During the 2004 Federal election campaign, the Australian Government
flagged for the third time in as many years the idea of a 'preemptive'
or more accurately, 'preventative' military attack against
an anticipated threat to Australia's security. On previous occasions,
the public had been largely hostile to the idea of a unilateral
invasion of Iraq. But now the US-led invasion is tragic history,
its consequences have left many Australians questioning some of
the primary assumptions in the anxious rush to war, particularly
the notion of 'rogue states' and the potential threat these states
pose to Australia's security interests.
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the concept of 'failed
states' is becoming fashionable among government and private security
analysts in Australia. Failed states are said to be the new challenge
for the new century and whereas threats to world peace once came
from strong tyrannical ('rogue') states, the post-cold war challenges
now originate mainly in failed states. Since mid-2003, the concept
has supplemented, if not supplanted, rogue states, while the spectre
of an 'arc of instability' has replaced the 'axis of evil'.
Although widely referred to, the concept of failed states is
not only indistinct; it is highly controversial because of the
political and security implications of labelling a state as having
'failed'. A state that has been declared as having failed becomes
a candidate for intervention in its internal affairs by another
state or international organisation, or worse still, marked for
a preventative military invasion.
Origins of the concept
While talk of preventative military action may be in vogue, the
idea is hardly novel. The US Government considered such a policy
"morally corrosive" during the height of the Cold War
but despite its unpopular origin, the idea of prevention resurfaced
as a mainstream government policy following September 11, 2001.
The document that entrenched the idea in US foreign policy, the
National Security Strategy of September 2002,
 from its very first pages drew a connection between the
idea of prevention and the apparent dangers posed by failed states.
"America is now threatened less by conquering states than
[it is] by failing ones", the paper says.
Government officials and security think-tanks in Australia soon
followed the US lead. In Australia, the concept of failed states
was introduced to popular acclaim with the release of the government-funded
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) 2003 policy report,
Our Failing Neighbour,
 which argued the case for intervening in the troubled
Solomon Islands, during the Government's deliberations over the
Although scholars have been debating the concept of state failure
for over a decade, as an actual phenomenon, what is now known
as failed states has been part of the political reality for as
long as the international system of states has existed.  Historically, the notion of state failure
was a colonial preoccupation. At the zenith of European expansion,
the failure of Pacific indigenous efforts at self-government had
frequently provided the opportunity and justification for great
power interventions. Powerful states often intervened in weaker
states to quell social disorder that threatened their security
and trade interests.  "At other times,"
Robert H. Dorff, a US Army scholar noted, "the weak state
provided an opportunity for territorial expansion by the great
Contemporary interest in state failure re-emerged as a humanitarian
concern in the early 1990s shortly after the collapse of the Soviet
alliance. With the end of the Cold War and the acceleration of
globalisation, a wave of state formation and disintegration pushed
the issue of failing states to the forefront of the international
political and human rights agenda. Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner
were among the first commentators to use the term 'failed states'
in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article.
 They were concerned about "a disturbing new phenomenon"
whereby a state was becoming "utterly incapable of sustaining
itself as a member of the international community."
A failed state in the context of international relations
usually refers to a political entity within a given territory
that has lost its domestic 'authority' and 'legitimacy'. Failed
states could be defined narrowly or broadly. In the narrow sense,
the given political entity has lost its authority over its population
and is unable to sustain a "monopoly of the legitimate use
of physical force within a given territory".  In the broad sense, state failure is said to occur when "the
basic functions of the state are no longer performed".  But it is "a deeper phenomenon than mere rebellion, coup,
or riot. It refers to a situation where the structure, authority
(legitimate power), law, and political order have fallen apart". 
A security threat?
It is no coincidence that the proliferation of international
terrorism, transnational criminal activities and Western interests
in failing states are all occurring at the same time in history.
There are obvious examples where state failure had intermeshed
with the covert world, for example, Somalia and past and present
Afghanistan. This said there is always a tendency to generalise
the dangers of state failure to the extent that any state considered
failing or failed is potentially a 'basket case' of international
criminal activities and terrorism.
According to former US president Jimmy Carter, failed states
"can become havens for terrorist ideologues seeking refuge
and support. Failed states are the breeding grounds for drug
trafficking, money laundering, the spread of infectious diseases,
uncontrolled environmental degradation, mass refugee flows and
 No matter how fashionable it is to demonise failed
states, however, such an alarming assessment paints a misleading
picture of the phenomenon and can lead to an unhealthy policy
obsession with state failure and militarism.
