BY NATE HAKEN
After the attacks of 9/11 an uneasy consensus began to emerge among the national security establishment, humanitarian, and international development actors around state fragility as a unified theory and organizing principle by which to develop policy. Institution building and economic development in places like Iraq and Afghanistan were understood not only as a humanitarian imperative, but also a matter of national interest. Implicit to the argument was that state fragility incubates and grows at the outer edges of the rules-based international system, and if allowed to spread, could adversely affect the developed world through cross-border conflict, refugees, disease, and radicalization. This concern drove aggressive counterterrorism operations and provided the theoretical underpinnings to stabilization operations. Furthermore, framing humanitarian operations and international development, including health, education, and infrastructure, through the lens of fragility provided a national security justification behind what was previously seen as an opportunity to advance soft power through altruism. Stable countries in dangerous neighborhoods were designated as “anchor states” and treated as a bulwark against chaos.
Ultimately, this consensus culminated in the welcome passage of the landmark 2019 Global Fragility Act, which presented, “a new and necessary opportunity for the U.S. Government to prioritize conflict prevention and transform how it partners with countries affected by fragility and conflict to foster a more peaceful and stable world.” Under the implementation of the law, countries designated as priorities included Haiti (ranked 10th on the FSI 2023), Libya (17th), Mozambique (21st), and Papua New Guinea (59th), along with the West Africa littoral states of Guinea (ranked 14th), Côte d’Ivoire (36th), Ghana (107th), Togo (47th), and Benin (74th).
For all its strengths and weaknesses as a unified theory of international relations, in 2022 the focus on state fragility has begun to shift. As NATO withdrew from Afghanistan, Russia invaded Ukraine, and concerns over the fate of Taiwan and the semiconductor industry as well as the escalating presence, and recognized threat of propaganda and disinformation flooded the foreign policy discourse, the previous emphasis on state fragility in countries like Sudan and Syria is taking a back seat to Great Power Competition.
But 2023’s Fragile States Index clearly demonstrates that fragility still matters and is not easily contained. Worryingly, this year’s events undermined the facile notion that fragility is a threat that only spreads from poor countries. Instead, contagion went the other way round as war in Europe led to inflation, fuel riots, and food insecurity in vulnerable countries around the world. Further, we learned that the Great Powers, whether that be China, Russia, or Western democracies, may be more fragile than we think.
Fragility in Lower and Middle-Income Countries
The bounce back from the COVID recession combined with economic disruptions due to the war in Ukraine led to the highest rates of inflation since the 1990s, especially in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Inflation in Central Asia and the Caucasus was at 51.6% which was a blow to countries that had demonstrated some of the greatest long-term improvement on the Fragile States Index over the last two decades, such as Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, as the Russia-Ukraine war contributed to rising commodity prices. In the Middle East, inflation was estimated at 14.5%, with especially high rates in Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. In Africa, inflation averaged 14.3%, the highest since 1996. In Eastern Europe, inflation stood at 14.2% due to increases in food and fuel prices.
The last time a global food price shock was so evident in the Fragile States Index was in the run-up to the Global Recession of 2008, when oil prices were skyrocketing and food riots broke out in over a dozen countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In 2022, according to the FAO, over a quarter billion people in 58 countries faced acute food insecurity, a situation which has worsened for four years in a row and was exacerbated in 2022 by the war in Ukraine, a major producer of wheat and maize. Also in 2022 over 90 countries experienced fuel riots, some of which were the same countries that had food riots in 2008, such as Haiti and Peru, both of which were among the most worsened on the FSI this year. Sri Lanka, which is the most worsened country this year after Ukraine, is 4,000 miles away from the European theater of war, but was nevertheless adversely impacted with an exacerbation of an already brewing economic crisis that led to a default on loans including those due to China (as part of the Belt and Road initiative) and India, which then turned into a full blown political crisis in 2022.
