BY PAULINE H. BAKER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, FFP
An editorial cartoon in the May 27, 2023, edition of The Economist depicted a race about to start with four entrants, each represented by a pretzel-like twisted figure in a state of panic. Onlookers explained it was “a race to determine who’s the most dysfunctional…and all of the countries are losing.” The contestants were Italian politics, Israeli politics, UK politics and US politics. The cartoon was a brilliant portrayal of what has changed in the international arena since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several commentators have tried to interpret the transformation in catchy slogans, such as “The End of History,” “The Clash of Civilizations,” “The West vs the Rest” or “The New Cold War.” What has really changed, however, is more fundamental: significant dysfunctionality exists not just in poorer and weaker countries, but in richer and more powerful ones as well.
This raises the question of whether state fragility is still perceived as a security threat by the public and decision-makers, as it was when the FSI was first published in 2006. The fear at that time was that state fragility, or actual state failure, in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, would lead to greater jihadist terrorism and violent extremism. Today, the rise of Great Power competition–and the concomitant rise of regional powers—appears to be supplanting these concerns. Yet state fragility is not only still important; in many ways it is of greater consequence than before. In a sense, fragility has been turned on its head: stronger powers are revealing interior weaknesses and poorer countries fear they could become collateral damage or intended targets of aggressive and expansionist goals from political decay, dictatorship, and discord in larger world powers.
Fragility is still a vital concern, then, not only because of ideological rivalry between the Great Powers but primarily because of the nature, complexity, speed, and scope of transformations occurring within them. Over the last two decades, hyper-politicized internal politics characterized by growing Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites, two key fragility indicators, along with other indicators of economic, social, and demographic disruptions, are causing paralysis and dysfunction. This trend is undermining geopolitical norms, heightening the risk of violence, fostering misunderstanding, and increasing unpredictability.
Few countries, for example, believed that Russia would invade Ukraine. When it happened, and Ukrainian resistance was surprisingly strong, it was widely presumed that the outcome of the war would depend on how much the US and its allies strengthened the military capabilities of the Kyiv government. Military imbalance continues to be a central concern, but it is not the only factor shaping the terms of combat on the battlefield. The fierce solidarity and bravery of the Ukrainians, the incompetence of the Russian military once thought to be the second most powerful force in the world, and the susceptibility of the Putin regime to domestic challenges and international opprobrium have forced a recalculation from all quarters. Unanticipated developments such as these are challenging old norms, overturning outdated premises, turning former pawns on the geopolitical chessboard into active players, and reframing assessments of powers previously considered stable.
Because of its adaptive methodology, the FSI is accommodating these shifting dynamics, continuing to provide insights into the risk of future conflicts. There are a greater number of evidence-based measures and a broader range of data to be woven into the 12 solid indicators that have stood the test of time over the last 18 years. Conducted annually, the FSI continues to monitor the quickened pace of change in each indicator, country by country, region by region, tracking the shape and strength of new alliances. The lens of fragility provides an analytical map across the spectrum of conflicts. More research needs to be conducted by analysts on the companion, and equally important, challenge, of building resilience, examining institutional, economic, security, demographic, environmental, and cultural factors. Sustainable resilience is not merely a matter of reversing the intensity and duration of fragility indicators; it additionally requires developing institutional, social, and civic capabilities that take years to achieve.
Peering slightly into the future, two big questions stand out.
What Can Fragile States Gain from Great Power Rivalry?
Conventional thinking has held that fragile states will be worse off from Great Power rivalry, but what is happening is more complex. States which might be at risk of becoming client states or battlefields for proxy wars, as happened during the Cold War, are seeking opportunities for extracting better terms of engagement with their allies, including security arrangements, trade preferences, debt relief, infrastructure projects, and regime support. As Fareed Zakaria noted, “countries that were once populous but poor have moved from the margins to center stage.”
The Non-Aligned Movement might be better labelled the Re-Aligned movement since members are making decisions based on their own national interests, as they define them. South Africa, for example, withheld its support of the US position in the United Nations which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has generated closer military and economic ties with Russia and China. Pretoria also considered violating its treaty with the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Vladimir Putin for kidnaping Ukrainian children, by searching for ways to avoid arresting him if he enters the country. Intensification of competition for support from poorer countries could reshape the purpose and mission of foreign aid, impact international trade, and redesign the architecture of international organizations.
What will the Great Powers Focus Upon to Gain an Edge Over Their Competitors: Exploiting the Fragility of Their Adversaries, Reducing Their Internal Vulnerabilities, or Building Resilience?
Most strategic planners would say “all of the above.” But that could create an imbalance of power and dangerously risk war if rivals go full throttle in opposite directions. We may see clusters of democracies versus clusters of authoritarian states, each group collectively fragile or bogged down in internal disputes as in NATO (with Turkey and Hungary), Europe (still struggling with the aftermath of Brexit), and Africa (with food insecurity, worsening crime, and expanding jihadist militancy in the Sahel, the Horn, and southern Africa).
The option selected by the US thus far indicates that Washington is gearing up for reinvigorated diplomacy—a form of building resilience. As articulated by President Joe Biden in his address at the Air Force Academy in May 2023, it is promoting partnerships with like-minded nations, a strategy that has been the traditional key to asserting American power abroad against adversaries. Biden justifiably boasted of “our unmatched network of alliances and partners,” which extends from an enlarging NATO, the most powerful military pact in the world, to forming alliances with previously marginalized states, such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and other Pacific Island states. For financial aid and other benefits these countries are giving the US control of their defense, allowing the US to create a security ring, along with old allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, against China if it invades Taiwan. China started on its own quest to expand its influence by expanding military relationships and launching their Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure construction project. Similarly, regional actors, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Brazil, Israel, Qatar, and others, are clamoring for influence.
What Impact Has Great Power Rivalry Had on Future World Order?
Interlocking webs of entangling relationships are redrawing the geopolitical map. This does not make fragility any less of a threat. It simply makes it more complicated, more unpredictable, and more rapidly changing. A new consciousness of fragility as a wider, and more urgent threat is emerging. Leaders at all levels of power and influence who ignore this factor in their strategic calculations will be doing so at their own peril.
 Fareed Zakaria, “The U.S. can no longer assume the developing world will take its side,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2023.