A popular concern is the idea of 'saving' failed states in order
to fight international terrorism. Since the terrorist attacks
of September 11, 2001, and the revelation that the terrorist network
Al-Qaeda operated training camps in Afghanistan, conventional
wisdom has linked international terrorism with failing or failed
states. The fear among Western policy makers is that state failure
is fomenting security threats that could have ramifications not
just locally but across globe.
 Despite the view that a direct link exists between
state failure and international terrorism, recent evidence suggests
that such a link cannot be assumed.
Using evidence from a study by Ulrich Schneckener,  German researcher Daniel Lambach
argues that effective terrorist networks have requirements that
are not always well served in failed states communications technology
and human and financial resources for recruitment, training, planning
and logistics purposes, for example. The September 11 attack
is a reminder of an act of terrorism that, although conceived
and planned in Afghanistan and other 'failing states', relied
on many developed states for its operation, including recruitment
in Germany and Spain and the "extensive use of banks in the
United States."  Foreign affairs academic Richard Devetak has argued that
a hospitable environment for terrorist groups is more likely to
be "poorly governed, corrupt or sympathetic states like Afghanistan
under the Taliban, Yemen and Kenya, but also Pakistan and Indonesia
In the last few decades, the world has witnessed increasing flows
of cross-border migration, with a substantial number of illegal
immigrants being assisted by people smugglers.
 People smugglers supply sophisticated false documents
and use clandestine, often dangerous methods of transporting people
while exploiting the desperation of those willing or forced to
migrate. Ever since the large wave of Afghani and Iraqi refugees
and migrants arrived on Australias shores in the late 1990s,
it has often been assumed that most illegal migrants originate
from failing or failed states people desperately searching for
a better life in the West, or people enlisting the service of
people smugglers operating in failed states. However, as with
international terrorism, the evidence for this is only partial.
Studies into this area suggest that most international migration
occurs in countries that are emerging from extreme poverty, building
infrastructure, and accumulating savings. Research by Ronald
Skeldon prepared for the International Organisation for Migration  has found that "the principal
reasons for illegal migration are not to be found in absolute
poverty but in the increased knowledge of opportunities available
elsewhere the very product of development", which is hardly
a description of a failing or failed state.
China is an example of a poor but fast developing country. China
is also the source of the largest group of unauthorised entrants
(both economic migrants and refugees) to Australia until the year
2000.  The
US State Department has pointed out that Chinese illegal migrants
tend to come from developed areas that have the infrastructures
needed to provide required communication and transportation to
the West.  They must also have access to significant funds (usually
through loans), as fees for people smugglers or 'snakeheads' can
be quite significant.
In contrast, most citizens in failed states will have less exposure
to the 'lures' of the West, and will be more concerned with escaping
immediate violence or scraping together a living than with occupying
their time thinking about a better life in the West. They may
also be "too ignorant of other opportunities, and too far
removed from transportation and communications networks [to] initiate,
facilitate and sustain international migration", according
to former Australian Federal Police adviser, John McFarlane. 
War and civil strife can increase cross-border migration as people
attempt to escape danger and violence, particularly now that refugee
movements are "central to the objectives and tactics of war",
a major UNHCR report says.
 Cross border migration can also be indirectly promoted
by political uncertainty as territorial borders become porous
with the loss of central control. 
Although the evidence suggests that failed states can potentially
create internal displacement and refugee outflows, there is little
evidence of a direct link between state failure and illegal migration
except that some refugees might be desperate enough to seek the
services of criminal gangs. Yet since the 2001 Tampa crisis and
September 11, connecting dots between failed states and illegal
migration and people smuggling has also become popular.
Drug, terrorist and criminal money laundering have also been
linked with state failure. Australian commentaries on this topic
have often focused on the Pacific islands as an example of failing
states providing opportunities for money laundering, tax evasion
and fraud. "When you have a failed state, it's a state that
can be exploited by people such as money launderers
Minister Alexander Downer said shortly before the deployment of
troops to the Solomon Islands in 2003. According to the Federal
Police Commissioner Mike Keelty, "The activity is fostered
by island countries with few resources to sell other than their
Yet despite the textbook example of the Pacific island Nauru
which until recently was a regional financial centre for money
laundering and identity fraud there is little else to suggest
a connection between state failure and money laundering. Using
a number of political and economic indicators, one of the most
comprehensive empirical studies on international money laundering
was unable to establish a nexus with state failure.  The explanation for this
is hardly surprising, "money launderers or their clients
attach high importance to keeping their money safe and like to
exploit legal protections to do so, which is no easy task in politically
or economically failing or failed states", the study says. 
