How nations fail: Lessons for America
Nations rise and fall. The global political map today is markedly different from 1945. At the end of World War II, there were 51 original member states in the United Nations. Today there are 193 nations. The British Empire and Soviet Union have been consigned to the dustbins of history. Borders remain dynamic with massive changes to the international order. Every candidate currently running for president in 2020 was born into a very different world from the present. With the rise of great power competition, unchecked climate stress, and rapid technology transformation, the 21st Century will witness foreseeable as well as unpredictable conflict within and among countries.
The formula for national economic development and prosperity is clear. Modern states positioned to innovate, invest and prosper over the next two generations have inclusive political institutions, functional central governments, and a respect for the rule of law. Conversely, fragile states at risk of conflict, conquest or collapse suffer from authoritarian leaders and extractive institutions that fail to provide social, economic, and political opportunities to their citizens. There are real world consequences to state success or failure. Not surprisingly, citizens of successful states live longer, are wealthier, and are more educated than citizens of failed nations. Further, state collapse can have global ramifications — consider the vacuum created by the Afghanistan Taliban as a safe haven for Al Qaeda to launch its attack on the United States or the failure of the Assad regime which lead to the Syrian war and a wave of Syrian refugees to Europe. Economic and political decisions today will affect the well-being of future generations.
There is no doubt America will remain a dominant global power for decades. The innovation culture in the United States is unparalleled; its colleges and universities are the envy of the world. American markets attract global talent, technology and capital — its economy remains the largest, and its military uncontested. Nevertheless, America is experiencing social, economic and political warnings that suggest underlying frailty and potentially severe consequences.
First, fragile states experience social stresses which divide rather than unify their polity. These social stressors include ethnic, race and religious fractures that give rise to identity grievance, vengeance, and potential conflict.
Today, the United States is witnessing generational polarization. The political divide has significantly shifted towards the two extremes of the partisan scale. Aside from this jarring political division, most Americans now say race relations are a major problem — resulting, not surprisingly in an increase hate crimes including bias crimes based on race as well as religion. Even President Donald Trump’s own FBI Director reports that white supremacist violence is responsible for a spike in domestic terror arrests. Of course, America today is not the America of 1863 or even 1963, but accelerating trends of social discord are leading indicators of national fragility. Social displacement can improve — or it can get worse in the years ahead.
Second, fragile states suffer from widespread corruption, high income inequality, uneven economic development in favor of elites, and heightened risk of severe economic decline.
By a wide margin, Americans perceive there is pervasive corruption in our political system — whether within the Trump White House, from the impeachment inquiry over the withholding of Ukrainian aid, the influence of unlimited funds from political action committees on elections, or the pay-to-play lobbying of corporate interests in the congressional legislative process. Related, the United States is experiencing the highest levels of economic inequality in 50 years — with the richest 400 families paying a lower tax rate than the middle class. The gap between coastal urban and rural America has substantially widened, creating vast geographic income inequality that has far reaching political consequences.
In a nation splintered among many fault lines, tax subsidies from blue states to red states within an electoral college system favoring less populated, more rural red states can become a massive challenge to national consensus. Now imagine the impact of the next great recession on these already stark social and economic divisions within American society.
Finally, political institutions in fragile states either erode or are captured by the governing elite to advance their personal interests. Typically, fragile states arbitrarily apply the rule of law against political opponents, delegitimize and undermine normal state bureaucratic functions that fail to align with elite interests, and leverage external political agents and foreign states to intervene in domestic matters.
Regardless of partisan views of the Trump administration, the Mueller report, the Ukrainian affair, and the impeachment inquiry, it’s clear to most Americans that the nation stands at a political inflection point where its institutions are challenged and its future is uncertain.
History demonstrates that nations rise and fall. The United States is at no risk of state collapse, but certainly superpower status or even great power leadership is not assured indefinitely.
Social, economic, and political indicators of state fragility are measures of resilience, capacity, and global leadership. By these metrics, America is experiencing warning signs.
With the end of the post-World War II order and no definition to the emergent era of great power competition, Russia and China will likely align with regional competitors including Iran and Turkey to systematically exploit weakened American fundamentals. Their long game goal is not to defeat America on the battlefield but rather to redefine it in the history books as an anemic, declining power. A fragile United States with exclusive rather than inclusive institutions, extractive leadership, and a weaponized legal system coupled with sustained near peer attacks from China and Russia over several decades could represent how this nation, in fact, fails.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw US assistance to all global crises.
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