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Are All States Failing States?

Every unstable country is unstable in its own way.

This is the eighth year Foreign Policy has published the Failed States Index. During that time it has been both closely followed -- not least, inside the U.S. government and in foreign capitals -- and dependably controversial. No one wants to see his or her country listed among the world's basket cases.

Admittedly, the index's dozen top-level categories, from economic decline to human rights to refugees, are by nature somewhat subjective. And to the governments under the microscope, the criteria seem to penalize states that are poor or struggling for reasons beyond their control, whether lack of resources, disaster-prone climates, or longstanding cultural conflicts. To some, the fact that 20 of the 25 worst performers on the list are in Africa or the Middle East suggests regional bias, or simply that different parts of the world are at vastly different stages of development.

It's easy to complain about your own ranking, and many countries do. But it's far harder to deny the depth, scope, and scale of the problems the Failed States Index shines a harsh spotlight on each year. The list is rigorously put together by the Fund for Peace. It involves analysis of thousands of documents, news reports, and data pertaining to each of the 177 countries tracked. It is an important barometer of governance and stability, and though it could not hope to offer the last word on an issue as complex as state failure, it succeeds because every year it triggers a vigorous debate about places that usually get too little attention in the halls of power -- but often come back to haunt us all later.

There are, of course, other "failed states" indices we could easily devise. All would generate their own caviling, and each would make different groups of people unhappy -- especially those in the developed countries that tend to fare better on the current list. So, in the spirit of equality, here's my list of what some of those alternative approaches might look like:

1. The Failed States … and Counties, Cities, and Towns Index

Even in high-functioning societies, it's easy to find local governments that are every bit as clueless, corrupt, and just plain incompetent as the most infamous underperformers on our annual list. Indeed, the very fact that these leadership failures are going on in more privileged environments suggests a greater degree of failure. What's more, such failed governments can produce much more sweeping global market consequences because they are more connected to those markets. In the past two years alone, U.S. states like California, Illinois, and Michigan have been trading at market spreads comparable to or worse than at-risk eurozone countries like Spain. And market failures aren't the only problems. Given the majority of minority students in U.S. urban areas who drop out of high school and the abysmal security conditions in Mexican border states that trade most with the United States, it's clear that failures of small, local governments have big, global consequences.

2. The Foiled States Index

It would be useful to see a Failed States Index that directed blame where it was due. And sometimes, the blame rests with the other guy. The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spilled over its borders and brought mayhem, refugees, and tragedy to its neighbors. Is that really Rwanda's fault? The conflict in Syria is now doing the same thing, with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Arguably, those countries' openness to refugees should be seen as a good thing. The list goes on: Mexico puts the squeeze on drug gangs and Guatemala feels the pain. Sometimes the cross-border contagion is self-reinforcing, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interdependence has its downsides.

3. The Flailing States Index

If you measure the failings of governments by whether they make the most of what they have, the current index might look a lot different. How much more successful would the United States be if its Congress were not dysfunctional and its political system not so corrupted by money? How much better off would Europe be if Germany hadn't imposed its false gospel of austerity on the rest of the continent? How much would China benefit without a government full of Bo Xilais? Or what if Japan had a real stable leadership for a change? To say nothing of how the Angolas, Equatorial Guineas, Russias, and Saudi Arabias of the world -- petrostates whose underground wealth masks great domestic failures -- would measure up if their built-in advantages were taken into account.

4. The Failed Statesmen Index

Blaming governments is one thing, but institutions are just, as the old saying goes, the lengthened shadow of one man (or woman). Sometimes it's fairer to blame problems on the misguided policies, greed, corruption, or evil of a single individual or small coterie of leaders. This means the solution to state failure in some places might really lie in an actuarial table, the end of a blood line, or a violent act of rebellion (Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan come to mind). And remember that you don't have to be a crazy dictator to impose devastatingly damaging policies. You can be a narcissistic demagogue like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or a democratically selected but utterly misguided mainstream politician like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Whatever the model, just look at the devastating costs from these individual failures -- there's blame enough to go around.

