Fiction of the failed state

Published August 6, 2014
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

These are familiar questions in Pakistan’s current dark times: is the state failing, has it failed, will it fail? These are all questions that have appeared in ink in Pakistani newspapers, fallen from the lips of new analysts, been scattered around by politicians.

A centrepiece in the scientific analysis of governance, a sense of gravity, is invested in the idea; and, consequently, ‘state failure’ is imagined as an objective standard against which existing inadequacies can be tabulated.

In the chaos of Pakistani politics — the inveterate corruption, the endemic nepotism, the lack of oversight and objectivity — the prospect of standards, especially objective ones, gleams and glistens. In this climate of developing-nation despair, therefore, the term “failed” state has been embraced.

Foreign commentators, many of whom make their living on their expertise on Pakistan’s unravelling, have offered their own affirmations. Writing in 2012, following the immediate release of the Failed States Index 2012, Robert Kaplan — the chief geopolitical strategist for Stratfor — dictatorially declared: “Perversity characterises Pakistan.” Many of his ilk have happily followed suit, heaping all sorts negative terms, each supposedly attached to the pristine numerical objectivity of the ‘failed states measure’.


The new colonialism, like the old, presents the shadows of intervention as weightless


As it turns out, the term “failed state” is a hoax designed precisely to capitalise on the insecurities of struggling sovereignties like Pakistan.

In an article published in The Guardian newspaper over a year ago, commentator Elliott Ross exposed both the term’s origins and the nefarious intentions for whose fulfilment it was coined. The term and the Failed States Index which accompanies it is the child of a man named J.J. Messner, a former lobbyist for the private military industry.

Not only does Mr Messner not disclose this inconvenient fact about his past employment history, he also refuses to release any of the raw data that goes behind the index that he publishes.

Despite this, many political scientists who are usually quite vigilant about trawling through each other’s data to verify claims have accepted the presence of the index in their midst.

As Ross explains, this is not an accident. The term itself was coined by two men, Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner, both employees of the US State Department in 1992. In an article appearing in Foreign Policy (which also hosts the dubious index, that has since been renamed the Fragile States Index), the duo argued that new countries emerging on the world’s map were incapable of functioning or sustaining themselves as members of the international community.

What these weak countries (which, it was implied, were near-delusional in imagining themselves as functioning equally in the international realm) needed was the ‘guardianship’ of the Western world. This, in turn, would ensure the ‘survivability’ of these poor hapless countries (Pakistan among them).

In simple terms, the idea of state failure itself was premised on the assumption that weak or new states should allow and welcome intermeddling from Western overlords whose ‘guardianship’ was really something to be grateful for.

Unsurprisingly, in the years hence, the term has become a mainstay of justifying interventions and intermeddling via the ‘guardian’ countries themselves or international institutions whose hold over global economics permits them similar licence.

An attached plethora of jargon has emerged to support and affirm the concept, which is now alloyed with partners such as ‘ungoverned spaces’. All of them are geared towards the central purpose of defining countries in the developing world as crucially, inherently and ultimately lacking.

The moral underpinning of this framing is that imperial overreach is not something dirty and unwarranted, colonial and corrupt, but necessary, even benevolent. The intervening states are grandfathering, helping along, assisting, and aiding. They are not meddling, provoking, or engaging in self-interested puppetry geared towards accomplishing their own strategic interests, positioning their pawns for their own proxy wars.

Words and typologies determine the way we see the world and our own position in it. The dominance of the jargon of state ‘failure’ means not simply the lens of the world averted from the moral wrongs that emit from intermeddling but also Pakistan’s own image of itself.

Poised against the idea that Pakistan is a ‘failed’ country, the definition of nationalism or its attached patriotism becomes in turn equally deluded. If the world heaps the vacuous term ‘failure’ in order to whitewash the strategic intermeddling of the more powerful on our borders, those opposing it imagine global isolation as a response.

In this oppositional game, opposing the vocabulary of failure seems to require, in turn, a denial of all inadequacies, an imagined utopian purification all poised on a turning away from the world. The cumulative result is a double distortion, where actual problems are hidden away under the dictates of political gloss from within countries or from their would-be overlords without.

In studying international politics and global demarcations, those who are or would be analysts of Pakistan’s condition, or of the post-colonial quandaries and infrastructural inadequacies of any developing country, must be wary of the vocabulary of development and global benevolence.

In the proliferation of glib terms like ‘failure’ and ‘rentier’ and ‘ungovernability’ are the mis-characterisations and deceptions of the new colonialism. Like the old, it presents the shadows of intervention as weightless and the obligations of aid as never, ever, nefarious. The arrangement of data, the selection of criterion, and the ranking of the always-wanting must, because of this, be open to epistemological questioning.

The idea of the ‘failed’ state is a fiction; digging out from its wreckage of selfhood and sovereignty requires not its discounting, but a double challenge that goes beyond both the incorrect characterisations of others and the real flaws we know to be our own.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2014

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