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The world's problems make a lot more sense if you think of it as a giant failed state

We've got the whole world in our hands.
We've got the whole world in our hands.
(Stepan Kapl/Shutterstock)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Is the world just a giant failed state? Owen Barder, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has argued that, in a certain sense, the answer is yes.

In comments given to the London School of Economics Diplomacy Commission, Barder asked the audience to imagine a country that had no way to collect taxes, no police force, no ability to provide even emergency health care to its citizens, and no ability to enforce any of the laws it decides to make. That's the textbook definition of a failed state.

"But," Barder writes, "that is an almost exact description of the state of our global institutions." The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court — they aspire to being something like the world's government, health service, and justice system. But none of them have the power to really back up their aspirations. If the world were a country, its most essential institutions would be powerless and broken.

Of course, the world is not a country, and the UN and its compatriots do contribute. But Barder's point is that, much as a country without functioning national institutions cannot possibly hope to effectively care for its citizens, so too a world without strong international institutions cannot solve global problems.

That is a big part of why, for example, the world is so ill-equipped to deal with climate change.

"We have no institutions that can resolve these competing interests [over who bears the brunt of the costs to reduce emissions], to make credible commitments for each nation to play their part, [and] to find ways to compensate the losers," Barder writes. So "we end up paralysed, unable to make any kind of progress towards solving this shared global problem."

Anti-balaka fighter poses with a machete.

A member of an anti-balaka militia in the Central African Republic holds a machete. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

You might say the same thing — as Barder does — about the latest Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak, which global health institutions were unable to prevent. Or the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic, which the world has tried and failed to stop. Or the Syrian civil war. The list goes on. In that sense, the idea that the world is sort of like a failed state isn't just an airy concept — it is often an actual ground truth with terrible consequences.

Barder calls out two harmful ideas that he says get in the way of strengthening global institutions. First, "the economically illiterate idea that we engaged in some sort of Great Race, in which the success of rising powers such as China and India is somehow detrimental" to the West. No future world order will work without real, meaningful cooperation, rather than competition, between those blocs.

Second, "the nineteenth century idea of diplomacy in which it is both legitimate and inevitable that each nation will pursue what it perceives to be in its own interests." We generally take it for granted that governments should put the interests of their own people first when they're making foreign policy; maybe it's time to rethink that and have individual countries think about the global good, thus making everyone better off in the aggregate.

Barder's essential point is that the weakness of global governance isn't inevitable — it's a choice. If the US and other major powers decided they wanted to invest more power in global institutions, there's nothing standing in their way.

The reasons these countries choose not to do this are, of course, powerful and complicated. But the point of the "world as a failed state" thought experiment isn't to make an exact parallel, or to provide simple answers. Rather, it's to get us to start thinking more fundamentally about the way world politics works, and doesn't, and why.

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