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Topic / International Relations and Security

The Arab Awakening “Cascade” of Failing States: Dealing with Post-Revolutionary Stabilization Challenges

Yoel Guzansky, the former Iran coordinator at Israel’s NationalSecurity Council, is a research fellow at the Institute for NationalSecurity Studies at Tel Aviv University and a doctoral candidate ininternational relations at Haifa University.



Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study.



Even though state weakness is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa region, this trend has only worsened since the beginning of the massive wave of social and political protests that have characterized the “Arab Awakening.” The challenges of this post-revolutionary period risk intensifying preexisting sectarian, religious, and political cleavages. In turn, this means—at least in the short term—that it is fair to expect renewed internal turmoil as well as significant troubles in the establishment of central authority. As such, the short term may indeed be characterized by weaker or failing states, with strong regional implications at the humanitarian, political, and security levels.


The ongoing turmoil still unfolding in the Arab world began with a promise to bring substantial change to a region that desperately needed a jolt. The Arab protest movements, while also sparked by material distress, went far beyond economic grievances to produce a discourse centered on genuine political reforms, freedom, justice, and dignity.

However, while the heterogeneous protest movements were able to come together to demand the demise of old authoritarian regimes, they have subsequently splintered along secular religious, sectarian, tribal, and ethnic lines. Similarly, these movements have so far failed to produce a cohesive plan for their respective post-revolutionary transitions.

The divisions within the protest movements, along with the obstacles faced by the local civil society, have contributed to a stalling of the process of political change. The transition is further complicated by the legitimacy deficit of the existing political institutions and by the resilience of the pre-revolutionary networks of power and patronage. In turn, all these elements have made the post-revolutionary period, already replete with challenges, even more complicated.

One of the most worrisome outcomes of this post-revolutionary transition stage has been the exacerbation of particularism and the reaffirmation of pre-state loyalties. This has undermined the creation of new, strong, and functioning states.

In general, state weakness is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but this trend has only worsened since the Arab Awakening. The challenges of the post-revolutionary period risk intensifying preexisting societal cleavages. In turn, this means, at least in the short to medium term, that it is fair to expect renewed internal turmoil as well as significant troubles in the establishment of central authority.

Pessimistic observers, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, note that “blank spaces denoting lawlessness” may come to dominate the Middle East map, pointing to Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula as examples of this “cascade” of state failure (Kissinger 2012).

The one-size-fits-all approach leaves much to be desired when referring to a politically, economically, and culturally diverse region like the Middle East. Even so, there seems to be truth in the notion that the post-revolutionary stabilization period is likely to both exacerbate preexisting cleavages as well as weaken central authority. As such, the short term may indeed be characterized by weak or failing states.

The Challenge: Weak Central Government, Internal Divisions, and Failing States

There is widespread awareness that, especially in the post–Cold War era, internal security challenges, including civil wars, terrorism, and guerilla warfare, have become the most prominent threat to human security at large. Since the end of World War II, far more people have died as a result of these threats than due to interstate wars between regular armies (Fearon and Laitin 2003).

Similarly, there is virtual agreement within the scholarly community about the role weak and failing states play in heightening challenges to people’s security, both at the local and global level. Nonetheless, and despite the extensive discussion of this topic in the West, the discourse regarding what actually constitutes a failed state lacks conceptual clarity and is oversaturated with different definitions and indices (Hafez 2012; Economist 2009). For the purpose of this article, and without directly addressing the ongoing scholarly debate on the issue, the term “state weakness” is understood through the prism of the regime’s legitimacy, its capacity to deliver social and political goods, and its ability to guarantee a basic level of security.

Under this paradigm, a functioning and strong state should be characterized by high internal legitimacy, with citizens recognizing both the political institutions and the political leadership. The ideal typology of a strong centralized state should similarly be able to provide a basic number of social and political services to its population. In addition, the state should be the main provider of security. To this end, the state should maintain and operate police, security, and military institutions intended to protect its citizens from internal and external threats. These state institutions should ideally hold the monopoly on the use of force, and the population should largely perceive them as legitimate.

By the same token, a state should be seen as failed when it is utterly unable to meet any of these criteria: that is, being perceived as illegitimate, unable to provide goods and services, and incapable of providing security. Failed states have a higher potential for internal violence, since the regime’s incapacity or illegitimacy may lead sub-state actors to challenge the authority of the regime by trying to topple it or simply by creating alternative sub-pockets of authority.

