Rome '08 Workshop

International Crises and Failed States 

Ambassador Stefano Stefanini

Italian Ambassador to NATO 

Ambassador Stefano Stefanini

In this forum, last year I stressed that engagement, namely NATO’s engagement, makes the difference. I remain fully convinced of it. Afghanistan is a case in point. I fully agree with Ambassador Eldon on Afghanistan being NATO’s first priority. But I want to make a broader point and connect what we are doing in Afghanistan with the various crises we are dealing with—Ambassador de la Sablière gave us an impressive list of crises in which the U.N. is involved. We have to identify exactly what we are doing. Yes, we are fighting a country insurgency in Afghanistan, but we are also trying to do what the Afghan government at this point in time is unable to do. 

Then my broader question is: “is there a common thread throughout the various crises we are dealing with—in the Middle East, in South Asia, in Africa, and elsewhere?” My answer to that is very simple: We are dealing with “failed States.” 


Without underestimating the specificities of each country or crisis, the crises we are referring to happen in a context of collapsing State authority, weakening institutions, lack of governance and of rule of law. I. e. they happen where there is no “State”, or no State that we are able to deal with, be it Somalia, Afghanistan or the Gaza strip. To different degrees to be sure, institutions as we know them, not only the Ministries but also the basic institutions of communities—the schools, the army, the police—are melting down or significantly degraded. All these situational crises have greatly affected the international community—each is different but they have in common the fact that in each one of them we find ourselves faced with a lack of responsibility and a lack of accountability. 

Recently, Admiral di Paola discussed the Westphalian order in crises, but, Westphalian order or not, any concept of international relations, let alone of an international order or system, is based on the assumption that we can hold someone responsible for what happens in any given geopolitical entity or piece of land, be it a government, a regime, a dictator, a party secretary-general, or even a tribal chief. When we do not have a clear interlocutor, even if it is an enemy, then we have a problem. To me this is the essence of the problem of failed States. Any of them represents a security threat, a threat to our security. If we think about it thoroughly, many of the threats that we identify—terror, extremism, proliferation—in some respect are effects rather than causes of the collapse of state authorities in significant parts of the world. 

We entered the twenty-first century with many misgivings about failed States, especially because the record was mixed—a failure in Somalia, quite a success in Bosnia. To be sure they come in all shades of grey rather than in black and white, including in the frozen conflict format, where you have a piece of land where it is not clear who is in charge. I could give you a list of the different levels of failed States we have just in the geographical area that is being underlined—I mentioned Somalia, Afghanistan and the Gaza strip, and I could add Lebanon. One major difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that in Iraq we might have underestimated the possibilities of immediately empowering the Iraqis, while in Afghanistan we overestimated the capacity of the Afghans to take charge. And in Pakistan, the peace accord established by the Islamabad government in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), can only give us concern to the extent that it too creates a lawless situation in that region. 


If we agree that the collapse of the State is the mother of all crises, at least in this category, let me sum up with some quick thoughts on how we should deal with it. 

1. First, we must be very clear about the issue is that we have to deal with so that we can “attack” the existence of failed States, attack the “failure” not the State, to try to put an end to the situation. 

2. Second, and this has been said by various speakers, we must share the burden. That is what we say at NATO—we say that NATO cannot do it alone. We say share the burden, both in terms of division of labor and also in terms of coordination when we act together. This applies both to organizations and to nations. 

3. The third point, and I think this is a case in which political correctness can be an enemy of common sense, we have to be realistic about “ownership”. If a State is failing, we cannot just say, “We give you ownership.” To whom would we give ownership? If there is no capacity for governance, we must first build governance; then we can have a handover. The prospective owner must be first empowered to “own,” An election by itself will not do it. If I may briefly digress, this is what the EU even more than NATO is trying to do with Kosovo—it tries to avoid having a failed State in the middle of the Balkans. That is why I find the Russian attitude toward this situation rather shortsighted, since what we are trying to do, mainly through the EU, is just to avoid a problem. 

4. My fourth point, again, is that we have to do away with some political correctness. It is clear that reconstruction needs security and that security without reconstruction will not last. We then have to put aside the orthodoxy about separation between the so-called military and the so-called civil arena. This kind of separation—the military does not do nation-building, development assistance agencies or NGOs do not cooperate with the military—is simply self-defeating, both nationally and internationally. This is difficult to internalize especially for NGOS, but it is the only way forward in this field. Security (“clear and hold”) must go together with assistance (“build”). How we do it is relatively unimportant but do it we must. Security must be provided to and must be accepted by whoever does reconstruction. 

5. My fifth point, which Italian Chief of Defense General Camporini made very clear, is that we have to talk to our people—we have to create constituencies. What we are trying to do when we deal with failed States is a hard sell domestically, because it is not clear to anybody that providing peacekeeping in Lebanon or sending troops to Chad or suffering losses in Afghanistan is also in our own national interest and for our own security. To this end we have to build constituencies, we have to make the case with public opinions and with Parliaments, both at home and in the countries in which we operate. 

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