You might have seen the claim come across your social media feed and dismissed it as too extreme. You might have seen China's state media make the same claim and dismissed it as propaganda: America is a "failed state."
That so many people would even argue this is a clear sign of how unhappy people are with the current situation in the U.S., but what exactly is a failed state, and how would we know if we were living in one?
It’s hard to define a failed state. Countries can continue for decades after outside observers declare them functionally dead. There’s no single thing that constitutes a failed state, merely indicators. And in the United States right now, the indicators are not good.
Police are rioting across the country. Donald Trump spent some of last week in a bunker under the White House meant to protect the President from a terrorist attack. Tens of millions of people are out of work. A deadly pandemic has killed 110,000 Americans and infected millions more. There’s an election in November and the incumbent president is doing his best to suggest that mail in ballots—a simple step that would keep voters safe during a global health crisis—are illegitimate. Police are killing protestors, blinding journalists, and launching tear gas into crowds to clear a path for Trump to speak at a church. Unidentifiable law enforcement officers are popping up at protests around the country, cops are using these protests as an excuse to expand the surveillance state. The United States is in deep trouble, its institutions and politics visibly rotting before our eyes. At what point does the decline become the fall?
“We are not a failed state yet, but boy do we have some features that failed states would envy,” Daron Acemoglu—an economist teaching at MIT and the co-author of Why Nations Fail—told Motherboard on the phone. Acemoglu specializes in questions of economic political policy, analyzing from the position that well-regulated markets produce stable and happy populaces.
“The most extreme case of failure would be Yemen or Afghanistan,” Acemoglu said. “Where the state completely ceases to be able to function, giving up on all its responsibilities, including its ability to enforce law and order and starts competing with armed and unarmed non-state actors, and is unable to provide public services.”
State failure is a matter of degree and it’s better to think of the health of a state along a gradient. That’s the point of the Fragile States Index [FSI], an assessment of the fragility of states run by the non-profit The Fund for Peace. The FSI looks at a number of factors—including income inequality, the state of public services, and relationships between police and citizenry—and assigns countries a score indicating how fragile they are. The FSI is a model, one of many, people can use to assess the relative stability of a country. It’s a model with flaws, flaws that have been relentlessly catalogued by its critics. It’s biased towards neoliberal ideas of order and stability and attempts to quantify ethereal indicators like the “interethnic relations” in a region. Some concepts can’t be boiled down into raw numbers.
Still, it’s a bar the Western world uses to measure what it sees as stability and it does turn the lens on itself. Without the inclusion of data from 2020, the United States is still one of the least fragile countries in the index at 149 out of 178 ranked countries. According to the FSI, the U.S. is “very stable,” but it’s also on its list of worsening countries where it shares space with Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The trend is downwards.
“What we've seen in the [Fragile States Index] scores over the past 15 plus years is that, to paraphrase Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, state collapse happens slowly and then suddenly,” Charles Fiertz, a Programs Managers at Fund for Peace who works on the FSI, told Motherboard in an email.
“The former happens as vulnerabilities build up and pressures increase—this can include widening inequality; the hollowing out of public institutions; the erosion of popular legitimacy of key actors, both public and private; underfunded public services; crumbling infrastructure; increasing polarization along political, ethnic, or religious lines; etc,” Fiertz said. “I think it's fairly widely acknowledged that the U.S. has experienced many of these over the past several years.”
Sudden and precipitous declines in state legitimacy are possible. “It typically comes when there is a shock or a trigger—which can be anything from an epidemic to a perceived abuse by public security forces to defeat in a war—and the state is no longer able to effectively manage it because the pressures outweigh the resiliencies and capacities of a country. I think the handling of COVID-19 or of the protests of the last couple of weeks are indicative of a trend in that direction for the United States.”
Acemoglu said there is still much of the United States that’s resilient and working well, but there’s three big risk factors that have him worried. “Law enforcement failed in its functions of protecting peace and citizens, bureaucratic expertise is seriously hampered, and the state institutions themselves are unable to check the power of the executive branch.”
These problems predate Trump by decades, but he did exacerbate all three. For Acemoglu, though, the destruction of America's bureaucratic institutions is the most shocking and rapid.
“The EPA, CDC, Foreign Service....those were all bastions of expertise and science based decision making,” he said. “But the President has too much power to appoint new people. So what happened? The CDC was excellent in dealing with the Ebola crisis. Very few people who knew the CDC 20 years ago would believe it got data from China of a fast spreading virus from China and not do anything for three months. No one would believe it.”
Indicators are bad, but decline isn’t predetermined. Both Acemoglu and Fiertz stressed that the U.S. has certain advantages other countries don’t and that a rebound is possible. For one thing, America is an incredibly wealthy country and that wealth gives it options. Yes, much of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals but the wealth is still there. It just needs to be redistributed. It’s hard work, but it’s possible. “I very much would not want to say that [the U.S.] is currently a failed or collapsed state or in imminent danger of becoming one,” Fiertz said. “What we've seen is that this type of recovery takes time and persistent dedicated effort. There is no mirror image of the sudden part of state collapse. Additionally, that recovery has the best chance of succeeding when that effort is inclusive—it is extremely difficult for a single actor or group to pull it off on their own.”
We’re living through a tumultuous and horrifying period of history, but great change is possible within these moments. We’re at the crossroads, which is always a dangerous place to be, but also the one filled with the most possibility. No one will save the American people, they will have to do it themselves. We will have to do it ourselves. And that’s possible. A better world is possible.
But we should never forget the dangerous situation we’re in. We must stay angry. We must remember what’s at stake. “I am very frightened,” Acemoglu said. “I honestly think we can not survive another four years of this President. The biggest scare scenario for me is a Trump second term where all of these trends continue and at least 50 percent or more of the American public would lose complete respect for the state.”