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Debate: Intervention to prevent failed states

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Should the USA work together with the UN to prevent the collapse of third-world states?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Definitions vary, but a failed state is usually thought of as one where any government has broken down to the point where it can no longer provide any services to the people. Most importantly, this means that law and order has collapsed, with the government losing its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Often large areas of the country are in the control of non-government forces, perhaps through civil war but often as a result of lawlessness and banditry. Recent estimates by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace (see web links) suggest that up to 2 billion people worldwide live in insecure states where government has either failed or is fragile, and are exposed to varying degrees of violence as a result. The most complete example of a failed state is perhaps Somalia, where no government has been able to take effective control of the country since the death fifteen years ago of Siad Barre, its dictator. Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote D'Ivoire provide other commonly-discussed examples. States recovering from recent collapse could include Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola, although in none of these is recovery certain, while Cambodia, Mozambique, Lebanon and East Timor provide examples of relative longer-term success after periods of failure. Today many observers are gloomy about the futures of countries including Zimbabwe, Nepal, Guinea, Afghanistan, Chad, Sudan, Bolivia and Iraq, as well as the Palestinian Authority. Civil warfare is a big element in the failure of states, but this can include situations where a government has lost control of a significant area of its territory but can function at least minimally effectively elsewhere - examples of this could include Russia (with Chechnya), Colombia, Sudan and the Philippines. The question of how the outside world should respond to such civil wars is addressed in another topic; this one will focus upon states in which widespread collapse of government institutions is threatened, and on whether and how the USA and global community should act to prevent failure.

Argument #1


We should act to help the people of a failing state, as once it collapses no government services will be provided, including law and order. The USA should work with the UN in leading attempts at conflict resolution, and should engage in subsequent peacekeeping missions and investment in nation-building initiatives (e.g. funding and organising the reintegration of non-combatants into society, organising elections, building up civil society, creating effective government institutions, etc). This will require both greater willingness to commit funds on the part of the USA and a commitment to conflict resolution which has been largely lacking in recent US policy.


The United States National Security Strategy (2002) rightly states that the USA "should be realistic about its ability to help those that are unwilling and unready to help themselves. Where and when people are ready to do their part, we will be ready to move decisively." Past US failures in Haiti and Somalia show the wisdom of this principle. The USA should instead pick its areas of engagement with care according to their strategic importance and the likelihood of success (e.g. India-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan, Colombia), rather than spread itself too thin ineffectually. Being willing to step into every fragile state could also create a moral hazard. Irresponsible governments will assume that they will be bailed out by the USA and the UN, who will always intervene to prevent too much suffering. This in itself makes future failures much more likely.

Argument #2


It is in the interests of international stability that failing states are rescued before it is too late. Failed states often infect a whole region, as the collapse of Liberia did in West Africa - a problem known as contagion. Neighbouring states back different factions with arms and squabble over resources, such as the diamonds of Sierra Leone and the mineral wealth of Congo. Internally neighbours are destabilised by floods of refugees and weapons from next door. Their own rebel groups can also easily find shelter to regroup and mount fresh attacks in the lawless country just over their borders. Failed states also export dangers more widely, as they often provide an opportunity for drug crops such as Opium (Afghanistan) or Coca (parts of Colombia) to be grown, processed and traded without fear of authority, with devastating effects both locally and globally. Desperate people may also take refuge in religious or political extremism, which may in time come to threaten the rest of the world.


The contagion theory is hard to apply beyond a small group of countries in West Africa - elsewhere failed states do not tend to drag down their neighbours with them. For example, countries bordering Somalia, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea, are far from perfect but none of them is close to being considered a failed state. In most cases the best solution to the problem of failed states is for regional groups (e.g. ECOMOG in West Africa, the African Union in Western Sudan, the European Union in Macedonia, Australia in East Timor) to take responsibility for their areas rather than to overburden the USA and UN.

Argument #3


In the interests of the USA and its allies to help save fragile states from failure. Failed states often become havens for terrorists, who can find safety in them to plot against the West, to establish training camps for future terrorists, and to build up finance, weapons and other resources with which to mount campaigns. This can be seen in Afghanistan and in Somalia, and may yet be seen in Iraq if the present situation deteriorates further. Other fragile states, such as Niger, Congo and Sierra Leone have radioactive and other valuable minerals which could be very dangerous in the hands of determined terrorists. The USA should work with the UN to strengthen governments so that they can more effectively maintain internal order while controlling their borders and tracking resource-flows.


