As the United States’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis has drawn ire from both sides of the aisle, it is clear that it has mishandled some important aspects. At the same time, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have highlighted significant cultural challenges facing Americans and are forcing the U.S. to have difficult national conversations. Challenges, mistakes, failures and violence are unfolding in real time and with global reach. However, media outlets including The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and even The Intercept have described the U.S. as a “failed state.” This is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. Here’s why.
The character of warfare is changing and COVID-19 is forcing us into a challenging information war. Language matters and is an important weapon. How we talk about ourselves and how others talk about us drastically shape the operational environment. By watching our global and domestic response to COVID-19, our adversaries are learning and discovering new weaknesses and opportunities to exploit our mistakes. Right now, they are capitalizing on the idea that we have slipped into “failed state status” and that has enormous implications for what the current operational environment will look like. China, as an example, is taking mask diplomacy to a whole other level and it’s working. In real time they’re reframing the narrative and repositioning themselves as a humanitarian leader while launching an aggressive information operations (IO) campaign against the U.S.
To complicate matters further, along with a public health crisis civil unrest has also prompted criticism from other global actors in an attempt to undermine U.S. credibility. The two are not unrelated. In a battle to promote democracy and democratic ideals, the U.S. is falling short. Social and public health issues have become part of great power competition. Iran, Russia, and China, as an example, have all pointed to protests as proof of American hypocrisy. While the U.S. is facing challenges, it does not come anywhere near the definition of a failed state and that’s important.
What is frustrating is that by repeating the failed state narrative we are undermining ourselves. Never mind that the U.S. in no way, shape, or form meets the criteria of a failed state. A failed state is an economic and geopolitical classification. It’s not a matter of opinion if a state is failed or not and we absolutely do not want the rest of the world piggybacking on this idea. So, what is a failed state then, and why is it important?
Political scientists know from decades of empirical research that states sharing borders with states experiencing civil conflict or governmental instability are more likely to experience instability and civil conflict because of a spillover effect. The conditions of institutional instability that generate phenomena such as civil conflict, domestic rebellions, and eventually failed states pose a great threat to other states as well as the stability of the entire international system. In order to gauge how dire those threats are, those who work in foreign policy and national security studies generally use a canon of widely agreed upon terminology to demarcate threat levels. A failed state is of the highest level of concern because it generally means it has lost control and presents a very real spillover potential to its neighbors, both contiguously and regionally. Somalia, Yemen, and Syria come to mind as examples. This list does not include the U.S. and we will say it again loudly for the people in the back: The United States does not meet the criteria of a failed state, not by a long shot, and it’s helping our adversaries to say otherwise.
In short, words matter and definitions have serious implications for all actors in the international community. Those wishing to present a legitimate argument would be wise not to conflate “failed state” with a state advancing failed policies or demonstrating failing responses to global pandemics, especially when the institutions of that particular state are sound, the government continues to exercise control and provide its inhabitants public services, and retains the overall ability to govern.
A government that is failing to perform its job at the levels some of its citizens prefer is not a necessary or sufficient condition to qualify a state as “failed.” When thought leaders with public platforms and conveyed credibility misuse important concepts and vocabulary without taking the time to consider second- and third-order effects, they are ignoring decades of research that explains the consequences of miscommunication. They are also handing ideas and strategies over to our adversaries on a silver platter. Communication scholars have written for the better part of the last century about the power of language. They have argued that because humans are also social, storytelling creatures, the narratives that exist in a society shape reality, how a population understands the world. When something is named, that also dictates how people act and policies they make. It’s in this context that those that study communication call “the politics of naming.” Because the words we use matter, there are real-world consequences and tangible effects resulting from linguistic choices, something that rhetoric and communication scholars know as “the materiality of language.” Re-categorizing the U.S. from a superpower to a failed state can have unintended consequences. Supporting this claim, therefore, also encourages action and policies toward the U.S. that reflect its failed status.
Nation-states fail because their governments lose control within sovereign territorial borders, they lose legitimacy with their constituents, and they are unable to provide public services to the population. Assigning a “failed state” designation to a state also affects the approach taken by the international community in dealing with the state moving forward regarding security, humanitarian issues, and issues relating to international law, trade, and economics. It affects which international actors may and will intervene and what those interventions will look like. Violation of sovereignty is not something that the international community takes lightly, but intervention in a failed state becomes a greater possibility than in a consolidated state. A failed state designation legitimizes both humanitarian and military intervention.
Somalia, as an example, is one of the most widely known failed state cases. Civil conflicts in Somalia in the early ’90s resulted in a collapse of the central government in 1992. The UN intervened and tried to stabilize the state, but withdrew in 1995 due to increasing instability and violence from competing political groups. With no central government, parts of the country began operating under customary or religious law, and the formation of some regionally autonomous governments helped stabilize parts of the country until the Transitional National Government was formed in 2000, and eventually the Transitional Federal Government in 2004. Somalia continued to experience civil conflicts and even intervention from neighboring states like Ethiopia and Kenya until the Federal Government of Somalia was established in 2012. This was the first central government in the state since the early ’90s, and it changed the international designation of Somalia from a “failed state” to a “fragile state,” and still far away from becoming a “consolidated state.” This distinction should illustrate the gravity of a “failed state” designation as well as the institutional requirements necessary to meet that designation. Understanding Somalia as a failed state allowed foreign actors like neighboring states and the UN to do certain things that they might not be able to do otherwise. We’d argue that the term “failed state” legitimizes and authorizes political work and intervention.
Because we understand that language is a powerful tool and categories matter, when we start referring to the U.S. as a failed state we also recognize that it impacts how our competitors think about and act toward us. Can it be argued that the U.S. has a weakened democracy? Yes. Is it becoming a vulnerable superpower? Also yes. But can it legitimately be classified as a failed state? No. The world is complicated and chaotic enough. We don’t need to also worry about our global standing erroneously being called into question, particularly when more than a century of language theory and empirical analysis do not back up that claim.
No, the US is not a failed state. It is not Somalia, Syria, or Yemen. So stop saying that.
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