Failed States and the UN

I attended a panel at the New America Foundation yesterday that included James Traub (one of my favorite authors), Steve Clemons (a friend and former boss) and Pauline Baker of the Fund for Peace for a discussion of the Fund’s Failed States Index, which is published annually in Foreign Policy.  FP’s Editor in Chief Susan Glasser moderated.

The conversation focused on what the United States can and should do to take on the problem of failed states.  To get a sense of what we are talking about, here are the top ten failed states from the 2010 index: 



The panelists lamented that there was no comprehensive U.S. approach to failed states. It would seem to me, however, that the United States has had a fairly consistent strategy for dealing with failing states:  pass off the problem to the United Nations.  Seven of these countries — Somalia, Chad, Sudan, DRC, Afghanistan, Iraq, and CAR have had a robust UN political or peacekeeping presence (or both), since at least 2003.  In each of these cases the United States, through its presence on the Security Council, pushed for the internationalization of these states’ civil wars, political failures, or humanitarian disasters.  

Why would the US turn to the UN so consistently in these matters? I think it has to do with the fact that the United States believes it has a prudential or moral interest in resolving problems associated with state failure (like civil war or humanitarian crises.) The thing is, even though the United States may want to act in each of these cases, it lacks the capacity and wherewithal to intervene all the time and everywhere.

The antidote to state failure is economic development and institution building. This takes time, money, and political support from key member states. In a number of the cases listed above, one or more of those elements are missing.  But over the long term the “UN model” can, in fact, work.  In 2006, Liberia ranked 12 and Sierra Leone 16 on the Failed States index. Peacekeeping interventions aimed at building up local governance capacity sparked a profound turnaround in these countries.  In 2010, Liberia fell to 33 and Sierra Leone is not even in the top 60.

The U.S. also looks to the UN because it has both the technical expertise and and global reach that the United States does not. (The United States has been trying to build a cadre of expeditionary civilian nation building experts since 2005, but so far that effort has been halting.) The UN also has an in-country legitimacy that any single country, let alone a global super power, does not.  

A serious “failed states strategy” would treat the UN like the indispensible tool that it is and offer more robust support to UN institutions like peacekeeping, the UN Development Program, and the UN Peace Building Commission. If we think it is in our interests to fix failed states, then it is certainly in our interests to give the UN the tools to do so.