Failed States, or the State as Failure?

41 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2005


This essay seeks to challenge a basic assumption of international law and policy, arguing that the existing state-based international legal framework stands in the way of developing effective responses to state failure. It offers an alternative theoretical framework designed to spark debate about better legal and policy responses to failed states. Although the essay uses failed states as a lens to focus its arguments, it also has broad implications for how we think about sovereignty, the evolving global order, and the place of states within it.

State failure - as exemplified by the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, etc. - causes a wide range of humanitarian, legal, and security problems. Unsurprisingly, given the state-centric international legal system, responses to state failure tend to focus on restoring failed states to the status of successful states, through a range of short and long-term nation building efforts. This essay suggests that this a misguided approach, which in some cases may do as much harm as good.

In large part, this is because most failed states were never successful states to begin with. Indeed, as the essay describes, the state itself is a recent and historically contingent development, as is an international legal system premised on state sovereignty. Both states and the state-centric international system have poor track records in creating stability or democratic accountability.

This essay explores the implications of this for both the international legal order and for approaches to failed states. It concludes that although the existing state system is likely to survive for some time to come, despite the challenges of globalization, not all states will or should survive in their current form. The populations of many failed states might benefit more from living indefinitely in a non-state society than in a dysfunctional state, artificially sustained by international efforts.

Long-term non-state arrangements could range from international trusteeships to affiliations with willing third-party states to special status within regional bodies, and alternative accountability mechanisms could be developed to overcome democratic deficits associated with the lack of formal legal statehood as currently understood by international law.

Although approaches related to those urged in this essay are beginning to be discussed by international relations and political science scholars, so far there has been little focus on these issues in the legal literature. The essay is designed to surprise readers into considering radical and novel approaches to the challenge of state failure.

Keywords: International law, foreign policy, failed states, sovereignty

JEL Classification: K10, K33, N40

Suggested Citation

Brooks, Rosa, Failed States, or the State as Failure?. Available at SSRN:

Rosa Brooks (Contact Author)

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20057
United States

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