The state of the world’s states

The state is the organising principle of national and international politics and states are the subject of abundant historical research, academic theory and contemporary analysis.  That perhaps makes it a little strange to say that both the state as a category and states in general tend to be taken for granted. But that’s how it is – and it’s a problem.

Prolific statehood

Largely we think and talk as if the state system is long established. It’s not. Let’s start with the numbers. By 1900 there were just 48 states in our modern sense of the term. In the years either side of World War I, with the break-up of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, there was considerable state-making. Even so, the UN was founded by just 51 states (and NB, although that number was kept low by excluding countries on the losing side in World War II, it was boosted by including some that were republics of the USSR and thus not proper states at all). Today, 193 states make up the UN, the newest being South Sudan in July 2011.

From 48 to 193 (recognised states, that is) - from The State of the World atlas

From 48 to 193 (recognised states, that is) – from The State of the World atlas

The big waves of state-making occurred with decolonisation from the second half of the 1940s through the 1970s and, on a smaller scale, with the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the USSR and then Yugoslavia in the first half of the 1990s. While state-making has slowed down there is no reason to think it is yet at a full stop. Even one of the world’s oldest states may in the not very distant future shed some territory and citizens and allow an independent Scotland to be born.

If nothing else, these figures show that in our era sovereignty and statehood have been extremely desirable items in the global market of power and politics. Seen in historical perspective, the growing strength of international organisations, laws and linkages of all kinds is undeniable and remarkable. But that has been balanced by the growth in the number of actors within those institutions. If the idea still persists that the world is heading towards ever larger and more encompassing sovereign units – a widespread surrender of sovereignty upwards, so to speak – the figures lead to a different conclusion.

Yet the fact that the shape of the state system today is so very recent offers a second conclusion, going in almost the opposite direction. For sure, the numbers lead us to think a trend towards supra-states is unreal but they could also suggest that the system is not in any sense fixed and is liable to change.

To put this in some perspective, when my grandparents were born around 120-125 years ago, there were fewer than 50 states in the world. The number has quadrupled in four generations. And for the next three to four generations? Four times as many or four times as fewer or where in between?

The freshness and potential changeability of the state system construct a further conclusion, arising like the first two straight out of looking at the simple numbers: the system is full of diversity. There are different kinds, and differences within each kind, responding to differences in culture, history and development.

Diverse political systems and the potential for change - from The State of the World atlas

Diversity of states’ political systems and the potential for change – from The State of the World atlas

These are simple questions to ask and simple conclusions to draw – even simple-minded, I’ll agree, but nonetheless important for all that. Forgetting them can lead you badly astray.

The purpose of states

So, another simple question: why the state? Discuss.

In value-free terms, the purpose of states is to organise power. The modern state organises power with a greater degree of predictability and durability, normally based on law, than preceding varieties. No more today does territory change hands (or even whole states come and go) because of a marriage here or an alliance there. Even the old habit of carving up territories through war has fallen into disuse and it’s been some time since a major international conference parcelled out chunks of land to be ruled by the winners in a recent war and their allies. States today may be weak or strong by a variety of measures, their borders may be tight or porous, their finances robust or rocky – and their government come and go – but they endure and provide the organising framework of power in that territory.

That seems to me to be a fact. What’s left to argue about is how individual states organise power, to what ends and whose benefit.

the failure of purpose

In this post I want to explore this by going to the extreme cases; in a future one, I’ll look at more standard cases.

Because the state system is taken for granted and left unexamined, odd and paradoxical ideas about politics enter our discourse. One such is the idea of “ungoverned spaces”, which has emerged from narrow circles of strategic experts  to enter mainstream political vocabulary. It is being used quite often to justify the French intervention in Mali and, likely enough, we will hear more of it in relation to Afghanistan after the pull-out of foreign forces in 2014 and probably Syria too.

It is a term that creates at least as many problems as it resolves. It points to a real issue but mis-describes it. An article by Yvan Guichaoua usefully unpicks it in the context of the Mali intervention, showing how its core assumption that “terrorists have established their stronghold in a political vacuum” implicitly exonerates from blame those who had authority and responsibility. The logic that follows from this assumption is that the way to resolve the crisis is by building up “the legitimate administration”, which, Guichaoua argues, will mean relying on the power-brokers and authorities in Bamako who bear significant responsibility for the country’s plight.

Like the closely related concept of “failed states” back in the 1990s, that later evolved into the more nuanced but equally unhelpful “failing states”, which has since been replaced by the yet more nuanced and rather helpful term “fragile states”, the concept of “ungoverned spaces” carries unexamined notions of what governing is and what a state is. These notions forget the actual diversity of states and conjure up a narrow range – France, Britain, America or Sweden. Finding nothing that those notions of statehood can recognise in a particular territory – normally a whole country for a “failed” or “failing” state but these days just a part of it can earn the “ungoverned spaces” label – the temptation is to recognise only a void.

I find the term “fragile states” more useful because the metaphor of fragility has a sharp truth in it that outside powers would do well to respect more than they normally do. But mis-used, it too comes to imply void, no authority, no power – a blank sheet of paper.

Operating on that basis is bound to lead you astray both in understanding the problems that ordinary people who live in those insecure circumstances face and in figuring out what might be done to bring about a general improvement. It means not facing up to the realities of power in that place. The truth is not that there is no power or authority but that the way that power and authority are organised and used places ordinary people in a situation of terrifying insecurity.

It has been shown time and again in countries torn apart by war and rampant instability – for example, Lebanon in the 1980s, Somalia in the 1990s, eastern Congo for much of the past 15 years, swathes of Afghanistan and Pakistan today – that there are other kinds of effective power than that which resides in the modern state. This is also true in urban settings – in the big cities, parts of which are no-go areas for the representatives of the state, or in which there are effectively parallel systems of power.

Ignoring that reality means getting the analysis wrong. As International Alert‘s report on eastern Congo has demonstrated, that results in the international community promoting solutions that won’t work and add up over time to a waste of effort and resources.

What are often called “ungoverned spaces” are really “spaces governed in ways and by people that other people think are the wrong ways and the wrong people.”

And what used to be called “failed or failing states” are states in which power is organised in a way that, generally speaking, you and I find offensive.

But it is power and they are states – and if any of us want to help do something about the abuses, we need to pay attention to that.

3 responses to “The state of the world’s states

  1. Pingback: The state of the States: understanding fragile states « Hans Thoolen on Human Rights Defenders

  2. Great maps! The atlas looks very interesting. Even so, I think you have too quickly dismissed the “failed state” concept. I obviously still find it useful, since it is part of the name of my blog.

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