The last 20 years -- so blandly labeled the "post-Cold War era" -- might as well be known as the "Age of Failed States." After decades of confronting Soviet power, successive U.S. administrations suddenly became embroiled in and bedeviled by the world's most dysfunctional countries. Although great-power competition persists, it is often the world's basket cases -- from Somalia to Afghanistan, Haiti to Liberia, and Pakistan to Yemen -- that dominate the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. This trend began in the early 1990s, when a shocking outbreak of state collapse and internal violence, including but by no means limited to episodes of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, seemed to herald a "new world disorder," in the words of British diplomat David Hannay.
For analysts wondering where the next shoe may drop, the annual Failed States Index (FSI) produced by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace has become required reading. Launched in 2005, the index has spawned many imitators (including one I constructed in 2008 with Susan E. Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), but remains the marquee brand. Each year government officials and policy analysts pore over its rankings, seeking evidence of dramatic deterioration in the relative standing of the world's most troubled countries. This attention reflects a widespread conviction that state failure poses grave risks to international security, a view embraced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has warned of "the chaos that flows from failed states," and her Pentagon counterpart, Robert Gates, who called them "the main security challenge of our time." It may be time, however, to revisit our assumptions about just how much these troublesome countries matter to the rest of the world.
The brutal truth is that the vast majority of weak, failing, and failed states pose risks primarily to their own inhabitants. When governments cannot discharge basic functions, their citizens pay the heaviest price. Countries in the top ranks of the FSI face a much higher risk of internal conflict, civil violence, and humanitarian catastrophe (both natural and man-made). They are settings for the worst human rights abuses, the overwhelming source of the world's refugees, and the places where most U.N. peacekeepers must go. Home to humanity's "bottom billion," they suffer low or negative economic growth, and their populations are more likely to be poor and malnourished; experience pervasive insecurity; endure gender discrimination; lack access to education, basic health care, and modern technology; and die young or suffer chronic illness. Think of Nigeria (No. 14 on the list), a country that spends only $10 per capita on health care annually and has an average life expectancy of just 46 years, or Zimbabwe (6), whose venal authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe, has driven a once-promising country into repressive horror.
Beyond those living in such countries, the heaviest brunt of state failure is borne by neighboring states; violent conflict, refugee flows, arms trafficking, and disease are rarely contained within national borders. A case in point has been the devastation wrought throughout Africa's Great Lakes region in the decade and a half since the Rwandan genocide, with warring militias, arms flows, and epidemics crisscrossing notional national frontiers. As the Great Lakes show, the risk of regional contagion is compounded when weak and vulnerable states are adjacent to other countries with similar characteristics and few defenses against spillovers. And even when they are not exporting violence, fragile states impose dramatic economic costs on their neighbors. According to Oxford University economist Paul Collier and his colleague Lisa Chauvet, the total cost of a single country falling into the "fragile state" category, for itself and its neighbors, may reach $85 billion. This is a gargantuan sum, equivalent to 70 percent of worldwide official development assistance from international donors in 2009.
But such troubles -- bad as they are -- do not automatically endanger the wider world, much as it may be a convenient sales pitch to argue otherwise. The world, it turns out, is not quite as interdependent as advertised. What happens in the poorest, most marginalized, and most dysfunctional places in the developing world only rarely comes back to bite those living in the wealthy world. What happens in failed states often stays in failed states.