America is a failing state

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Rotberg, states fail because of the purposeful actions of their leaders. In writing these words in an edited volume back in 2007, Rotberg was referencing countries like Zimbabwe under the disastrous rule of Robert Mugabe in the 1990s and 2000s, or later Syria under Bashar Assad.

State failure doesn’t just happen. Rotberg writes:

Nation-states do not stumble into failure. Human agency is always the proximate cause. … [Even the weakest states] teeter on the precipice of failure only if and when they cheat their citizens or give unfair preference to one set of elites over another or over ordinary citizens.

I’m reviewing these arguments as I sit in my office because I’m discussing them with my students tonight in the class I’m teaching on international conflict and security. Toward the end of his chapter Rotberg lays out the warning signs of the dynamic process that is state failure. It is a process that always begins with the decisions of those holding power at the top.

I am struck by how familiar these warning signs appear in the fraught political moment we are currently living. The signals are economic, political, and violent.

Economic signs of a state slipping into failure include the drying up of foreign investment, massive job losses, and falling per capita incomes. Critical infrastructure, public education, provision of health care, and entitlement programs are chronically underfunded, cracking under the strain of government neglect. Meanwhile, the rulers tend to benefit from the economic inequalities being inflicted upon their citizens. As the poor get poorer, the rulers and their cronies get richer.

Does that sound familiar?

Political signs of impending state failure are signaled when leaders and their associates subvert existing democratic norms, restrict political participation of all kinds, including voting rights, crack down on civil society, and override institutional checks and balances on their own power. Regimes going down this path curtail judicial independence, harass the media, and co-opt the security forces into a mailed fist answering to the personal whims, interests, and dictates of the ruler. Rotberg writes:

[R]ulers show more and more contempt for their own nationals; surround themselves with family, lineage, or ethnic allies; and greatly narrow the focus of concern and responsibility.

Does that sound familiar?

The last warning signal is also the most ominous. If the level of societal violence rises precipitously, the state is clearly failing.

Does that one sound familiar too?

So here’s a question: What can we do to arrest the trend? Because, as Rotberg argues, corrupt autocrats and their associates usually have little incentive to arrest the slide into state failure. They benefit from it.

How about this. If you can vote early, do so. If you are voting absentee, don’t trust it to the postal service. Take your ballot to your town clerk’s office or to an official ballot dropbox. And if you haven’t done those things, then do what I’m going to do.

Go to your local polling place next Tuesday, Nov. 3, and cast your vote for candidates that will work to turn this thing around. What can we do?

We can vote.


  1. Alex says

    Well said. Thanks for sharing.

    (2) Thoughts/Questions:

    1. The postal service, on the whole, seems to be handling the early ballots fairly well, apart from a few isolated incidents (Mostly printing/mailing mistakes that have all been corrected). This being said, I agree with your advice to drop ballots off, and further – regardless of how you turn in your ballot in Michigan, we all have the ability to ensure our ballots were “received” by visiting the SOS-MI website and entering our respective voter info. My ballot was collected and RECEIVED the very same day I dropped it in the ballot box!

    2. How can we prepare ourselves to approach the coming weeks not only with a sense of patience but, (and maybe more-importantly) with any remaining senses of trust & confidence in our democratic system(s), especially if we must also grapple with the idea that we ARE a failing state? Also, if individually, our only power over our own failing state is to participate whole-heartedly in it, that’s kind of ironic, eh?

    • Pete Trumbore says

      There is an irony there for sure. Given the role that leaders play in driving a country toward failure, the remedy, as you point out, is to change the leaders. Right now the way to do that is through participation in the electoral process, despite obstacles being erected to try to limit that participation or delegitimize the outcome.