5. The Failing-Their-Own-People Index

This might sound like the list we started out with, but, sadly, it's even bigger. Make an index based on the primary metric of countries failing to meet the terms of the social contract, and it will be so long the countries on it won't just be those that are poor and victimized by conflict, bad neighbors, bad luck, or bad leadership. Why? Just about every state in the world is falling behind in its ability to serve its citizens these days -- because too many of their problems can only be resolved on a global stage and unfortunately the old-fashioned nation-states upon which our global system is built lack the basic instruments of governance necessary to influence outcomes as they once did. Indeed, most states today are less able to control their own borders and their own currencies, project force, or enforce laws -- and are much more dependent on highly mobile, global corporate actors that unhesitatingly play one country against another. So here's a cheery thought to leave you with: The reality is that in some ways all states are faltering, falling behind what they once were and what their citizens expect of them.

Failed States

The Watch List

Predicting state failure isn't as hard as you think.

On March 21, just weeks ahead of a scheduled election, a band of soldiers seized the presidential palace in Bamako, Mali, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. What started as a mutiny over lackluster support for the armed forces in their fight against Tuareg insurgents in the country's desert north wound up puncturing a two-decade run of elected government.

The coup in Mali shocked many observers, including those with deep knowledge of the region. "Mali's [coup] was a complete surprise; nobody predicted it," Alex Vines of London's Chatham House think tank told GlobalPost. On the African Arguments blog, Jolyon Ford of Oxford Analytica wrote, "One can be confident saying that many in the business of risk analytics in Africa would not have predicted the Mali coup." The Failed States Index is not meant to predict coups, but it's worth noting that in 2011 Mali ranked 76th, right in the middle of the global pack.

That the Mali coup surprised so many Africa watchers and professional risk analysts does not mean it was inherently unpredictable. True, the subjective forecasts of even knowledgeable people typically aren't much more accurate than chance, as psychologist Philip Tetlock showed in his tour-de-force 20-year study of expert political judgment. Statistical models, however, can often assess risks fairly accurately, even when the problem is complex and the models are simple.

As it happens, Mali appeared ripe for a coup in forecasts I published at the start of 2012, a couple of months before Capt. Amadou Sanogo and his colleagues seized power in Bamako. According to those forecasts, Mali ranked among the 10 countries most likely to experience a coup attempt this year. Second on that list was Guinea-Bissau, a neighbor of Mali that went on to suffer a successful coup of its own just a few weeks later.

Using statistics to forecast political events isn't as complicated as it sounds. At its core, it's all about recognizing the right patterns. Generally speaking, you start by building a list of similar events in relevant cases in the past; then you assemble data on likely risk factors; next, you use statistical techniques to generate an algorithm that captures useful patterns in those data; and, finally, you apply that algorithm to current data to get a forecast.

My 2012 forecasts pushed Mali toward the top of the list because Mali's structural conditions at the end of 2011 looked a lot like conditions in other countries that have recently suffered coup attempts: in this case, a poor country with a partially democratic government and an ongoing insurgency in a tumultuous region.

In fact, most countries in the top 20 land there because they are poor and have competitive authoritarian or partially democratic political regimes. Unsurprisingly, coups also turn out to be a recurrent problem; the risk is higher in countries that have experienced other coup attempts in the past several years, a factor common to the top eight countries on this list. Active insurgencies also increase the risk of a coup, and this factor affected the 2012 forecast for countries like Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan. Ditto for civil wars and popular uprisings in regional neighbors and slow economic growth, common themes in several regions, including West and Central Africa.

Of course, the top of the list isn't the only part of it that deserves our attention. Statistical forecasts can also be useful when they surprise us in the other direction, suggesting that some risks aren't as serious as we thought.

One such surprise is Pakistan, which barely cracked the top 40, landing at 38th in the company of Cambodia, Iraq, and Senegal. Pakistan has a deep history of military entanglement in politics, and rumors of an impending coup swept the country again in early 2012. Few observers would claim that Pakistan's civilian government has finally gained decisive control over its security services. Still, my projection is that the risk of a coup attempt in 2012 is substantially lower than Pakistan's checkered history would suggest (which is not to say, as Pakistan's perennially weak showing on the Failed States Index makes clear, that there's nothing else to worry about).

Sometimes, the forecasts can prove useful even when they confirm the conventional wisdom. Twice in the first few months of this year, China, of all places, was the subject of coup rumors. China hasn't seen a coup attempt in decades, and as expected, the 2012 forecasts rank it among the world's lower-risk countries, at 94th out of more than 150. Why? Because China just doesn't bear any real resemblance to the countries that have seen coup attempts in the recent past. Statistical models aren't crystal balls, but they can help us remember to take a deep breath when rumors start flying.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images