In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice

  • Introduction
  • Fixing Failed States

Political Science Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
Robert I. Rotberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0119


A failed state is a country with a government that cannot or will not deliver essential political goods (public services) to its citizens. The state, usually not yet a nation-state, may hold a seat in the United Nations and function as a sovereign entity in regional and world politics, but so far as most of its people are concerned, the state fails them by its inability to perform state functions adequately. Thus, failed states are those political entities in international politics that supply deficient qualities and quantities of political goods and, simultaneously, no longer exercise a monopoly of violence within their territories.

Failed states are one of four types of state. Of the 193 members of the United Nations, sixty or seventy are strong states. Those are the nation-states that rank highest in the democracy rankings of Freedom House, the human rights reports of the US State Department, the anti-corruption perception indexes of Transparency International, the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program, the competitiveness indices of the World Economic Forum, and the Doing Business surveys of the World Bank—they include nations such as Finland, New Zealand, and Singapore, plus Canada, the United States, large portions of Europe, and countries such as Brazil and South Korea. After the strong states come eighty or ninety weak states: some almost strong and some, at the very bottom of the weak listing, tending toward failure and capable of becoming a subtype called “failing.” They are weak because they supply lesser or less-than-adequate quantities of political goods and/or poorer-quality political goods. Failed states (often about twelve worldwide at any one time) and collapsed states (now one), which make up separate categories, follow.

Early Research and the Development of the Concept

In the centuries since the Congress of Westphalia (1648), weaker nation-states, monarchies, duchies, and outlying domains failed repeatedly. More powerful nation-states conquered or otherwise incorporated those failing polities, some of which subsequently were the locus of irredentist demands. Weaker polities were similarly relieved of their independence. As states were created and torn apart, decade after decade and century after century, centripetal and centrifugal forces would cause implosion as well as explosion. Tilly 1975 indicates that the 20th- and 21st-century states arose in different context than European states did in earlier periods. Migdal 1988 details how insufficient concentration of “social control” weakens states and prevents the emergence of strength. Tilly 1990 concludes that the problem for the new post-1990 states was not social engineering, for that had never worked before. Krasner 1999 distinguishes four types of sovereignty: domestic, interdependent, international legal, and Westphalian. Hechter 2001 links sovereignty to economic success and claims that sovereignty is a necessary but insufficient condition for nationalism. See also Anderson 1996.

  • Anderson, Malcolm. Frontiers: Territory and State Formation in the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    A geographical approach to irredentism and artificiality of borders as the falsely presumed origin of new states.

  • Hechter, Michael. Containing Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    The rise of nationalism often leads to state failure. In part, the social base of nationalism rests on people who profit individually from their claims of sovereignty.

  • Krasner, Stephen D. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    Failed states may have an international legality without being sovereign domestically, or even being legitimately Westphalian.

  • Migdal, Joel S. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

    Nonstate interest groupings gained leverage on the emerging states, and colonial policies favored the rise of authoritarian leaders.

  • Tilly, Charles. “Reflections on the History of European State-Making.” In The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Edited by Charles Tilly, 3–83. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

    Whereas conquest and the fulfillment of economic imperatives largely propelled the creation and annexation of earlier states in the post-Roman world, more modern states developed out of the development of nationalism and new attitudes to imperialism.

  • Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990–1992. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

    The model would not necessarily be Western or follow the European model, of which, in any case, there were many. Social stresses were much greater in modern times of state formation than in earlier times.

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