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Jack Straw Speech On State Failure

Foreign Secretary: 'State failure no longer a localised or regional issue'

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has given a speech in which he expressed his belief 'that preventing states from failing and resuscitating those that fail is one of the strategic imperatives of our times'. 'State failure', he said, 'can no longer be seen as a localised or regional issue'.

Mr Straw continued 'the rising incidence of state failure is linked directly to the end of the Cold War', when major powers' sponsorship of client states was withdrawn.

He identified state failure as a historical phenomenon: 'history shows that governments have largely been unable to summon the collective will to intervene in the collapse of a state'.

That should not be the case in Iraq, he said. The Foreign Secretary said:

"Our aim must be to develop a clear strategy to head off threats to global order and to deal with the consequences within the evolving framework of international law."

Mr Straw said that in order to devise strategies, it is necessary to understand 'why states fail'.

The Foreign Secretary also outlined the tools for preventing states from failing: 'collective international engagement matters above all else', building 'broad consensus' and bringing together 'successful teams'.

He concluded:

"...when the international community exercises its will then nothing is impossible, no state is beyond salvation... If we are to avoid a recurrence (of the events of 11 September), then international action to prevent state failure is a challenge today and for the ages".



Location: European Research Institute, Birmingham

Speech Date: 06/09/02

Speaker: Jack Straw

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In his most famous work Thomas Hobbes described a 'state of nature' without order where 'continual fear and danger of violent death' rendered life 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.' These words have contemporary resonance in countries such as Somalia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the central authority of the state has collapsed, law and order is non-existent and territory is controlled by competing fiefdoms and gangs.

As members of an international community, we cannot but be concerned at the implications for the human rights and freedoms of those who are forced to live in such anarchic and chaotic conditions. Yet the events of 11 September devastatingly illustrated a more particular and direct reason for our concern. For it dramatically showed how a state’s disintegration can impact on the lives of people many thousands of miles away, even at the heart of the most powerful democracy in the world.

The shocking events of that day were planned, plotted and directed by a group which exploited domestic chaos to commit the most heinous international crime. So as we approach the first anniversary of the attacks, we need to remind ourselves that turning a blind eye to the breakdown of order in any part of the world, however distant, invites direct threats to our national security and well-being.

I believe therefore that preventing states from failing and resuscitating those that fail is one of the strategic imperatives of our times. For as well as bringing mass murder to the heart of Manhattan, state failure has brought terror and misery to large swathes of the African continent, as it did in the Balkans in the early 1990s. And at home it has long brought drugs, violence and crime to Britain’s streets.

State failure can no longer be seen as a localised or regional issue to be managed simply on an ad hoc, case by case basis. We have to develop a more coherent and effective international response which utilises all of the tools at our disposal, ranging from aid and humanitarian assistance to support for institution building. And to reduce the costs of intervention, we need courage and foresight to bring our influence to bear at the point when a state begins to display the symptoms of failure, rather than when it is a lost cause.

In devising a comprehensive response to state failure, we should ask ourselves two questions: can we do more at an early stage to identify states at risk of failure? If so, how can we act to prevent them failing?


The case for international action to tackle state failure was strong before 11 September. In the 1990s, almost all of the world’s conflicts took place within states rather than between them. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, last year only 1 of 24 conflicts worldwide was between states.

Over the past decade it is estimated that wars in and amongst failed states have killed about 8 million people, most of them civilians, and displaced another 4 million. Hundreds of millions have been deprived of sustenance, education, healthcare and security. The future prognosis is worrying too. Violence and social disorder are linked to population growth. The global population is set to increase from 6 to 8 billion within the next twenty years, and most of this demographic pressure will be concentrated in the world’s poorest regions.