Clearly, ideal typologies rarely fit reality, and, as such, most states fall somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from “strong” to “weak” and from “functioning” to “failed.” In recent years the concept of the failed state has become popular and overused, especially because of the difficulty in identifying the line separating the various degrees of state weakness. Some twenty-nine states are currently identified as failed. Among these, the highest rate of failure occurs in sub-Saharan Africa (Marshall and Cole 2009).

In the MENA region, state weakness appears in very different shades. Similarly, the reasons for illegitimacy vary, from a history of colonialism that created a situation of incongruence between the borders of the state and its ethnic or national identification, to various cases of regimes that serve as a means for perpetuating the dominance of one ethnic group over all other groups present in the state.

In this context, there are two central types of weak states that stand out. In states like Lebanon, the central political institutions can be perceived as weak, with a low degree of popularity and legitimacy. Although the state is far from failing, there is still inherent institutional weakness.

Far from being a harmonious experiment in multiculturalism, the Lebanese society is extremely fragile and fragmented along ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines. Therefore, lacking strong common foundations and social cohesion, outbursts of ethnic and religious violence within Lebanon have been a recurrent pattern in the country’s history. In turn, the divided and fragile society has strongly affected both the legitimacy of the country’s central political system as well as the government’s capacity to exercise control and authority over all of its citizens and territory.

The political institutions are similarly lacking when assessing their capacity to distribute social and political goods. In particular, there still tends to be a largely differentiated access to social and political goods as well as citizenship rights for the different sectarian communities. This generates friction between such communities, weakening the unity of the nation. This combination of inter-sectarian tensions, societal division, clientelism, institutional weakness, and foreign meddling makes Lebanon an interesting example of state weakness in the region.

In contrast, the region also sees a second typology of states that are further along the failing states spectrum, such as Yemen. In Yemen, central government institutions face monumental challenges in ensuring central authority and in preserving the monopoly of force. Accordingly, the regime struggles to provide security and basic services to citizens and to control the state’s border effectively.

This challenge is especially daunting as Yemen is also the poorest and least developed state in the region, the one most lacking internal legitimacy, as well as the nation with the lowest capacity to deliver social and political goods. Clearly, the state is also far from holding a monopoly on force.

Each of the groups comprising the Yemeni mosaic has a different vision for shaping the nation. The result is local groups teaming up with external forces in order to improve their domestic standing. That alone transforms Yemen into another arena of regional struggle—a most important one given its geostrategic location.

Moreover, Yemen must also deal with a plethora of additional internal problems, ranging from its internally fragmented society and the presence of high numbers of internally displaced persons to hunger, poverty, and quickly decreasing water supplies.

Although weak and failing states in the region are extremely diverse in terms of their historical, political, and geostrategic features, three characteristics of state failure lie at the heart of the analytical framework: weak central political institutions, inequality in the distribution of social and political goods, and proliferation of parallel spheres of authorities within the state. What sets failing states like Yemen apart from other states like Lebanon, however, is the intensity of the threats and their interrelationships. The regime’s illegitimacy and its inability to maintain the monopoly of force, coupled with weak state institutions, results in the growth of various sub-state actors trying to seize power or use violence to wreak havoc.

The situation becomes even more complex since sub-state actors challenging the central regime often recruit external patrons that, for a variety of reasons, choose to support them. For example, in the case of the ongoing internal conflict in Syria, Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, back the opposition forces, while states like Iran support the Assad regime in power. The role of third states only adds fuel to the fire, increasing the level of internal violence and accelerating the process of state failure.

The “Failing States” Challenges in the MENA Region After the Arab Awakening

The Middle East provides a live laboratory for examining the problem of weak states, as half of the twenty-two Arab League members may be defined as weak or failing states.  Among the challenges faced by regional regimes are demographic pressures, inequitable development and distribution of political goods, illegitimacy of the central political institutions, human rights abuses, impaired security, and external meddling by third states. As such, even well before the Arab Awakening, the structural foundations of Middle Eastern states appeared to be weak, with a variation between highly dysfunctional states like Yemen and weak but far from failing countries like Lebanon. Even in the region’s rich states, wealth (coming primarily from natural resources) hides significant structural weaknesses that are liable to lead to future state weakness.

However, since the beginning of the revolutions, there has been a general deterioration in the level of internal stability of MENA states. For example, Libya has been facing monumental challenges in reasserting internal control in the post-revolutionary phase. The Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) began its post-conflict stabilization phase in October 2011, after declaring the end of the hostilities eight months after the beginning of the uprising. Shortly after this declaration, the NTC relocated to Tripoli and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Operation Unified Protector officially ended, marking the beginning of Libya’s stabilization and reconstruction phase. Nevertheless, implementing political and security reforms in Libya has proved an incredibly difficult task, leaving the country in a state of internal weakness and instability.