Mick Keelty and others have pointed out that an estimated 80%
of heroin trafficked illegally into Australia is sourced from
the Golden Triangle region, most of it from Burma.  The link between state failure and the cultivation and processing
of narcotics seems more evident than that with international terrorism,
illegal migration or money laundering, particularly in the example
of the three major drug producing countries, Afghanistan, Burma
and Colombia. All these states are attempting to deal with significant
insurgency groups and all have significant drug production and
trafficking records. 
Providing the land and climate are suitable, failed and failing
states create an ideal environment for the cultivation, production
and transportation of illicit drugs. "[A]narchy and lawlessness
is good for business", Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive
Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said of the drug trade.
 The drug trade provides easy cash for both desperate
farmers trying to live off their war-ravaged land and local warlords
and gangs eager to enlarge their military capability. This could
be seen in today's Afghanistan, "with lawlessness rising,
the farmers are finding it more and more attractive to sow poppy
all over the country." 
Playing dress up
The concept of 'failed states' for Australia was not shaped by
the September 11 attacks, unlike the US and the UK, but by the
Solomon Islands intervention in 2003. Before that, and despite
the war against Afghanistan, the Government said little about
failing or failed states let alone the idea of intervening in
a failed state to fight terrorism.
 As late as January 2003, Alexander Downer was dismissing
the idea of intervening in the Solomon Islands as a "folly
in the extreme". "It would not work," he said,
"no matter how it was dressed up".
 In case the point was missed, a major Government policy
paper added a few weeks later, "Australia is not a neo-colonial
power. The [Pacific] island countries are independent sovereign
Six months later, it seems Alexander Downer discovered a way
to 'dress up' Australia's new-found foreign policy assertiveness.
With the release of the ASPI report on the Solomon Islands, the
concept of failed states apparently gave the Government the rhetoric
it needed. As Tony Wright of The Bulletin explained, "It
was not so much that the Solomon Islanders should have assistance
foisted upon them it was a matter of Australian security. A
failed state such as the Solomons could become a danger to Australia".
By September 2003, Alexander Downer was at the UN General Assembly
saying that, "It is no longer open to us to ignore the failed
Old shibboleths such as the excessive homage to sovereignty
even at the expense of the preservation of humanity and human
values should not constrain us." The Government has not
accused any other states of being failures. It has, however,
referred to the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq as former
failed states.  It is no coincidence all
three states have been subjected to intervention with Australia's
involvement in recent years, invited or otherwise.
The Government's approach to the idea of state failure suggests
that policy precedes concept and not vice versa. It seems the
Government is only willing to use the label, state failure, against
a particular state, when it intends to intervene or has already
intervened in that state.
 The use of the concept is therefore highly nuanced:
a state is considered 'failing' only when Australia or another
powerful (usually Anglo-Western) nation declares it to be so,
and only according to set policy objectives. Similarly, the term
'failed state' has been applied after the fact to describe the
former situation of a state in which intervention has already
It also appears from the evidence that Western leaders and commentators
may have overstated or at best offered a misleading impression
of the threats posed by failing or failed states. There does
not appear to be a strong correlation between state failure and
some of the worst forms of transnational criminal activity like
terrorism and money laundering. Where there is a link, state
failure by itself does not necessarily account for the activity.
Other factors, such as corruption or poor governance which exists
in both strong and weak states are also important considerations.
Despite this, the Government and some policy makers continue to
make unqualified assertions about the security threats of failed
The widespread fear of a failed state at Australia's 'doorstep',
coupled with the Government's readiness to exploit this concept
makes the idea of state failure a potentially dangerous policy
for Australia. Apart from absolving the West of any responsibility
for its policies, the danger in treating state failure as an anomaly
is that it justifies even more intrusive forms of intervention
in developing states,  particularly the Pacific islands.
In the worst case, as Prime Minister John Howard suggested during
the 2004 election campaign, it can even lead to a US-inspired
preventative military assault. Such thinking is only a step away
from advocating a US 'deputy-sheriff' role for Australia in the
However, inventing more rights for Western intervention in developing
states will not likely solve long-term regional and global insecurity,
particularly if the concept of state failure is based on crude
generalisations and questionable presumptions. It would be more
constructive to talk less about 'our failing neighbour' and more
about our failing neighbourhood, Australia included; less
about interventions and more about conventions, both regional
and international, and what Australia should do to contribute
to them. This will not happen until Australia accepts that international
terrorism and crime are not mere symptoms of state failure, but
also of an unfair and unfettered international political economy
that Australia must do more to help change.