Jack Straw: There is nothing inevitable in the failure of states

Taken from a speech given by the Foreign Secretary to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in London
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The Independent Online

Terrorists are strongest where states are weakest. Osama bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida network find safe havens in places – not just Afghanistan – where conflict, poverty, ethnic and racial tensions, exploitation, corruption, poor governance, malign interference from outside or just plain neglect have brought about the collapse of responsible government and civil society.

But the global order, as conceived in the wake of the Second World War, was not designed to deal with failed states. The United Nations is made up of states. International law has traditionally focused on relations between states. Now for many parts of the world – certainly for most of Europe, but also other regions – this system has worked remarkably well. Many of us have enjoyed the longest period of sustained peace in our history over the last half-century.

Sir Michael Howard, the distinguished military historian, provides in his essay "The Invention of Peace" a convincing account of the rise of the nation state as the key building block of the global order.

As Sir Michael points out: "The state not only makes war possible: it also makes peace possible." In the first half of the 20th century, aggression by states was the chief cause of wars. In the second half, we have built up a framework for managing state sovereignty in Europe, through Nato and through the EU, which has made this sort of aggression relatively rare.

Sometimes states do still go to war with states. But in the 1990s, out of roughly 120 wars, only 10 were purely interstate wars. More often, nowadays, conflicts arise where no functioning state exists.

If there is one common denominator that links Cambodia in the 70s to Mozambique and Angola in the 80s, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone in the 90s and Afghanistan today, it is this: that when we allow governments to fail, warlords, criminals, drug barons or terrorists fill the vacuum.

There was nothing inevitable about the failure of these states. I would not want to imply that Nicolo Machiavelli is part of our contemporary pantheon. But he was right when he said: "The chief foundations of all states... are good laws and good armies." Provided both are present, a state may flourish. It is true that the nation state developed historically in Europe and a few other regions only. But there are now functioning, indeed thriving, nation states in regions and countries where this is not the historical form of polity.

According to Max Weber, the state is "a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in a given territory". When states fail, it is often because the monopoly on force is disputed and legitimacy has broken down.

Civil wars are rarely – if ever – just internal affairs. The Cold War superpowers and their proxies, and the imperial powers before them, were often more concerned with securing power than legitimacy over the territories they disputed. But whatever the historical reasons, where the basis of the state, its laws or its armies are fatally weakened, chaos is the result.

In the contemporary world, there is one addition to make to Machiavelli's prescription. No state can succeed without active support from and co-operation with other states. And, indeed, the global system of states cannot function properly where parts of the system have broken down.

Failed states make life miserable – or much worse – for those unfortunate enough to live there. But in a globalised world, this misery is exported to every corner of the world. Of the heroin on British streets, 90 per cent originates in Afghanistan.

Chaos not only brings drugs to our streets, but human trafficking to our ports and borders. And on 11 September it brought mass murder to the very heart and symbol of the success of the Western world.