The rising incidence of state failure is linked directly to the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, in many parts of the world, particularly central and eastern Europe, we have seen a burst of wealth creation. The enlargement of the European Union will mark the final stage of a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of one half of the continent. But in certain isolated pockets of the world, the consequences of the end of the Cold War were catastrophic. The East and West no longer needed to maintain extensive spheres of influence through financial and other forms of assistance to states whose support they wanted. So the bargain between the major powers and their client states unravelled.

This had a particularly pronounced impact on Africa, where many regimes were over-reliant on their international sponsors. It also radically changed the strategic balance in sensitive areas like the Middle East.

States used to a steady flow of support found the taps turned off. This exposed internal weaknesses in many of their governments. It brought to the fore their structural problems which often included legacies of the colonial era when borders were drawn with little regard for terrain, the availability of resources, and ethnic or linguistic cohesion.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia resulted in a burst of state creation in Eastern Europe, in the Caucasus, in the Balkans and in Central Asia. This presented enormous challenges, not just to the new policy-makers, many of whom had little or no experience of self-government or of how to build effective institutions, but to all of us.


If policy makers are in search of guidance, they can fall back on the history books. State failure is hardly a new phenomenon. Images of Idi Amin’s charnel house, and Mobutu’s kleptocracy spring easily to mind. Marshall Aid almost certainly played a key role in helping to avert state failure on an unimaginable scale in western Europe.

Statesmen from previous centuries recognised the risks of contagion from chaos. In 1878, Benjamin Disraeli foresaw that 'nothing short of an army of 50,000 of Europe’s best troops would produce anything like order' in the Balkans. Today NATO has 53,000 personnel stationed in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

But history shows that governments have largely been unable to summon the collective will to intervene in the collapse of a state. In his most recent book, 'Does America Need a Foreign Policy?,' Henry Kissinger argues that this has been largely due to the powerful hold a seventeenth century treaty has exercised over the conduct of international relations.

The Peace of Westphalia, agreed in 1648, marked the end of the Thirty Years War across what is now Germany. It was founded on the doctrine of sovereignty, which declared a state’s domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states. The problem for contemporary policy makers is that whilst the Peace had an answer to the problem of violence between states - namely, recourse to war - it offered little solution to conflict within states arising from civil war, ethnic conflict and human rights violations.

I am not going to rewrite the international legal system today, nor propose its replacement with an interventionists’ charter. For all its flaws and faults, the system of international law which has evolved since the 17th century has, not least for the past fifty years, ensured that more people have lived in greater peace and prosperity than would otherwise have been the case. Much of the credit for this lies with the United Nations.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the UN has been at the forefront of international efforts to rescue states and set them on the path to recovery. Through its humanitarian aid programmes and peacekeeping troops, the UN has maintained global order and tackled state failure in many parts of the world, including the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.


This leads me to the issue of Iraq. Iraq differs from the classic failed state in one key respect. Unlike for example Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where it is the collapse of the state which has led to such misery for their peoples, in Iraq it is an all too powerful state - a totalitarian regime – which has terrorised its population in order to establish control.

From one perspective, totalitarian regimes and failed or failing states are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But there are similarities: one is unable to avoid subverting international law; the other is only too willing to flout it. And in failing to secure widespread popular support, both have within them the seeds of their own destruction.

Compared to the totalitarian regimes of the recent past, Iraq belongs in a category of its own. No other country but Iraq has so persistently undermined the UN Charter and the authority of the Security Council. No other country but Iraq has annexed a fellow UN member state. No other country but Iraq poses the same unique threat to the integrity of international law. No other country but Iraq has the same appetite both for developing and for using weapons of mass destruction.

Until Iraq meets its UN obligations in full, there can be no guarantee that it will not use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons. The burden of proof is on Saddam. It would be wildly irresponsible to argue that patience with Iraq should be unlimited, or that military action should not be an option. Unless the international community faces up to the threat represented by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, we place at risk the lives of civilians in the region and beyond.

Whether the dangers to international order come from totalitarianism or chaos, all countries have the right to respond. In doing so we should not abandon the principles which have governed international relations for three centuries. Our aim must be to develop a clear strategy to head off threats to global order and to deal with the consequences within the evolving framework of international law.