Libya, despite being rich in resources and less in need of traditional financial support, still is far from stable. The country is highly fragmented internally—with competing tribal loyalties often taking precedence over national identity—and lacks strong and functional central political institutions. From the outset, the NTC lacked the legitimacy and capacity to establish strong internal control and to assert authority over tribes, cities, and provinces, which had basically relied on self-rule over the previous decades.

The new authority also struggled to retain the monopoly on the use of force. In fact, the proliferation of armed groups constituted one of the biggest challenges to the authority of the council. These groups also raised the internal level of violence and instability. The proliferation of militias was an especially substantial problem given the weakness of the Libyan security sector, which found itself in a nearly total state of disarray following the end of the revolution. Even though the situation has improved following the country’s elections and the replacement of the NTC with an elected government in 2012, the challenges of ensuring central control and building effective political institutions remain.

Especially interesting is the effect that the security vacuum in Libya has had on its regional neighbors. After Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, groups of Tuareg militants who had fought on the regime’s behalf filtered across the border into Mali. There, such militants reinforced existing Tuareg groups who stepped up separatist violence against the government. That led to a military coup, along with a move to partition the country, and the creation of a radical Islamist enclave in the north. Once a fragile African democracy, the situation in Mali rapidly deteriorated, eventually needing international intervention to stabilize the situation and stop the rise of the radical Islamist groups in the country. The situation in Mali demonstrates how state failure can become contagious and spread from country to country (Alterman and Guzansky 2012).

Syria is, of course, another notable example of increased internal instability. Since the initial clashes between the Assad regime and the anti-Assad opposition forces first broke out more than a year ago, the crisis has escalated exponentially and descended into a bloody civil war. The country, accordingly to the Failed States Index for 2011-2012, rose from the forty-eighth most dysfunctional country in the world in 2011 to position number twenty-three in 2012, together with Eritrea (Fund for Peace 2012). Even before the conflict became highly militarized and drifted into a full-fledged internal war, it had become apparent that the brutal regime lacked internal legitimacy.

In addition, the war has brought prolonged internal instability to Syria, with the country lacking central control and witnessing the rise of multiple and competing spheres of authority on the ground. De facto, different parts of the country are under the authority and control of either the regime and its army, competing rebel forces, or local leaders and rising warlords. Significantly, the more the conflict continues, the more internal fractionalization dynamics are heightened, with sectarian divisions becoming salient and constituting an obstacle to attempts to bring about a political resolution to the conflict.

The absence of central control and the multiplication of competing centers of power have been matched by the increased militarization of the conflict and the proliferation of non-state armed groups operating on behalf of the government or rebel forces. In this context, Syria has become unstable, divided, militarized, and extremely prone to the intervention of foreign powers.

Another important signal of state failure in Syria is the daunting humanitarian situation: in addition to a disheartening 70,000-plus civilian casualties, the conflict has also produced more than one million refugees, along with over two million internally displaced people, creating an ongoing humanitarian emergency (UN News Service 2013; Fantz 2013). The case of Yemen is perhaps even more extreme. The Yemeni state (which to a large extent is an arena of struggle between regional forces) is trying to simultaneously tackle a violent uprising with ethnic connotations in the north and a separatist struggle in the south, as well as to contain growing jihadist activities with global connections.

The civil unrest that has gripped the nation since January 2011 has intensified existing trends and accelerated processes that are liable to lead to state failure. The hope had been that the resignation of Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 would contain the Yemeni revolution and, more importantly, the precarious situation of the country, but, thus far, the hoped-for stability has not materialized. On the contrary, the Yemeni revolution has further weakened the central government and resulted in increased Iranian and al-Qaeda influence.

Militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited the internal chaos generated by the Yemeni revolution and steadily expanded the areas under its authority. Until the government’s counteroffensive in the spring of 2012, it had taken control of a number of towns and cities and most of the Abyan governorate. In many places where the central government was absent, Ansar al-Sharia forces—whose name is part of a rebranding effort by AQAP (U.S. Department of State 2012)—served as the local administration. In addition, tribal loyalties have also been shifting, with some tribes remaining loyal to the government, others drifting toward AQAP/Ansar al-Sharia, and still others fluctuating between the parties. Thus, the nature of AQAP’s activity has shifted accordingly, and it has increasingly assumed the form of an insurgency (Ghobari 2013).

