World Politics Review | 12.5.12
By Alan W. Dowd

“In ancient times, the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations,” Adam Smith observed in 1776. “In modern times, the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized.” It seems the 21st century is more ancient than modern. What else could be said of an era when failed and failing states generate far more worries for the international community than powerful states? Just consider the Failed States Index (FSI), an annual survey generated by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, where Somalia ranks at the top by being the worst. The FSI reads like a who’s who of headaches for the international community.

The U.N. has authorized operations in 13 of the FSI’s very worst countries over the past 17 years, including missions in Somalia and the Central African Republic (CAR); counterpiracy operations in the waters between Yemen and Somalia; ongoing missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan/Sudan and East Timor; multiple interventions in Haiti; missions in Ethiopia and Eritrea; the nation-building effort in Afghanistan; and the civilian-protection mission in Libya. Not coincidentally, the United States has engaged in significant military operations in six of the 15 worst failed states over the past 17 years -- Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan; has  attacked targets in Sudan; is waging a low-profile war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the DRC, South Sudan and the CAR; and participated in NATO’s Libya operation. Plus, the prospect of intervention in Syria, Iran or North Korea -- all on FSI’s “critical” list -- looms.

These countries are not failing because outside powers intervened. Rather, outside powers intervened because these countries were failing. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, for example, were already failed or failing states before any Western soldiers were deployed within their borders.

Failed states are linked not by a common form of government -- witness Stalinist North Korea and anarchic Somalia -- but rather by a lack of freedom. This comes sharply into focus when the FSI is overlaid against various measures of freedom.

Consider how the aforementioned countries rate on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report(EFW), which measures “the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom,” defined as “personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete and security of privately owned property.” Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and North Korea aren’t even ranked on the 144-nation EFW index due to lack of data. The DRC is 139th and Pakistan 111th, while Haiti and Iran languish in the bottom half of the survey.

A similar picture emerges on the International Property Rights Index(IPRI). Among those not included are the worst of the failed states: Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and North Korea. Meanwhile, Iran, Pakistan, Libya and Yemen are IPRI cellar-dwellers.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World surveymeasures freedom relating to political rights and civil liberties. Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and North Korea are consigned to the very lowest category. South Sudan, the DRC, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are just a shade better but still fall into the “not free” category. Haiti and Pakistan are considered only “partly free.” Another Freedom House survey, the Freedom of the Press survey, measures freedom in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares, “everyone has the right . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Haiti, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iran and North Korea all rank low on the press index. It bears noting that the FSI uses at least one of the Freedom House measures, the Freedom in the World survey, in determining one of its 12 indicators. Even so,  the comparison between the FSI and the economic freedom and property rights surveys strongly supports the correlation between failed states and a lack of freedom.

Although this survey of surveys is not exhaustive or scientific, it is a revealing exercise.

First, it’s a reminder that economic freedom and political freedom are not abstractions. They are powerful forces with real-world implications. Their presence makes a positive difference in the lives of individuals and in the health of nations, and their absence shackles individuals and corrodes the nation-states in which they live.

Second, it gives us a glimpse of what may be on the horizon. Failed states serve as a magnet for transnational problems like piracy, terrorism and drug trafficking. Finally, it suggests possible courses of action for the international community. The United States and its closest allies need to support the nation-state system -- a system under challenge today. As the Obama administration concluded in its 2010 National Security Strategy, it’s important to maintain “an international system in which all nations have certain rights and responsibilities.”  This translates into helping nation-states control their borders, holding them accountable for what happens within their borders and ensuring that “nations have incentives to act responsibly, while facing consequences when they do not.”

Regarding incentives, Western policies in at-risk states should reflect a preference for free government, free markets and the rule of law. This doesn’t have to translate into direct intervention. Consider the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), created by the United States in 2004 with a goal of transforming international aid from a tool of dependency and graft into a pathway toward genuine freedom and independence. The MCC incorporates some of the above measures in determining where and how to make sound investments in freedom.

By supporting economic freedom, political freedom and the rule of law in at-risk states -- in other words, by doing more freedom-building today -- the international community may be able to save treasure and blood spent on nation-building tomorrow.