The term "failed state" gets bandied around with increasing frequency nowadays, usually meaning a country wracked with internal violence. But it's not really that useful. It implies an opposition that is far too binary between "successful" and "failed" states. Who judges the criteria by which a state is deemed "successful"? The most useful one is the Weberian definition of a state as an entity that "successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order". Most states that are labelled as "failed" have lost control of the means of violence within their own territories.
Yet clearly this applies to all states to some degree. It would be premature to label the British state as "failed" due to rising gun crime in London and Nottingham, but this phenomenon clearly indicates that even the strongest states have areas - and moments - of weakness. Hence, it is much more fruitful to discuss states which have varying degrees of "strength" or "weakness". We can call this capacity of a state its "empirical sovereignty". Columbia, for instance, might be said to have rather bad empirical sovereignty because of the large parts of it controlled by armed guerillas and paramilitaries.
Alongside this concept of empirical sovereignty stands the "legal sovereignty" which some state or other has over the entire inhabited earth. Yet many of these states are weak, and in a globalized world where drugs, migrants, terrorists and weapons can cross half way around the world with ease, weak states matter more and more. If the "axis of evil" between terrorist groups and state sponsors who provide them with weapons of mass destruction is a threat, then the "axis of chaos" between terrorist groups and the weak states they take advantage of is equally as grave, and more widespread.
Why our idea of sovereignty is how it is
To understand all this needs a brief history lesson. Our idea of sovereignty is historically quite new, and is tied up with the United Nations and the experience of decolonization. The United Nations should really be called the "United States", in that it really represents in one sense a big effort by states to band together and assert their rights over the world and subdivide it between them. Territorial integrity gets a mention very early on in the United Nations Charter, which expressly forbids its contravention. States actually violate each other's sovereignty all the time in most parts of the world, but they pretend not to; and they don't do so in particularly blatant ways in most places.
As a result of the principles of the United Nations Charter and then the decolonization of Africa and Asia, there is little of the world that doesn't, in theory, lie under the legal sovereignty of some state. The idea of this is to allow the peoples of the world who were formerly colonized the complete right to their own destiny and admittance into the community of nations on equal terms. No more empires, dependencies, or "inferior" peoples. And it's a jolly good idea, although the focus on states rather than people is the reason, for instance, North Korea is considered just as qualified to sit on the Human Rights Committee as Sweden; their states are equals, even if the rights of their peoples are not.
However, it is historically novel: before 1945, virtually no entity was regarded as sovereign over anything which it didn't actually control. But with the decolonization of Africa and Asia, many new states came into existence only inheriting the state machinery which had been built by the colonial powers. Their main aim had been the extraction of wealth from their colonies, not running them properly. This meant that many new states, especially in Africa, were born without the means to possibly actually exercise empirical sovereignty over their entire territories. And this is the origin of many states today which have very weak capabilities and get described as "failed".
Africa provides the best example of this. States in Africa were so weak after decolonization that when they formed the Organization of African Unity, they had two main priorities: stopping each other violating one another's sovereignty, and stopping breakaway regions which the central state couldn't control from gaining their own independence. This is why everyone helped the Nigerians during their brutal suppression of an independence movement in Biafra, and it's why noboby recognizes Somaliland today even though it actually exercises empirical sovereignty over northern Somalia. It's also one reason why there have been so few inter-state wars in Africa; the norm of sovereignty is just too valuable to all the states involved to go around breaking. The result could be a free for all.
Weak states and U.S. foreign policy
Globalization has increased the risk that state weakness in a remote part of the world can impact another part of the world. Since the end of the Cold War this has been of increasing concern to the United States. The Clinton administration intervened in a number of countries such as Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia with some initially enthusiastic ideas about building democratic states there in the hope of solving the problems these countries caused for the U.S. Yet this was a very tricky business, as the Battle of Mogadishu especially showed; and weak states have continued to cause a problem. You can't build states everywhere; it's not even certain we can really build them anywhere. All this chaos around the world is not only terrible for the people living there, but it can impact the West as well.