Another manifestation of Yemeni state weakness is the increased strength of the Shia Houthi rebels in the north. Although they have been active for the past decade, in the past two years they have been strengthened and have succeeded in expanding the areas under their control. Currently, they control the entire Saadeh region, amidst accusations that they receive support from Iran—whose goal is to weaken the Saudi-backed central government (Chivers and Worth 2013).

This cascade of state weakness also extends to states that have not been at the center of the protests of the Arab Spring. The Iraqi government, for example, is also engaged in attempts to assert central control and authority. To date, these efforts have not been successful, with the state essentially absent from large parts of Iraqi territory. In the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, there is a de facto independent state. In the rest of the country, the Sunnis feel deprived by the Shiite majority and are engaged in a political battle, which is becoming increasingly violent, with the central government. Fundamentalist groups, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq), are still active in the country, while powerful external forces—mainly Iran through the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard—remain involved in Iraqi affairs.

When looking at the region in the post–Arab Awakening era, then, it appears obvious that regional states are experiencing a state of deep internal crisis. Overcoming this current strife will require a long and difficult process, one that must address the structural flaws of the preexisting political institutions while investing in society- and nation-building. It will also require revising the imported model of governance, based on a strong and centralized state, and recognizing instead the importance of creating viable power-sharing agreements as well as investing in local autonomy.

The challenge ahead is monumental, and it is therefore not surprising that the short and medium term is likely to be characterized by additional instability and state weakness.

Ramifications of Failed States in the MENA Region: Threat Assessment

The ongoing turmoil in the region has accelerated existing trends that pose a number of important challenges to the security of the region.

In the broader context, failed states can represent a challenge to the stability of the Middle East. This is especially the case given today’s globalized and interconnected world and because of the large involvement of external actors in domestic affairs of weak and failing states. The weakness of the central government and the proliferation of groups competing with the state represent an excellent opportunity for external third parties seeking to expand their influence on the region. What may at first glance look like an internal conflict between armed groups and governmental forces, such as in Syria or Yemen, is, in fact, also an arena for struggle between regional forces. The Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990 serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of countries becoming surrogates for regional and international conflicts.

Indeed, foreign intervention in Lebanon has been a constant theme in Lebanese political life, contributing to the permanently blurred lines between domestic and foreign matters. All main sectarian groups within the countries have cultivated relations with foreign actors. As a result, a myriad of foreign powers—from Iran to Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—have been invested in Lebanese politics, often with profoundly conflicting agendas.

The presence of strong links with domestic communities, together with the geostrategic relevance of Lebanon and the institutional weakness of the state, has led the country to become a playground for other regional and global actors to compete for regional power, through both political and military means. Of course, this relationship between foreign patronage and state weakness has been self-reinforcing. Foreign intervention is enabled by the state’s weakness, which, in turn, further contributes to a weakening of the state and heightened instability, creating a vicious cycle.

Currently, both Iraq and Yemen look increasingly like potential arenas for similar struggles between the different regional and global powers invested in the region. Similarly, the conflict in Syria is becoming progressively more regionalized, certainly a worrisome trend for both the country as well as for the region as a whole.

The more that the conflict within the failing states becomes regional, the more the crisis can be exported with broader repercussions across the Middle East. For instance, in the case of Yemen, the regime’s inability to impose its authority on Shiite groups caused the fighting to spill over into Saudi territory in 2009-2010.

In the case of Syria, the daunting humanitarian emergency and the growing number of refugees is having a regional impact, especially on countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, who have been providing assistance to the bulk of the refugee population. Lebanon—whose fate, for better or for worse, has historically been tied to Syria—is an especially vivid example of the regional impact of the Syrian internal war. Since the outbreak of the hostilities between the Assad regime and the opposition forces, the fighting in Syria has repeatedly spilled over into Lebanon.

The “‘spillover” of the conflict has also exacerbated a preexisting political and sectarian cleavage between Lebanon’s Sunni and the Shiite communities. This clash is strongly rooted in politics and reflected in the strong animosity between the current Lebanese government led by the “March 8” forces and including the main Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, and the “March 14” opposition forces historically led by former prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Politically, the conflict in Syria has sharply deteriorated the tone of the political confrontation, with attacks between parties that have been supporting the Assad regime and the anti-Assad March 14 forces having been vitriolic.

