America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." That was the conclusion of the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy. For a country whose foreign policy in the 20th century was dominated by the struggles against powerful states such as Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, the U.S. assessment is striking. Nor is the United States alone in diagnosing the problem. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that "ignoring failed states creates problems that sometimes come back to bite us." French President Jacques Chirac has spoken of "the threat that failed states carry for the world's equilibrium." World leaders once worried about who was amassing power; now they worry about the absence of it.
Failed states have made a remarkable odyssey from the periphery to the very center of global politics. During the Cold War, state failure was seen through the prism of superpower conflict and was rarely addressed as a danger in its own right. In the 1990s, "failed states" fell largely into the province of humanitarians and human rights activists, although they did begin to consume the attention of the world's sole superpower, which led interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. For so-called foreign-policy realists, however, these states and the problems they posed were a distraction from weightier issues of geopolitics.
Now, it seems, everybody cares. The dangerous exports of failed states -- whether international terrorists, drug barons, or weapons arsenals -- are the subject of endless discussion and concern. For all the newfound attention, however, there is still uncertainty about the definition and scope of the problem. How do you know a failed state when you see one? Of course, a government that has lost control of its territory or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of force has earned the label. But there can be more subtle attributes of failure. Some regimes, for example, lack the authority to make collective decisions or the capacity to deliver public services. In other countries, the populace may rely entirely on the black market, fail to pay taxes, or engage in large-scale civil disobedience. Outside intervention can be both a symptom of and a trigger for state collapse. A failed state may be subject to involuntary restrictions of its sovereignty, such as political or economic sanctions, the presence of foreign military forces on its soil, or other military constraints, such as a no-fly zone.
How many states are at serious risk of state failure? The World Bank has identified about 30 "low-income countries under stress," whereas Britain's Department for International Development has named 46 "fragile" states of concern. A report commissioned by the CIA has put the number of failing states at about 20.
To present a more precise picture of the scope and implications of the problem, the Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and Foreign Policy have conducted a global ranking of weak and failing states. Using 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, we ranked 60 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict. (For each indicator, the Fund for Peace computed scores using software that analyzed data from tens of thousands of international and local media sources from the last half of 2004. For a complete discussion of the 12 indicators, please go to www.ForeignPolicy.com or www.fundforpeace.org.) The resulting index provides a profile of the new world disorder of the 21st century and demonstrates that the problem of weak and failing states is far more serious than generally thought. About 2 billion people live in insecure states, with varying degrees of vulnerability to widespread civil conflict.
The instability that the index diagnoses has many faces. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia, state failure has been apparent for years, manifested by armed conflict, famine, disease outbreaks, and refugee flows. In other cases, however, instability is more elusive. Often, corrosive elements have not yet triggered open hostilities, and pressures may be bubbling just below the surface. Large stretches of lawless territory exist in many countries in the index, but that territory has not always been in open revolt against state institutions.
Conflict may be concentrated in local territories seeking autonomy or secession (as in the Philippines and Russia). In other countries, instability takes the form of episodic fighting, drug mafias, or warlords dominating large swaths of territory (as in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Somalia). State collapse sometimes happens suddenly, but often the demise of the state is a slow and steady deterioration of social and political institutions (Zimbabwe and Guinea are good examples). Some countries emerging from conflict may be on the mend but in danger of backsliding (Sierra Leone and Angola). The World Bank found that, within five years, half of all countries emerging from civil unrest fall back into conflict in a cycle of collapse (Haiti and Liberia).
The 10 most at-risk countries in the index have already shown clear signs of state failure. Ivory Coast, a country cut in half by civil war, is the most vulnerable to disintegration; it would probably collapse completely if U.N. peacekeeping forces pulled out. It is followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Yemen, Liberia, and Haiti. The index includes others whose instability is less widely acknowledged, including Bangladesh (17th), Guatemala (31st), Egypt (38th), Saudi Arabia (45th), and Russia (59th).