Helping Failed States in an Age of Austerity

Anti-austerity Protestors in Ireland

Protestors of austerity budgets in Dublin, Ireland, November 2012. Photo credit: informatique (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

According to traditional wisdom, helping failed states is expensive. Right now, Europe, Japan, and the United States are loaded down by a massive debt burden. Emerging powers – including China, India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa – don’t seem too interested in bankrolling expensive new state-building missions. So, it looks as though we are at an impasse. Except, that we’re not.

The first premise – on the financial costs of helping failed states – is not necessarily true. Successful state-building / reconstruction can involve long deployments of foreign militaries and billions of dollars in international aid. Foreign engagement in Afghanistan, for example, has been anything but cheap. Yet, this costly “big footprint” approach is not the only available option in assisting fragile states. And that is a good thing, given the unavoidable reality of this age of austerity.

Europe, Japan, and America are clearly in the midst of an age of austerity. “Austerity” simply refers to a massive and sustained program of public spending cuts (and tax increases). Even without the massive deficit spending associated with the Great Recession (2007-), these established industrial states were facing structural imbalances. In all of these areas – but especially in Japan and most of Europe – rapidly aging populations are severely straining prior social welfare commitments. In the U.S., a pervasive anti-tax culture has also starved the state, and therefore led to more dramatic tradeoffs between domestic spending and foreign assistance. On current trends, the present decade is likely to remembered by much of the world as a “lost decade” economically, due to the circumstances of austerity.

No matter. The onset of austerity could actually be a helpful stimulus to creative thinking about responses to state failure. Because we must come up with low-cost solutions to state decay, it is more likely that we will do so. Two key options are the following: 1) provide diplomatic flexibility to redraw the territories of existing states and 2) in rare cases, allow “stateless zones,” rather than push the development of modern states where they are not wanted. You can read more about these and other low-cost solutions to state failure in my new book, State Failure: Realities, Risks, and Responses ($4.99, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo).

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