Failed state

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See also: Weak state

A failed state is a nation or quasi-nation that is unable to deliver minimum governmental services to its citizens. It may not even have a recognizable government, although it has recognized boundaries. Besides human tragedy, failed and weak states destabilize international relations.

The definition is not rigorous but still useful. An annual Failed State Index, for example, is produced by a joint project between Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, which rates on indices including:[1]

  • Lack of legitimacy of the state
  • Public services
  • Human rights
  • Security apparatus
  • Factionalized elites
  • Foreign interventions

One characteristic of a failed state is the existence of major "gaps". [2] and Kilcullen's Pillars. [3]

Kilcullen's "pillars" model is one way to visualize the gaps.

Kilcullen's Three Pillars

Not to have failed, a state must be able to close three "gaps", of which the first is most important:

  • security: protection "against internal and external threats, and preserving sovereignty over territory. If a government cannot ensure security, rebellious armed groups or criminal nonstate actors may use violence to exploit this security gap—as in Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia."
  • capacity: The most basic are the survival needs of water, electrical power, food and public health, closely followed by education, communications and a working economic system.[4] "An inability to do so creates a capacity gap, which can lead to a loss of public confidence and then perhaps political upheaval. In most environments, a capacity gap coexists with—or even grows out of—a security gap. In Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, segments of the population are cut off from their governments because of endemic insecurity. And in postconflict Iraq, critical capacity gaps exist despite the country’s relative wealth and strategic importance."
  • legitimacy: closing the legitimacy gap is more than an incantation of "democracy" and "elections", but a government that is perceived to exist by the consent of the governed, has minimal corruption, and has a working law enforcement and judicial system that enforce human rights.
Kilcullen Figure 1: Ecosystem of Insurgency[3]
Kilcullen's model of insurgency as an ecosystem show some of the groups that need to be aligned to break the cycle of failure. They include by geographic, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, and religious characteristics. Inside the box are governments, counterinsurgent forces, insurgent leaders, insurgent forces, and the general population, which is made up of three groups:
  1. those committed to the insurgents
  2. those committed to the counterinsurgents
  3. those who simply wish to get on with their lives.

The Magic Diamond shows how the population, as a whole, interacts with three forces attempting to modify the situation. It is the balance among the power of the groups in the population that will determine the outcome.

McCormick's "magic diamond" model shows some of the dynamics.
McCormick insurgency model

In the table below, do not assume that a problematic state is not able, while closing its own gaps, is unable to assist other less developed states

Rough Classification of States
State type Needs Representative examples
Militarily strong but weak in other institutions Lower tensions before working on gaps Cuba, North Korea
Good performers Continuing development of working institutions. Focused private investment El Salvador, Ghana, Mongolia, Senegal, Nicaragua, Uganda
Weak states Close one or two gaps Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Pakistan Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe
Failed states Close all gaps Afghanistan, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Palestinian Authority, Somalia


  1. The Failed States Index 2009
  2. Stuart Eizenstat, John Edward Porter and Jeremy M. Weinstein (January/February 2005), "Rebuilding Weak States", Foreign Affairs (no. 1)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kilcullen, David (28 September 2006). Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency.
  4. Sagraves, Robert D. (April 2005), The Indirect Approach: the role of Aviation Foreign Internal Defense in Combating Terrorism in Weak and Failing States, Air Command and Staff College