This tense political climate has worsened sectarian relations within Lebanon, especially in areas where they were never idyllic to begin with. For example, in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, the sectarian-political tensions boosted by the Syrian conflict have produced a number of relatively serious armed clashes between pro- and anti-Assad supporters coming from, respectively, the Alawite and Sunni communities.

In addition to the implications for regional stability, failing states are similarly problematic from a human security and humanitarian perspective. Failing states are often unable to provide security as well as basic social and political goods to their citizens, contributing to a heightened precariousness of the living conditions of the population. The recent examples of famine in Yemen and humanitarian emergency in Syria highlight the human cost of prolonged internal instability and endemic state failure. In addition, these cases also show that the human and security costs of failed states cannot be contained within the states’ own borders, as exemplified by the high number of refugees outpouring from Syria into neighboring countries.

A third challenge stemming from failing states is that of terrorism. Failed states present international and regional terrorist organizations with a convenient base of operations and are more likely than other states to host terrorist organizations on their soil. Terrorist organizations take advantage of the porous borders and the fact that the central government is weak or absent from large parts of the state in order to develop operational and logistical infrastructures. Thus, a failed state can become a safe haven for such organizations. Furthermore, the host state could provide a larger pool of potential activists, as the citizens of a failed state have fewer options and can be more easily lured into joining non-state armed groups. Moreover, given that a significant number of terrorist organizations active today in the world have a regional or even global agenda, failed states can become exporters of terrorists. In this context, Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq have long been transit points for organizations such as al-Qaeda.

The fourth challenge is crime. Similar to terrorist organizations, criminal organizations take advantage of the governments’ loose control in failed states to promote their interests. In many cases, such states become large exporters of illegal drugs grown by criminals and terrorists. For example, Afghanistan is the biggest exporter of opium and hashish in the world (UNODC 2010). Human trafficking is similarly facilitated in areas of limited statehood, as the example of Sinai seems to confirm. Human trafficking and the kidnapping of African migrants or residents of refugee camps for ransom has become a disturbing trend in Sinai (Lynch 2012). There is, of course, a connection between the terrorist and the criminal challenges, as terrorist groups have been also involved in criminal activities for fund-raising purposes, at times temporarily teaming up with local criminal rings. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for instance, the leader of an al-Qaeda offshoot organization based in Algeria who took responsibility for the In Amenas gas facility hostage crisis earlier this year, was thought to be involved in a number of criminal activities, from cigarette and other forms of smuggling to kidnapping (Erlanger and Nossiter 2013).

A final security challenge is the threat of nonconventional arms proliferation. As the situation in Libya shows, a weak or failing state can also heighten the regional threat stemming from the proliferation of conventional arms. It is more difficult for a state in the midst of an internal crisis to secure its weapons and supplies. While the new Libyan authorities, along with the international community, have been able to secure Libya’s chemical weapons, the same is not true for the rest of Qaddafi’s arsenal. According to U.S. estimates, out of approximately twenty thousand man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), only five thousand have been recovered and secured (Brannen 2012). The smuggling of Qaddafi’s arsenal represents a serious regional, as well as global, proliferation challenge. For example, according to an Associated Press report on 16 October 2012, Israeli officials stated that an antiaircraft missile fired from Gaza began its journey in Libya and was passed through tunnels along the Egyptian border (Associated Press 2012). Similarly, the rise in arms smuggling and terrorist activity from the Sinai Peninsula against Israel shows the link between proliferation and state weakness, while highlighting that these borderless threats challenge a nation’s capability to deter attacks against it.

Changing the Analytical Framework

The Arab Spring accelerated a preexisting trend within the MENA region of state weakness and instability. This widespread weakness stems from a number of factors, including the unrepresentative and unpopular nature of the predominant political institutions, the lack of a cohesive and unitary citizenship discourse, the failure to provide social and political goods to all citizens, and the difficulties in preventing the proliferation of non-state armed groups and alternative pockets of authority within the state. Given the deep and structural nature of the problems faced by MENA states, it is unlikely that the regime changes propelled by the Arab Spring will lead to a rapid improvement of the situation. As a result, in the short and medium term, continued instability and state weakness at the regional level are to be expected.

This trend is especially significant since it has important regional ramifications in terms of regional stability, human security, terrorism, crime, and proliferation of small arms. Furthermore, the longer and deeper the crisis that the MENA states will find themselves in, the higher the chances other regional actors will become more involved in such a crisis by supporting one of the warring parties. This heightens the chance for regional states to become proxies for regional confrontation, which is, in turn, a challenge to regional peace and stability.