9/11, of course, was the prime example of this. Terrorists today train in Afghanistan and Pakistan and can then fly to North America or Europe to commit atrocities. Since the start of the war on terror, it has been U.S. and European policy to try and suppress this activity by supporting clients in other countries who will establish empirical sovereignty over these areas. This is essentially what is asked, for instance, of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan: "we'll help your state become empircally sovereign in the areas its legally sovereign over", says President Bush, "if your state takes care of business for us there."
The war on terror has followed a similar pattern in this respect to the war on drugs which preceded it and continues simultaneously alongside it. Large areas of territory in the drug-producing South and Central American countries, like Columbia, are not under the control of the central state; so it has been U.S. policy to strengthen these states by giving them aid and building up their militaries. It's sovereignty-spreading on the cheap for the new, post-colonial age. The British Empire would have pitched up, taken over, and rounded up the natives it didn't like; the Americans can't, and don't want to, bear the moral and material costs, of doing this. So they sub-contract sovereignty-enforcement to the states. The creation of the new Africa Command in the Pentagon is the latest expression of this (as well as, incidentally, spreading the Pentagon's area of concern over the entire inhabited world).
The U.S. has not always been so enthusiastic about spreading empirical sovereignty. As the example of Musharraf shows, it can often come at the price of democracy and human rights; while this price is usually considered bearable in regions of strategic importance, it has traditionally been considered too high in Africa. At the end of the Cold War, when it was no longer necessary to prop up despicable regimes because of the threat of Communist takeover, Congress and the executive tripped over one another to start demanding reform in the direction of democracy and market liberalization in Eastern Europe and Africa to ensure a continuation of aid. A number of African countries suddenly found their aid packets empty, and countries like Somalia and Liberia fell into chaos as a result. This policy was followed because Africa was considered essentially unimportant, so the U.S. didn't care whether its countries actually exercised empirical sovereignty or not.
Yet it makes no sense to push for democracy, human rights and economic liberalization, fantastic though all these things are, in areas where there is virtually no state at all. Clearly a state has to actually control its territory before being able to extend these benefits to its citizens; yet many African countries simply do not. This is one reason why Africa has fared so poorly during the 1990s. I say this not as an argument for dictatorship, but because it must be recognized that there is not a binary opposition between dictatorship and democracy, and a sure path from the former to the latter; chaos lies in between.
And this brings us, with horrifying inevitably, to Iraq. The lessons of the 1990s for the U.S. - with its many interventions in weak states, from Bosnia to Haiti - should have been that its hard to implant liberal values in places where there is no state at all, and that to get troops involved in such a morass is a ticket to quagmire, not a humanitarian Garden of Eden. Beholding a world of weak states which cannot even secure the right to life for their citizens, the Bush administraton went and virtually destroyed the coercive apparatus of one of the strongest states in the world, and had no plan with which to replace it save that the "Iraqi people" would rise up and make a liberal paradise. The action was the opposite of policies towards state-strengthening that had worked elsewhere, and the most extreme example of a policy which had caused havoc elsewhere. The result has been the creation of a zone of African-style chaos in the middle of the world's most important strategic region.
In a globalized world and in a battle against terrorism, this is a disaster. It was state weakness which allowed al-Qaeda to fire the first shots against the West from its base in Afghanistan, a move to which the Bush administration wisely responded by trying to build an Afghani state. But for the next move in the war on terror to be to destroy the empirical sovereignty of Iraq really made no sense seen from this angle, although it did if the United States could truly have succeeded in its goal of replacing Saddam's dictatorship with a free Iraq. But to simply assume that this would happen automatically and without any real U.S. input but the destruction of the Iraqi state was a product of a severely flawed ideology. We, and the Iraqi people, are living with the consequences of that flaw now; and we will all be for decades to come.