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BLOG: The Ideology of Failed States, with Professor Susan Woodward

last modified Nov 23, 2017 04:13 PM
By Samantha Braver, MPhil student in International Relations & Politics , CGHR student group

Are we failing states by using the term “failed states”? In her recent talk to students at the University of Cambridge, Professor Susan L. Woodward, said “yes”. Woodward, a professor of political science at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and an expert on Balkan affairs, witnessed the collapse of Yugoslavia first-hand. Years of research and operational experience have led to her recent publication of the book The Ideology of Failed States: Why Intervention Fails. Woodward makes the bold argument that the categorization of failed, or “fragile”, states, is a problematic and inherently misguided conceptualization both theoretically and empirically. She claims that the idea of the failed state as a security threat is tautological rather than demonstrable.

According to Woodward, the end of the Cold War perpetuated the idea amongst Western scholars that the failure of states constituted the new primary threat to international peace and security. The predominant literature suggests that failed states—states marred by terrorist organizations and human rights violations—owe their demise to their own institutional instability and lack of governance. However, Woodward pushes against this framework by offering a new explanation: that international (in particular, Western) actors used the concept “failed state” as a political maneuver to characterize states that simply failed to adhere to what organizations, like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, wanted the states to do. The term allowed Western donors and diplomats to explain a phenomenon (lack of effective governance) and take blame away from deeper issues surrounding instability, such as the failures of structural adjustment policies in the 1980s. Instead, the blame is placed onto political leaders in those so-calles failed states. She explains how international actors use benign terms like “state-building” in order to further their own agendas by building up their own organisations. After all, if an organization’s model is ineffective, its institutional survival is on the line; placing the blame directly on states and their leaders draws attention away from international actors and the roles they play in development globally. Woodward even goes as far as to call this ideology a “camouflage”, masking other issues.

Why is this a problem? First, the term hides the wide diversity between developing states by lumping them under the same umbrella, removing nuance and case-by-case analyses of various nations and their governing structures. For example, Woodward makes the case that first generation peace building was more successful than its current form, as nations like India and Turkey were provided with more space policy-wise to come up with alternatives to neoliberal models, like Soviet-style planning initiatives. Secondly, the term essentially provides a quasi-mandate to allow organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to rationalize development assistance according to their own institutional motives. Thirdly, the consequences of international efforts to “save” such states can have fundamentally disastrous outcomes, like further political instability, all the while building up the capacities of international/bilateral bureaucracies rather than the lives of local actors. Even when these actors do attempt to provide aid and necessary services, the interventions are often delayed and sporadic, further complicating the situation on the ground. Woodward explained how the process of building institutions requires decades, even up to a hundred years, for effective implementation.

In response to this point, a student in the room asked Woodward whether there was anything that could be done to uphold a universal declaration of basic rights that all humans should be entitled to. Surprisingly, Woodward articulated her fear that there was no mechanism to impose human rights on others, and that to push forward a human rights agenda may be mere isomorphic mimicry rather than a functional operation. While I agree that international intervention in the form of military endeavors or even certain forms of aid (such as aid that favours the salaries of international actors rather than local producers) will often fail, I do believe that a state-building approach which employs state citizenry and works with (rather than over) government forces can - and must - be taken in order to advance the cause of human rights around the world. The world watched as President Barack Obama drew a red line across Syrian chemical warfare and then failed to adhere to his words when the time came. While the situation in Syria would almost certainly remain volatile with or without American or institutional intervention, to not engage is to give up on the very lives of others.

Woodward was careful to defend against the assumption that her argument is anti-intervention at all levels, yet where to take this research and account for its implications remains unclear. Apart from calling for a radical redefinition of the way we think about security, development, state building, and peace building, the direction forward is hazy, especially when we take a reductionist approach to developing nations that ignores the individual needs of each state, as we often do today. However, what is certain is that if we genuinely want to help states wrought with strife, we need to do more than simply write them off as “failed”. We need to reshape political discourse and question our own practices with vigorous analysis and reproach. For only then can we truly build peace—and only then can states be built to stand and weather this world.