China and the West have competed for influence and access to resources across the Global South, through loans, development, security assistance, and conditionalities, for purposes of advancing their own respective interests such as trade, stabilization, and counterterrorism. Where Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards are not prioritized, including human rights and conflict sensitivity, this has had negative effects. Russia’s Wagner Group, a paramilitary group that has been accused of atrocities in Syria and Ukraine, has also been involved in Africa, including Burkina Faso (the fifth most worsened country on the FSI this year), allegedly in exchange for access to minerals, although the minister of mines has denied that allegation. Burkina Faso had two separate coups d’état in 2022, the first of which deposed President Roch Marc Christian in January and the second of which removed interim President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Other African countries that the Wagner Group has allegedly been involved in include Mali (which has worsened on the Fragile States Index for the last six years in a row), Central African Republic, and Sudan (which is rapidly descending into civil war as of early 2023).
Fragility in Russia
If the competition between the Great Powers has contributed to more fragility in other, more vulnerable countries, the risk is even more acute in a situation of rising fragility within the Great Powers themselves. The most obvious case is that of Russia (the third most worsened country after Ukraine and Sri Lanka) which has been demonstrated to be much weaker than previously supposed. Frustrated by its inability to quickly defeat Ukraine, Russia has turned sharply toward authoritarianism and cracked down on free speech and civil liberties, as the economy has been strained by sanctions and the cost of war. Thousands have fled conscription. Convicts were recruited to join the Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine in exchange for the promise of commuted sentences. War criminals who allegedly slaughtered civilians in Bucha were rewarded with an honorary title by President Putin. An arrest warrant was issued for Putin himself and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights by the International Criminal Court in connection with the forced deportation of thousands of children from Ukraine. In 2023, Finland and Sweden completed accession talks to join the NATO alliance. While Russia’s expansionism was an attempt to consolidate power and influence, the effect has been a weakening both domestically and abroad.
Fragility in China
China has been a rising power since the 1990s. As of 2023 it has the largest population, the second largest GDP, and the second largest military expenditure after the United States. However, through the lens of the Fragile States Index there are signs of weakness that could undermine its domestic and global ambitions over the long term. While it has become less fragile since 2013 overall, the indicators for State Legitimacy and Human Rights remain stubbornly high. And the Demographic Pressures indicator (which measures disease, natural disasters, water scarcity, and environment, as well as fertility, mortality, and population pressures) has started to worsen in the last three years. A shrinking workforce and an aging population will present increasing social and economic challenges which could contribute to an even more authoritarian posture to control situations of increasing unrest, such as the protests over the zero COVID policy, unpaid arrears, or the threat of political opposition by minority groups such as in the Xinjiang region. They could also take on a more adversarial posture toward the United States as a way of managing internal pressures or divisions, which could lead to vicious cycles both internally and externally.
Fragility in the West
Finally, previously overlooked areas of structural fragility have surfaced within Western democracies themselves, especially the United States over the last several years as reflected in the Fragile States Index. The average score for the FSI’s Factionalized Elites indicator has steadily worsened among the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 30 most democratic nations in the world. In some countries this has been accompanied by a worsening in Group Grievance, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Sweden, Spain, and Czech Republic. Overall, the score in the Cohesion indicators (Factionalized Elites, Group Grievance, and Security Apparatus) worsened steadily in the average top 30 most democratic nations from 2007 to 2020 before slowly starting to come back down. However, stresses remain extremely high by historical standards, and the United States is by far the most worsened within this group. In 2022, amidst continued political polarization, gridlock, and brinksmanship, the United States had the highest number of mass shootings ever recorded in a single year, according to a Mother Jones investigation, at schools, workplaces, places of workshop, and neighborhoods. This creates vulnerability to a potential shock. Because even if a country is not fragile, if cohesion has worsened steadily over a decade, then when a shock such as a global pandemic eventually does hit, that country may not have the social capital necessary to mobilize the collective response to manage the crisis and prevent it from cascading across the social, economic, political, and security indicators.
To the extent that the Great Powers are moving into a time of increased competition, the FSI presents a warning that we must not forget to also look at the world through the lens of fragility, both in international affairs and at home. There are always tradeoffs in policy. And if winning the game of power and influence is achieved at the expense of the promotion of dignity, resilience, governance, and livelihoods for the most vulnerable, then crisis will compound, and in the end everyone will lose.