crisis, famine, etc. The problem is that this way of thinking is utterly foreign to most people and especially policy audiences.

In 2004 I was taking a film and literature class taught by a professor who absolutely hated the film Crash. Why? Crash was part of a genre of film that was particularly popular in the mid-00s: hyperlink cinema. Hyperlink cinema could show interesting connections and contrasts between a set of individuals--like in the Mexican classic Amores Perros and the drug war epic Traffic. At its worst, hyperlink cinema was the kind of New Agey-"everything is connected" BS that makes middlebrow audiences swoon. Crash was the Failed States Index of cinema---something most educated film consumers hated but nonetheless won an Oscar.

Most people prefer objects, totems, and conceptual containers that can stand for a collective and often contradictory set of phenomena. They especially like when they can find master concepts that demonstrate the connections between a set of disparate and complex things. If your wife or husband has ever used some minor failure of yours as a symbol of  larger failings as a romantic partner, you can understand this instinct perfectly well.  Even mathematicians are surprisingly lax at validating many of the proofs underpinning the concepts they use.

There is an opportunity cost in cognitive resources between fact-checking every single assumption/uncovering every single complexity enumerated (in the case of failed states) Journal of Conflict Resolution's back catalog vs. other activities like watching the Super Bowl or browsing TMZ.com. You don't need a game theorist to tell you how someone is going to maximize their utility given those two choices, particularly when the actor in the decision tree has barely enough time to read more than a couple of paragraphs or a PowerPoint deck.

Security policy audiences want neat little containers with which to organize their Collection of Big Bad Things. And containers particularly work well when they accord with our biases. Despite being theoretically incoherent, the concept of legitimacy is a mainstay in popular analysis of political disorder. Maybe that's because we want to believe that the Western political ideas that underpin the vulgar version of it are timeless and universal enough to explain the majority of incidences that a government loses the support and deference of its population. And "failed states" plays to the common equation of disorder and change with threat that Western policy audiences have held to since the industrial revolution.

Failed states are a useful container in DC because they can weakly hold the following (not an exclusive list) conceptual elements:

  • Terrorism
  • Corruption
  • Human rights
  • Illicit economy
  • Globalization
  • Human trafficking
  • Global public health
  • Development
  • Environmental health
  • National security budgeting
  • Nation-state rivals with "irregular" arms of national power
  • Global warming
  • Urbanization
  • Peacekeeping and stability operations
  • Democracy promotion 

See? That cuts into another aspect of "big think" concepts that make them popular: you can insert anything you like or try for a budgetary stake for your agency or organization and be able to push back when someone complains. It's interagency, whole-of-government, smart power-centric, public-private synergistic--and any other buzzword you want to throw out. This isn't to say that the failed state concept is completely useless. If it were measured better (and recent work in political science aims to do that) it might be of conceptual value. But what's the incentive to take such scholarship seriously? After all, didn't Crash win Best Picture? 

The greatest tragedy of the genre of conspiratorial writing the linked Guardian piece conforms to is not that it assumes conspiracy when plain old incompetence will do. It is that the op-ed pleads for nuance and complexity in considering the concept of failed states but nonetheless uses the Western conspiracy container in order to concisely encapsulate for a mass audience some of the failings I've mentioned here.

So it's no wonder that Jay-Z noted that if skills sold, he'd be writing dense and cerebral lyrics like Talib Kweli. But he's still Jay-Z, not a patron saint of backpack-rap partisans. I doubt many policy grandees started out hustling in the Marcy projects or found themselves pulled over with a "raw" car trunk in 1994--but the same logic applies. Certain audiences will pay top dollar for intricate analysis, just like a certain class of consumer will shell out $$$ > than the budgets of many "failed state" governments for Versace spring collections. For everyone else, there's the Failed States Index.


1. See here and here for how and why non-governmental and international governmental organizations might become invested in certain solutions. On the national security front, it's important to note that the notion of "failed state" doesn't automatically entail intervention. William Lind, for example, advocated putting up a fortress wall against the products of state failure. Also see the role of the notion of "ancient hatreds" in forestalling US intervention in the 1990s.

2. In all fairness, plenty of my Abu M posts here have been variations on this theme. I'm trying not to--I know its boring and kind of pointless.