“Failed states” and the uneasy mix of science and politics


By Jim Miles, Guest Writer. Axis of Logic
Axis of Logic
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Scientific American has at times been very harsh on economists1 and as one would expect it does well with its articles on science, many of which I understand to a certain degree and others that are too technical for my knowledge.  A recent article on global food shortages rests in the uneasy boundary between what could be considered science and what could be considered political analysis.  In Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization? Lester Brown2 uses certain facts to argue his point that “failing states” could “bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.”3 While many of his statements are factually true, the context that is missing and the implications he creates within his arguments can be very misleading.

As with all articles in Scientific American, there is a sidebar with “Key Concepts” highlighted.  Of the four, only one could be considered accurate.  His definition of a failed state is “when national governments can no longer provide personal security, food security and basic social services such as education and health care.”  He provides absolutely no reasons as to how these countries arrived in those positions to begin with.

Shortly after he says failed states “are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons and refugees, threatening political stability everywhere.”    He then uses the examples of pirates in Somalia, terrorists in Iraq, and heroin in Afghanistan, and genocide in Rwanda destabilizing the Republic of the Congo.

Geopolitics as cause and effect

Cause and effect?  The pirates in Somalia are reacting in part to the loss of their fisheries from foreign overexploitation of those resources, they need to make money somehow and obviously piracy is more profitable than a depleted fishery.  Somalia is a land of tribal clans, fought over – and over – by western imperial forces: the Italians, British, Russians, and recently the U.S.  It never was able to establish what could be considered a stable society with all the interventions then and now that are caused by the imperial powers interest in controlling the Horn of Africa for geopolitical reasons.  And those terrorists in Iraq, a nasty group, but they were never there before the U.S. attacked and occupied the country.  Hussein was certainly a brutal despot, a despot supported by the U.S., Israel, and other western countries at times, but the country was not a failed state with terrorists until the U.S. embargoed then invaded the country.

As for the heroin in Afghanistan it could be argued that it too followed the U.S. into the territory.  Afghanistan was invaded by the USSR, with the help of CIA manipulations (1979), and then had to fight the mujahideen created by a CIA-ISI alliance with Pakistan, one of whom was Osama bin Laden.  When the Taliban (students) finally stabilized the country, they eliminated poppy growing.  They were also willing to surrender bin Laden to a third party (a European jurisdiction) with the end result as is – U.S. invasion and NATO/U.S. occupation with the result that the farmers can now make more money off the highly lucrative drug market.

Rwandan genocide causing “instability” in the Congo?  Wrong on two counts.  First the DRC has never been a stable political entity.  It was originally established as a personal fiefdom of the King of Belgium – without asking the locals if this was all right by them – who then plundered and looted the area for all he could take.  Its history after that is one of foreign interventions for the same reasons as above within an already destabilized tribal region.  The Rwandan genocide was a mix of over-population pressures and political manipulation, again based on a tribal economy trying to fit into the straight jacket imposed by former colonial powers – no wonder they went mad.

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Brown’s summary statement on the problem of failed states is “Our global civilization depends on a functioning network of politically healthy nation states to control the spread of infectious disease, to manage the international monetary system, to control international terrorism and to reach scores [?] of other common goals.”  There is no definition of what a healthy state is, other than it has not failed.  Most infectious diseases I have read about do not seem to respect international boundaries or international law and only the delayed application of scientific principles has limited or delayed the next pandemic.

There is partial correctness to Brown’s indication that the healthy nations manage the international monetary system…to only contradict himself later by arguing that “the market will move” resources around, the implication being the erroneous beliefs in free market as a separate god-like entity that has everything work out well in the end.  Again without a definition of “healthy,” and only our suppositions to go on, how can that statement be supported?  Is the U.S. a healthy nation?  Mexico?  Is Canada?  Is Israel?  Is the United Kingdom?  Japan?  China?  Russia?  Venezuela?  Iran?  None of these are listed as failed states, but which one is the best exemplar of a healthy one?  What are the parameters of health?  Brown has taken a bite out of geopolitics that proves indigestible.

The International Monetary Fund

What of the management systems?  There is no mention at all of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – in its relationship with the once mentioned World Bank – and its disastrous influence in helping nations fail.  The economy of the “Washington consensus” is all about harvesting the resources of the world for the consumption of the western states.

Most of the failed states are failing not because of food shortages, although that will exacerbate the situation and create a cyclical downward spiral, but they are failing from years of fiscal mismanagement based on tribal, racial, or economic elites, foreign interference, and the imposition or rules and regulations that further deplete their “national health.”  The IMF plays a huge role in ruining the economies of states that for whatever reason (foreign interference, incompetence, cronyism, elitism, all of the above) require assistance to improve their citizens’ lives.  The IMF’s regulations on deregulating financial markets, disallowing deficit budgets, forcing economies away from subsistence citizen based agriculture to corporate based export products (to help the GDP of course) all create the flow of wealth towards the creators of the western financial system, the supposed and illusory free market system that needs massive amounts of government intervention (and always has, military, political or financial) in order to survive.4


Without addressing the political-financial features of global poverty and global pollution, the solutions provided by Brown will only be superficial tonics that do not cure the underlying disease.  He does hit on the main solution – “stabilizing population and eradicating poverty” but that cannot be done simply by supplying “a primary education to all children…[and] to provide rudimentary village-level health care” so that “children will survive to adulthood,” while the women receive “access to reproductive health care and family planning services.”  All that is well and good, but it will not happen if the economic/political paradigms are not changed.

Capitalism breeds poverty.  The current pseudonymous “free market” is anything but.  In order to eradicate poverty, and stabilize the population, the whole geopolitical world needs to be changed, the financial world needs to be reorganized, the militaries of the world need to go home and stop supporting the finance based monetarism of our current consumptive society.

Yes, food shortages will aggravate the decline of states, but they are not the fundamental cause of decline, rather they are a symptom of a much greater illness, an illness based on the rot of financial, corporate, political, and military control of wealth of (other) nations.

Lester Brown is obviously a well respected member of the environmental movement. Perhaps his Harvard degree in Public Administration has limited his vision as to the causes and effects of the whole panoply of concerns around failed states, failing economies, and failing climates – except that climates do not fail, they just adapt.  Humans will also have to adapt, but we can only do so if the larger causes and effects of our current militarized geopolitical economy are first recognized and then changed.


  1. See The dismal science becomes gloomier Axis of Logic, 2008 09 16

  2. Brown, Lester. Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?, Scientific American, May, 2009.  pp. 50-57.

  3. Anyone who had already read Jared Diamond’s works Guns, Germs, and Steel (Norton, 1999) and Collapse (Viking Penguin, 2005) would not find much new in these arguments.

  4. For presentations on the IMF and the global financial situation see:  Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its discontents; Amy Chua, World on Fire and Day of Empire; Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans; Kevin Phillips, Bad Money; James K. Galbraith, The Predator State; and Peter Gibbon et al, A Blighted Harvest.

(source of photos: Global Poverty and Hunger)

    Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


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