In the esoteric world of defense intellectuals, one of the sharpest points of contention between Thomas P.M. Barnett and John Robb is over the feasibility of Tom’s System Administration concept. This issue has been the topic of numerous posts and the occasional rhetorical jab between the two strategic theorists. This pattern repeats itself, in my view, for a number of reasons. First, even friendly professional rivalry causes a natural bumping of heads; secondly, Robb looks at a system and thinks how it can be made to fall apart while Barnett looks at the same system and imagines how the pieces can be reintegrated. Third, no one really has all the answers yet on why some states fail relatively easily while others prove resilient in the face of horrific stress.
Robb contends that Global Guerillas can potentially keep a state in permanent failure, despite the best efforts of System Administration intervention to the contrary. A new level of systemic collapse, call it State Failure 2.0, where failure constitutes a self-sustaining dynamic. Broadly defined, you would chalk up ” wins” for Robb’s point of view in Somalia, Iraq and the Congo. In Dr. Barnett’s column you would find Germany, Japan, Cambodia, East Timor and Sierra Leone in evidence for the efficacy of Sys Admin work. Lebanon and Afghanistan perhaps could be described as a nation-building draw at this point in time.
Why permanent failure in some cases but not others ? This is something that long puzzled me. Then today, I read an intriguing pair of posts at Paul Hartzog’s blog - ” Ernesto Laclau and the Persistence of Panarchy” and ” Complexity and Collapse“. An excerpt from the first post:
“Ernesto Laclau was here @ UMich and gave a delightful talk that gave me some key insights into the long-term stability of panarchy.
…However, with the new heterogeneity of global social movements, Laclau makes the point that as the state-system declines, there is no possibility of the emergence of a new state-like form because the diverse multitude possesses no single criterion of difference around which a new state could crystallize.
Thus, there is no possibility of a state which could satisfy the heterogenous values of the diverse multitude. What is significant here is that according to this logic, once panarchy arrives, it can never coalesce into some new stable unified entity.
In other words, panarchy is autopoietic as is. As new criteria of difference emerge and vanish, the complex un-whole that is panarchy will never rigidify into something that can be opposed, i.e. it will never become a new hegemony. “
While I think Paul is incorrect on the ultimate conclusion – that panarchy is a steady-state system for society – I think he has accurately described why a state may remain ” stuck” in failure for a considerable period of time as we reckon it. Moreover, it was a familiar scenario to me, being reminiscient of the permanent failure experienced by the global economy during the Great Depression. Yet some states pulled themselves out of the Depression, locally and temporarily, with extreme state intervention while the system itself did not recover until after WWII with the opposite policy – steady liberalization of international trade and de-regulation of markets that became known as globalization.
The lesson from that economic analogy might be that reviving completely failed states might first require a ” clearing of the board” of local opposition – defeated Germany and Japan, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and East Timor were completely devastated countries that had to begin societal reconstruction at only slightly better than ground zero. Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, and Lebanon all contain robust subnational networks that create high levels of friction that work against System Administration. At times, international aid simply helps sustain the dysfunctional actors as a countervailing force.
System Administration as a cure for helping connect Gap states might be akin to government fiscal and monetary policy intervention in the economy; it may work best with the easiest and the worst-off cases where there is either a functional and legitimate local government to act as a partner or where there is no government to get in the way and the warring factions are exhausted.
The dangerous middle ground of partially failed states is the real sticking point.
Cross-posted at Zenpundit