Before we devise a strategy for handling failed states, we have to understand better why states fail; how they fail; what the symptoms are. We also need a better understanding of the relationship between these factors and the wider impact of state failure. This brings me to the two questions I posed earlier.


First, identifying states at risk of failure. I doubt it will ever be possible to develop the tools to pinpoint precisely the next Afghanistan. There are too many variables and subjective judgements to be made.

But following 11 September, I asked officials at the Foreign Office to look more closely at the underlying causes of state failure and identify a broad 'at risk' category. A group of countries which, for one reason or another, could easily slide towards failure causing significant problems for the international community.
This is hardly a novel approach. For many years, multinationals have compiled risk assessments before investing in a particular market. In assessing whether a particular state can contribute to global stability, I believe governments now need to put similar calculations at the heart of their foreign policy. We have started work within Government to do just this - drawing on the useful thinking other organisations like the World Bank, OECD and European Commission have been doing in this area.

In medicine, doctors look at a wide range of indicators to spot patients who are at high risk of certain medical conditions - high cholesterol, bad diet, heavy smoking for example. This does not mean they ignore everyone else nor that some of those exhibiting such characteristics are not able to enjoy long and healthy lives, against our expectations. But this approach does enable the medical profession to narrow down the field and focus their efforts accordingly. We should do the same with countries.
How do we define a failed state? In general terms, a state fails when it is unable:

to control its territory and guarantee the security of its citizens;
to maintain the rule of law, promote human rights and provide effective governance; and
to deliver public goods to its population (such as economic growth, education and healthcare).
It is possible to identify indicators for each of these three elements of failure. For example, criteria to assess the security element could include whether there were clear areas of the country which the government could not control, or whether valuable resources - such as diamonds or drugs – were fuelling conflict. Significant ethnic, religious or inter-group tension, and terrorist or guerrilla activity would be another indicator.

On governance, the indicators could include whether the country’s government has the machinery of public administration to implement its policies effectively? Is corruption rampant? Can the country’s citizens influence the government without resorting to violence, and are there institutions to facilitate the peaceful transmission of power?

And on the economic side, we could consider whether the state’s economy is stable, or heavily dependent on certain industries or agricultural sectors. Other indicators might include whether the country has a framework in place to ensure effective economic management, and deliver benefits to the population. This can be measured by looking at range of indicators including per capita GDP, literacy and life expectancy.

Dynamic social pressures such as rapid population growth, social inequality; high unemployment and a high rate of HIV/AIDs infection could lead in time to the weakening of key state institutions and the economically active population.

This gives a good idea of some of the indicators we could consider. There are many others too. No single indicator is sufficient to identify the early symptoms of state failure on its own. There are many desperately poor, functioning states; there are many strong states in unstable regions or with terrorists operating in them; and many perfectly viable states face demographic pressures or have authoritarian regimes. But we should certainly be worried by states displaying the characteristics I’ve mentioned; and those that exhibit a number of them need to be watched carefully.

By assessing states against a wide range of criteria like these, we can begin to place the states along a continuum of failure and to build up a picture of the ones that should concern us most. The methodology could be refined by sharpening the criteria and weighting each one against the others.

Even a rough and ready application of these indicators would have started alarm bells ringing for states like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo long before they collapsed. And under Robert Mugabe, it is hard to argue that Zimbabwe isn’t now on the watch-list.


Of course, the easy task is to identify the likely candidates for failure. The real challenge is to devise a policy response. This brings me to my second question – how do we prevent states from failing?

Creating a state is a massive undertaking. It took us centuries to make ours. Recreating a state after it has collapsed is even harder. It often means dealing with all the problems that follow conflict and at the same time rebuilding effective governmental structures, a task shouldered largely by the United States in the western part of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of the war. Today, Cambodia and Bosnia - both still in rehabilitation - demonstrate the enormous input of political, human and financial resources required.

