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Toward a Decolonial Conception of Statehood: Reconsidering “Failed States” in International Law

About the author: Angela Chen (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a Contributor to Travaux. Her interests center on critical, deconstructive, and decolonial approaches to international law and international relations theories. Angela holds B.A. degrees in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and an M.Sc. degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is a native speaker of Mandarin and proficient in French.

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Introduction: State Capacity and “Failed States”

Max Weber famously posited that the defining characteristic of a state is its ability to claim the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” within a given territory. Following Weber, scholars have tended to appraise the extent to which a state is “successful” or “capable” by assessing the strength of its institutions. For example, the notion “state capacity” denotes the ability of a government to implement policy goals. A state lacking in capacity is defined as a “fragile” or “failed” state; the “collapse of state institutions… paralysis of governance, [and] a breakdown of law and order” often characterize a “failed state.” Failed states occupy a prominent position in international law, as they call for international intervention, including military and humanitarian support. The end-goal of such intervention is to re-establish an effective government.

This article aims to examine, problematize, and reconsider the concept of “failed states'' and its place in international law. Drawing on the poststructuralist school of International Relations (IR), this article interrogates the ways in which the notion “failed states” constructs powerful binaries that render certain courses of action imaginable and possible. As discourses are always undergirded by power relations, the stigmatization of certain states as “failure” then risks reproducing existing global power structurations, perpetuating Eurocentrism, neo-colonialism, and neo-imperialism. Finally, this article proposes alternative, pluralistic ways of conceptualizing statehood which pertain to the Marxian concept of uneven and combined development.

Poststructuralist IR: The Discursive Construction of “Failed States”

The poststructuralist school of IR focuses on the interplay between discourse, power, and subjectivity. In poststructuralism, power relations operate to constitute the subject. Power is relational and permeates all interpersonal interactions and social relations. Inextricably connected to the notion of power is the notion of discourse, as discourses are always embedded in power relations. A discourse is a “system of statements in which each individual statement makes sense,” producing interpretative possibilities by making it impossible to think outside of the discourse. Discourses create subjects, attach meanings to them, and position them vis-à-vis one another; the subjectivity of the self is therefore always defined against the backdrop of the Other(s). There can be no pregiven self existing autonomously in a vacuum. Discourses are as such undergirded by binaries (such as “presence/absence,” or “male/female”), and enable the fathomability and possibility of actions.

Through the poststructuralist lens, the discourses on “failed states” imply the existence of “successful states.” The success/failure binary constructs meanings and possibilities for actions, thereby rendering intervention thinkable, possible, and even “natural.” As power relations underwrite discourses that the powerful monopolize, successful states’ status as “successful” or “capable” gives them the legitimate license to intervene. Such discursive constructions render the “failed” states lacking in state capacity as deviant to the normality of international life and compel the international community to take remedial actions.

Assumptions about the “ideal” statehood that are ineluctably European/Eurocentric underlie the ideas of “stateness.” Indeed, canonical theories on statehood focus solely on the “Western” experience: Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the Leviathan as the aggregation of the power of all subjects is not meant to apply to the “[s]avage people of America.” Max Weber owes his conception of the state as an entity monopolizing the use of legitimate force to Hobbes’ non-inclusive formulation. Charles Tilly only surveys the experience of Western European countries in coining the influential axiom that “war makes states, and vice versa.” In monopolizing the proper definition of statehood, the Western experience inadvertently perpetuates hegemony and Eurocentrism with regard to power, knowledge, ideology, and discourse.

“Failed States” in International Law

The manifestation of such discursive hegemony in international law is readily apparent. Definitions of failed states are amorphous and often negative, as failed states are always defined in opposition to successful states. Failed states thus always exist as shadows, as “dark mirror image[s].” The classic legal definition of statehood is reminiscent of Hobbesian-Weberian-Tillyian legacies, and is found in the Montevideo Convention, which notes: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with other states.” Failed states are therefore characterized by the lack of control over their population, political instability, socioeconomic inequities, and poverty; they are often on the brink of collapsing into civil war and even into complete anarchy. Recent examples of failed states include Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo, and Afghanistan.

The arbitrary and contingent nature of the distinction between statehood and anarchy aside, what is at issue in the examples of failed states is that they are almost all non-Western, post-colonial, Third World states. The endogeneity problem is apparent here: the international community characterizes these states as “failure” without reflecting on the extent to which their failure was attributable to their colonial history and “peripheral position in the global politico-economic structures.” Indeed, as Immanuel Wallerstein theorizes, in the world-system, natural resources such as raw materials flow from the periphery (developing countries) to the core (developed countries); the market is how the core exploits the periphery, which renders the periphery perpetually peripheral. In directing our attention to the phenomenon of failed states and their remedies, the dominant international intervention discourses obscure the “structural and constitutive” relationship between failed states and successful states, which is a relationship that colonialism, liberalism, and imperialism enabled.

The eliding of the inherently constitutive nature between successful and failed states allows successful states to intervene with impunity. Indeed, intervention is often taken as the legitimate and “natural” course of action in the face of failed states. The rationale is that state failure presents challenges for the international community, primarily in terms of humanitarian and security risks. Indeed, state failure is often accompanied by poverty, violence, and refugee flows. Failed states have also often been associated with terrorism and extremism. These challenges call for both short-term and long-term social engineering by other (developed) countries in order to restore the failed states to functioning states. The track record of international intervention, however, is grim and often “too little too late.” State-building efforts often devolve into long-term occupation which then ends up creating the problems such efforts initially sought to resolve. Specters of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism also loom large as developed countries attempt to impose their preferred institutions, political systems, ideologies, and ways of life onto the failed states.

Ways Forward: Recognizing Developmental Multilinearity

The stigmatizing label of “failed states” has brought forth more bane than boon. The international community’s fixation with the notion “failed states” could be diverted by appreciating alternative modes of governance and social organization. The extant measures of state capacity betray Eurocentric assumptions of what a state is and how state-making should unfold, informed by the canons of Hobbes, Weber, and Tilly. In Dan Slater and Diana Kim’s study of non-Western states such as the Philippines in the 1940s and 1950s, and Burma from the 1940s onward, they concluded that states’ appetites and practices in centralizing power, controlling population, and monopolizing violence are highly uneven. The Marxian theory of uneven and combined development (U&CD) might serve as a useful heuristic for pluralizing our understanding of statehood. Unevenness refers to developmental variations both within and between societies, as well as the attendant spatial differences between them. Combination refers to the ways in which states’ relations with other developmentally different states determine the internal relations of any given society. Taken together, U&CD suggest that the developmental trajectories of different countries are multilinear. The developmental path of Western states is only one of the many “spatiotemporal vectors” of unevenness and combination, and therefore should not be taken as the infallible yardstick for appraising statehood.


The theory of U&CD could serve as an antidote to the Eurocentric, neo-colonial, and neo-imperialist assumptions underlying the notion “failed states” as well as the international interventions this notion enables. Indeed, much more is at stake beyond the creation of more chaos and instability in orienting our horizons around the binary of successful/failed states. Nonetheless, although the theory of U&CD offers a way of reclaiming the ontology of non-Western, developing states, it ultimately has its roots in “Western” theory and philosophy (given its Marxian genesis). To truly assert the epistemologies of the non-Western, there needs to be more inclusivity and receptivity in international law to non-Western theorizations of the state (or the absence thereof).

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