There is very limited evidence to support the theory that failed states become havens for terrorists. It is true that there are some Al-Qaeda sympathisers in Somalia, but these seem to be few in number and no greater in threat to the USA and its allies than similar groups in other countries. Nor is Afghanistan a good example of this theory; Osama Bin Laden was invited to take refuge there by an established government - the Taliban - only after they had successfully grabbed power in Afghanistan. Before this, Bin Laden was sheltered in Sudan - not in the war-torn and lawless south, but in the northern part where the government was in firm control. Here the problem was not a failed state, but rather one with an extreme islamist government. On the other hand, Iran and Syria are both accused of providing bases for terrorists, but neither could be considered a failed state.

Argument #4


The cost of intervention is lower than the cost of inactivity. Sometimes, as in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, the situation will become so bad that US military intervention is necessary - this is hugely costly compared to funding preventative action through the United Nations. The role of failed states as reservoirs from which refugees, narcotics, terrorism, illegal diamonds, etc. are exported means that the USA already spends many billions of dollars a year in dealing with the mess they create. Finally, there is an opportunity cost of lost trade and investment which applies to the developing world and developed economies alike (e.g. the benefits to the US of trade with oil-rich Angola, Sudan and Congo).


The cost of intervention is too high. The United Nations has neither the money nor the support of the international community to undertake speculative missions. Already it fails to meet its targets for troops to provide peacekeeping in countries which request its help. The USA already contributes nearly a quarter of the UN's peacekeeping budget and cannot afford more at a time when it is already stretched by major commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Argument #5


There is a need to change the rules for access to US aid programmes (e.g. the Milennium Challenge Account) and trade preferences (e.g. the African Growth and Opportunity Act), and those of international organisations in which the USA is influential (e.g. the World Bank, G8 moves on debt relief). At present these programmes are structured to reward developing countries with particular government policies (e.g. protection of property rights, focus on education, sustainable budgets, anti-corruption measures, etc). Sensible though this seems, it denies international help to those states whose people need it most - those where government is weak or absent. Funding microcredit schemes, education, health and sanitation programmes in the more stable parts of failing states, and providing meaningful trade access could all provide long-term benefits to the USA.


The current US approach to international development, in which aid, loans or market access are conditional upon good governance should be maintained, and even extended more widely. Such conditions provide incentives for developing countries to put constructive policies in place and reward those who fight corruption. As past failures show all too clearly, there is no point throwing money at chaotic, lawless and corrupt regimes - it will never reach the people anyway. In any case, humanitarian relief is not conditional and the USA continues to respond with compassion to emergencies anywhere in the world. It should also be noted that special measures to support states identified as at risk of failure could in themselves be harmful. Discussion of intervention will scare off investors and help to bring about economic collapse - becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Argument #6


Intervention to prevent state failure is best done by the US working with the UN. The United Nations has expertise and is widely respected, whereas the international reputation of the USA is now sufficiently damaged that the hostility it generates can undermine the good work it wishes to do. In partnership the USA can provide resources to enable the UN to secure the future stability of many fragile countries, while the UN's involvement can show that these operations are altruistic and pose no imperialist threat. Over time, commitment through the UN to international peace and humanitarian concerns will allow the USA to change the way it is viewed worldwide - an important aspect of the War on Terror.


Intervening in fragile states is simply a new form of imperialism. It is not for either the USA or the UN to impose their own rule upon individual countries. Doing so would deny their people the right to chart their own future. And if the USA regularly intervened it would create even more hostility, with accusations that it is acting out of a self-interested desire to exploit peoples economically. US troops and civilian personnel could rapidly become a target for attacks. Nor is it desirable to encourage the UN to increase the level of its intervention in the domestic affairs of member states. This might start with weak countries but could rapidly become a habit and encourage the organisation in its ambitions to become a world government.



  • The USA should work together with the UN to prevent the collapse of third-world states
  • This House would save failing states
  • This House believes the USA should do more to prevent failed states

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