From the looks of it, you might think that Foreign Policy—the once venerable journal of international political analysis—had come under the editorial guidance of Marvel Comics. The magazine’s latest cover features a Hitler-mustachioed Robert Mugabe, a vacant-eyed Kim Jong Il, and three other dastardly-looking dudes you’ve likely never heard of standing shoulder-to-shoulder under the banner “The Committee to Destroy the World,” and looking distinctly like a group of neighborhood toughs getting ready to kick your ass. A smaller headline in the corner informs readers that this is “The Bad Guys Issue,” while another hints that zombies are also threatening world peace, leaving one to assume that the existential threats facing international relations demand a lot more in the way of Captain America and his Avengers and a lot less Ban ki-Moon and the League of Ineffective Bureaucrats.
But no. As it turns out, the layout guys were just excited about the publication of this year’s Failed States Index, FP’s annual list of the world’s most mismanaged countries, with attendant essays on why it is that the predominantly brown-peopled parts of the world can’t seem to escape their apparently inexhaustible capacity for barbarism and how we in the west—who have our own houses perfectly in order—can save them.
Yet while readers won’t find any superheroes dispatching the forces of evil from North Korea, Zimbabwe or Sudan in the new issue of Foreign Policy, they might notice that the magazine’s comic book-style does indicate a retreat from serious political analysis of perhaps the stickiest problem in international relations. What are failed states, anyway? What distinguishes them from weak states, hollow states, collapsed states, or any of the other states victimized by adjectivitis? You won’t find answers in Foreign Policy! Instead, the journal presents a list of sixty “unhappy” countries, ranked according to twelve “indicators of failure”—demographics, refugees, illegitimate governments, brain drain, public services, inequality, group grievances, human rights, economic decline, security forces, factionalized elites, and external intervention—some of which are self-evident, others less so, but none fully explicated.
In years past, FP’s Failed States Index—while still riddled with methodological, definitional, philosophical, and other problems—at least possessed the virtue of introspection. Noting, for example, that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe ranked second only to Somalia in the 2009 Index as the world’s most miserable state, Robert Rotberg—perhaps the leading theorist of failed states—argued that the “failed states” concept was a blunt analytical tool in need of significant refinement if two such disparate situations could be so neatly lumped together on paper. “Zimbabwe is the second most failed state, just ahead of Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” he pointed out, before stating the obvious that because “Zimbabwe has no discernible civil warfare,” and the “state has not lost its monopoly control of violence…[it] should not be considered failed.” Not only that, but Rotberg conceded that “other results are equally confusing,” leading him to the conclusion that “a more objective system of rankings” was necessary.
Not so this year. Foreign Policy has seemingly boiled down the world’s problems to a small band of “bad dude dictators and general coconut heads,” “senile autocrats,” “suave bandits,” “eccentric buffoons,” “quacks,” and “tin pot despots,” leading its writers variously to the groundbreaking conclusions that “bad guys matter,” “failed states matter,” that “actually, it’s mountains” that complicate the development of the world’s most fragile states, and that the traditional bogeymen of American conservatism—China, France, and the United Nations—are in fact responsible for the propagation of dictatorship throughout the world, just as we suspected. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the editors chose to give one of the last words in their “bad guys” issue to Paul Wolfowitz…
All of which is bad enough. But even more troubling is the journal’s seeming headlong plunge into paternalist arrogance and a macho glorification of war touring that seems designed more for thirteen year old boys than a mature audience of informed readers—the magazine’s traditional base. Even a cursory glance at the slew of adjunct essays to this year’s Index gives a flavor of the way in which the journal has chosen to present and analyze world events. Take, for instance, the lede of an essay on Central America: “Every time I go to Guatemala, I find a dead body.” Or the badass self-regard of an essay entitled “Mogadishu Was a Blast”: “One night we invited a new friend in Mogadishu to visit us in Kandahar. His response: ‘Visit you in Afghanistan? You’re crazy! It’s too dangerous.’” And then there’s this slice of condescension in an essay on troubled Central African Republic: “A charming tic of Central Africans is a tendency to label things as literally as possible.” If it’s true that a dissertation examining the language employed by global northern analysts of global southern politics waits to be written, prospective researchers would do well apparently to supplement their diet of Nicholas Kristof op-eds with recent issues of Foreign Policy.
This is not to say, of course, that the current issue, or FP more generally, constitutes an unalloyed bad. To be sure, despite its problems, the Failed States Index offers a jumping off point for productive discussion of the reality of failed states and vulnerable populations that are adversely affected by social collapse. And the journal should be applauded for its attempts at introducing a broader audience of readers to the world of international politics. Moreover, good things are happening at the magazine. The recent overhaul of what had been the moribund FP website produced a sleek, constantly updated, and informative homepage that has established itself as required reading for those interested in international politics, and provided a home for Stephen Walt to write the smartest, most level-headed blog on global affairs currently going.
But the latest edition does suggest that in its efforts to sell copies of the magazine, the editorial team at Foreign Policy has allowed the complexities of international relations to be taken hostage by writers who would have you believe that our world is being overrun by a team of supervillians, that the Global South is largely a jungle of bloody chaos that victimized helpless and hapless indigens, that state failure is bad for locals but cool to witness if you have the luxury of getting out, and that anything less than the steady, civilizing hand of Western power is sure to doom the most vulnerable of us around the world.