A World Teetering on the Brink of Instability

By David L. Brown

A news release from Earth Policy Institute this morning features a peek at the subject of global stability as reported in Lester Brown’s new book Plan B 4.0. This is a critical issue because nations that are failing create difficulty for any response to climate change and resource depletion.

I was intrigued by the list Brown presents, a ranking of the Top 20 failing states in the world as of 2008 (the 2009 list is out now, and is essentially unchanged). The table is from Foreign Policy magazine, based on statistics developed by the Fund for Peace in cooperation with the magazine. Together they each year measure the instability index of the world’s nations, that is, the chances they are failing or have already failed. These are the worst-cases:

top_20_failing_states

The rankings are based on 1-10 scores in 12 critical areas, with 10 being the worst. Thus, a completely failed state will score 120 points. (It’s hard to imagine such a place; it would probably consist of radioactive slag.) It’s no surprise to see that Somalia is No. 1 with 114.7 points. Zimbabwe is less than a point behind, followed by Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It’s interesting to examine some of the other failed or failing states on this list. Extremely notable, to me at least, is that coming in Nos. 6 and 7 are nations familiar to most Americans … Iraq (108.6) and Afghanistan (108.2). These scores represent 90% of “perfect,” and yet we must scratch our head in puzzlement at the fact that our nation and many of its allies have spent the better part of a decade in the mission of creating successful democratic societies in those very places.

Now I am all in favor of peaceful democratic societies, but it’s generally been proven that nearly-failed states are not usually places where they are found. Does it make sense to attempt to plant the seeds of Western civilization in such infertile soil?

Iraq was formerly ruled by a ruthless dictator, “peace” being maintained under the iron-shod boot of tyranny. As Western troops depart, will that unhappy nation continue to move in the direction of “peaceful, Western-style democracy,” or will it break down into bloody rivalry between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions? As a very nearly failed state, the latter scenario seems a more likely outcome than the emergence of a Jeffersonian Golden Age.

And in Afghanistan, things are even worse. That benighted place has never really been a nation at all, but a ragtag collection of fiefdoms ruled over by warlords and funded by the opium trade. Even today, after years of military operations against them, the Taliban control wide areas of the region. Now that the U.S. has set its departure date for  2011, what hope is there for this failed state to suddenly thrive and grow into a peaceful member of the world’s democratic nations? To demonstrate my guess about the odds of that happening, try this experiment: Place one large snowball in a microwave oven; set the controls to “high” and the timer for ten minutes; and hit “cook”. Later as you mop up the floor, you’ll have a good analogy of what will likely be the future in Afghanistan, a place that has been impossible to rule since the days of Alexander the Great. Namely, a huge mess.

The place is absolutely unready to take responsibility for its own governance and security. The U.S. Marines have been assigned the task of training native Afghan soldiers, and according to a recent report from The Guardian, it’s a near fruitless exercise, dealing with illiterate, lazy, hash-smoking peasants who are completely ill-suited to function as modern-day soldiers.

So the outlook is dim for Afghanistan, No. 7 on the list  of Top 20 Failed States. But what can we learn from some of the others?

Well, there’s Pakistan right there at No. 10. The world’s sixth most populous nation, Pakistan is a nuclear power. How do you feel knowing that a nation that ranks 104.1 on an instability scale of 120 has nuclear bombs and missiles? Imagine how India feels, having to live right next door.

Pakistan isn’t the only unstable nation with a large population to make the list. Bangladesh, with a score of 98.1 is the seventh most populous nation, and right behind it is Nigeria, the eighth largest by population and a score of 99.8.

But that’s not all, for the Top 20 also includes North Korea, another nuclear power. Talk about instability!

Now, from the Fund for Peace website, here is a graphic to give you the “big picture” about world instability. You might be surprised and even dismayed, may even feel chills go up and down your spine. The nations colored in red are the most seriously failed or failing. There are presently 38 of them including Iran, another dangerous and potential nuclear power with a score of 90.0.

failedstatesYes, the red is where the most trouble is, but notice how much of the world is covered in orange, indicating a “warning” stage. And as far as those nations shown in green and judged “sustainable,” meaning safe, there are only 13 of them, not including the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan and many other advanced nations. As you can see, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with Ireland and five Scandinavian countries including Iceland are the main “safe” places, along with Switzerland, Holland, Austria and Luxembourg.

In case you’re wondering, here are the scores for some of the “yellow” countries: Germany 36.2; France 35.3; United States 34.0; United Kingdom 30.5; Japan 31.2. And the “safest” place of all: Norway 18.3.

It is interesting to note that the further you get from the “center” as indicated by this map, the safer. Central Africa, the Middle East and a few nations along the fringe  of Asia are worst off, surrounded by a sea of orange. It is only when you get far away from these areas that the colors fade to yellow, and finally to green.

And all of these nations, with perhaps only a rare exception or two, are presently meeting in Copenhagen to discuss a global plan to cooperate in mitigating CO2 emissions, no doubt the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. What could go wrong?

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