This initial assessment underscores the importance of understanding the processes of state weakness and failure in the region. Threats from and within the MENA region. both at the local and global level, are increasingly caused by ramifications stemming from the weakness, if not outright dismantlement, of national units. One such example is the increased presence of al-Qaeda and the proliferation of similar or affiliated non-state armed groups and their growing role and power within weak or failing states, such as the rise of Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

To have a better grasp of these dynamics, it may be necessary to update traditional views of national security to increasingly include analyses of and responses to threats coming from ungoverned areas. In turn, this will provide a better understanding of the security challenges posed by failed states. An in-depth examination of the challenges will, of course, not resolve them, but it has the potential to delineate dilemmas more clearly and offer a new perspective on long-standing trends and developments. In addition, there should be a further effort to understand how states move along the “strong/weak” and “functional/failed” states continuum.

In particular, grasping the dynamics of state failure requires broadening the scope of intelligence assessments well beyond basic indicators of regime stability, with a serious look at societal well-being and stability. Social and economic questions such as a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), growth, openness to foreign trade, rate of infant mortality, and population size as well as ethnic diversity and breakdown serve as important indicators helping to forecast state failure or regime stability.

The scope of intelligence’s attention should be expanded to analyze these issues further, as well as to extend to regions that would otherwise be deemed as having limited relevance when examined through a narrower intelligence lens. Forecasting state failure can help bridge the gap between the focus on political and military issues on the one hand and the need to understand the undercurrents in these societies on the other.

The understanding that failing and weak states are here to stay and that they represent a threat to global security has increased in the post-9/11 era. The 1993 U.S. intervention in Somalia shows that the United States had already intervened in the context of failed states in the aftermath of the Cold War. Similarly, the need to identify possible threats and follow their developments in a given state prompted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as early as 1994 to construct capabilities that would better allow it to forecast regime stability and state collapse (then the State Failure Task Force, now known as the Political Instability Task Force). However, it was only in the following decade, in light of 9/11 and the U.S. experience in both Afghanistan and Somalia, that the United States started to view failed states as a severe—if not the most severe—threat to its vital interests. The United States is not the sole country to have taken this stance. France’s intervention in Mali in January 2013 in order to prevent the collapse of the central government as radical Islamic forces moved closer to the capital is evidence of this.

The issue of international intervention in a failed or weak state is a hotly debated one in the international arena. By and large, countries have sought to intervene in the internal affairs of a failed state in a number of situations. Intervention is often in response to an invitation issued by the local government or a recognized non-state armed group operating within the state. This appeal for intervention is grounded in the fact that the intervening nation has been directly hurt or its vital interests have been damaged. In addition, other factors, such as regional and international support, have been crucial in determining international intervention in internal conflicts. International intervention in failed or failing states has also increasingly challenged the notion of “absolute sovereignty,” resulting in the idea that an illegitimate and brutal regime with no internal legitimacy can indeed by challenged by the international community when a demonstrable need to protect the local civilian population arises. The NATO intervention in Libya, which arguably became a failed state once the civil war broke out, is a prime example. This is the backbone of the Responsibility to Protect debate currently ongoing regarding Syria.

Despite the importance of the legal discussions concerning when and how the international community should intervene in the context of failed states that are in the midst of internal wars and experiencing widespread atrocities, the international community has limited experience with failed states. It is important to bridge this knowledge gap as the failed states phenomenon has proven to be a more permanent and significant feature of the security environment in the twenty-first century rather than a fad of the post–Cold War era.


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Chivers, C.J., and Robert F. Worth. 2013. Seizure of antiaircraft missiles in Yemen raises fears that Iran is arming rebels there. New York Times, 8 February.

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Erlanger, Steven, and Adam Nossiter. 2013. Jihad “prince,” a kidnapper, is tied to raid. New York Times, 17 January.

Fantz, Ashley. 2013. Syria death toll probably at 70,000, U.N. human rights official says. CNN, 12 February.

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Kissinger, Henry A. 2012. Syrian intervention risks upsetting global order. Washington Post, 1 June.

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United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 2010. Afghanistan leads in hashish production. 31 March.

U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson. 2012. Terrorist designations of Ansar al-Sharia as an alias for Al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. 4 October.

Pull Quotes

The post-revolutionary stabilization period is likely to both exacerbate preexisting cleavages as well as weaken central authority. As such, the short term may indeed be characterized by weak or failing states.

This cascade of state weakness also extends to states that have not been at the center of the protests of the Arab Spring.

As the situation in Libya shows, a weak or failing state can also heighten the regional threat stemming from the proliferation of conventional arms.