Defining the Failed State

Before discussing current failed states and the events occurring within them, it is necessary to define precisely what a failed state is. While there exists a clear and, for the most part, agreed upon definition for the unit known as a state, it is more difficult to find an agreed upon definition for what constitutes a failed state. However, by examining the standard definition of a state, it is possible to create a working definition of what a failed state is.

A state is typically defined by a few factors: it has a defined territory, it has a monopoly over violence in that territory, and other states recognize it as a sovereign state. Customary international law provides the declarative theory of statehood, which offers another, more specific way of defining a state. In order for a state to be considered as a person under international law it must have a population, defined territory, a government, and the ability to interact with other states of their own will. The type of government and the laws in a state do not matter as long as the state is perceived as legitimate and retains control over its territory. Currently, the UN recognizes that there are 206 independent states in the world.

There is a range between failed, failing and fragile states, but from these state definitions comes a definition of a failed state for the purposes of this blog: a state that at one point possessed all the above qualities but then fails in one area or another. Typically, it is the government that fails, as in Syria, or the state loses its monopoly over violence, as in Iraq.

Perhaps the most prominent examples of failed states today include Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. While formally Somalia has a chief of state, a head of government, and a national parliament, the CIA World Factbook states that Somalia is “in the process of building a federal parliamentary republic,” implying that while a government exists, it is not functioning. Iraq too has a government, but its amount of control is questionable given the conflicts that have arisen with ISIS in the area. Syria is facing ongoing civil wars, which have caused the formation and collapse of several governments there.

These three states appear with various rankings on the Fragile States Index—Somalia ranks second, Iraq thirteenth, and Syria fifteenth—but using the above working definition of a failed state all three are considered failed, although that is an oversimplification of their wellbeing. Simply though, the label ‘failed’ denotes that a state is not functioning at the standard of the declarative theory of statehood. Within Somalia, Syria, and Iraq are all very different current and historic situations that have led to their current failings and fragility that make them so prominent in world news today. Each state must be examined individually beyond its label to truly understand what happens in failed states and why they are significant.


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