So rather than waiting for states to fail, we should aim to avoid state failure wherever possible. Returning to my medical analogy, prevention is better than cure. It is easier, cheaper and less painful for all concerned.

Early treatment of some ugly symptoms in Macedonia was highly effective last year in stopping a slide into failure and preventing the re-emergence of chaos in the Balkans. Sorting out Bosnia cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. Kosovo cost £200 million. Macedonia cost just £14 million.

The dilemma for policy makers is that it is, paradoxically, often easier to gain public and political support to deal with an acute crisis, than it is to act earlier to stave off the crisis in the first place. But experience suggests that the prevention of state failure depends on a scarce commodity: international political will. If we are to secure public and international support for action, we need to make the case for early engagement much more strongly.

We have a range of tools available. Some are developmental - the provision of direct aid, debt relief, institutional capacity building and security sector reform. Some are diplomatic - including the application of political pressure, international mediation and international agreements to remove contributing factors to conflicts such as conflict diamonds and small arms control. And some are more coercive, such as sanctions and direct military action.

Irrespective of the mix of tools we apply to failed and failing states, two things are immediately clear. First, the tools we have are no panacea. It will never be easy to get a failing state back onto its feet. Ultimately, everything depends on strong leadership and commitment from local people. But we can play an important role in assisting the process.

Second, the tools we have usually work best when we use them in conjunction with others. Almost all of them only work with international assistance or are most effective when there is proper coordination. In the case of Zimbabwe, Commonwealth, EU and US sanctions have left Robert Mugabe under no illusions about the strength of international opposition to the ZANU-PF regime. These multilateral measures have had far greater impact than any unilateral action by the UK could have done, though they cannot in the short term alleviate the pain and suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

Collective international engagement matters above all else. In most cases, no country can tackle state failure alone. Even in Sierra Leone where we have deployed a significant force, we have done so to assist the Government of the country and UNAMSIL, the UN peacekeeping mission, with the support of others and in accordance with UN resolutions.

Indeed the problems created by state failure affect the entire international community, so our role should be to act as a catalyst, to help galvanise international action.

This means responding quickly to fast-moving international situations. And sharing our analysis more widely and systematically with partners. It also means being prepared to commit resources at the outset. A good example was our willingness to take on leadership of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, just as earlier we took a leading role in assisting the multinational force in East Timor after the referendum in 1999.

It does not mean taking the lead everywhere. Quite the reverse. We should consider identifying lead nations, groups of nations or multinational organisations for specific countries or parts of the world, and organising 'real time' exercises, just as for example NATO has done in the military field.

Often one country or organisation has strong reasons for wishing to prevent state failure; or particularly effective tools at its disposal. Why should it not then take the lead?

This could mean the EU, NATO or the OSCE taking the lead in dealing with problems around the margins of Europe; the French or ourselves (perhaps jointly) in parts of Africa; and countries like Canada or the US under the OAS in the Americas.

As I have made clear I am not advocating unilateral action; or outsiders imposing their so-called 'solutions' on others. We need to build a broad consensus. To bring together successful teams - NGOs; national governments; regional and supranational organisations; businesses. Different teams will be needed for different situations.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

My recommendations today are not intended as a series of policy prescriptions: state failure is complicated; developing criteria is by no means the whole answer; and achieving coordinated, timely international action will never be easy.

But I hope my remarks will stimulate a wider debate about one of the strategic challenges facing foreign policy makers today. Despite the complexity of the issue, two things are clear. First, when the international community exercises its will then nothing is impossible, no state is beyond salvation. Just ask the people of the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and East Timor.

Second, the dreadful events of 11 September have given us a vision of one possible future. A future in which unspeakably evil acts are committed against us, coordinated from failed states in distant parts of the world. If we are to avoid a recurrence, then international action to prevent state failure is a challenge today and for the ages.

© Scoop Media

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