The Continuum of Dysfunction, Binary Statehood, and the Politics of Recognition

by Chris Borgen

I’d like to pick up a thread is in Chiara’s book and is teased out in both Gian Luca’s post and Ben Davis’s comment on Chiara’s most recent post on Somalia: the view that state failure is notan “on/ off” characteristic, but rather is a continuum ranging from governments that are somewhat incompetent (insert your state of choice here) to essentially nonexistent (Somalia). I like Ben’s insight that there is a temporal factor to this and that states may move up and down this continuum. Haiti, I think, is an example of a state that, especially between 1987 and today, has slid up and down the continuum of levels of dysfunctionality.

Chiara’s book is in part concerned with expanding the toolbox available to the international community to respond to when a state starts sliding down the continuum. In her opening post in this discussion, she wrote:

States can gain statehood quite easily, but there is no method to assess changes in the constitutive elements of a State, and thus adjust the standing and responsibilities of States when they start to fail.

In other words, as states become more dysfunctional, should we adjust their status as members of the international community? That we should get rid of the binary view of statehood–either you are a state or you are not–and have a conception that is more flexible and nuanced?

One resultant question would be who decides if a state has slid down the continuum of dysfunction and, equally importantly, what may (or may not) be done by members of the international community who believe a state is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but the government (and perhaps a portion of the population) of that state disagrees with the assessment of those members of the international community?

If statehood should no longer be binary, this may make that the act of recognition itself much more complex. If states may “adjust the standing” of other states as those countries become increasingly dysfunctional, isn’t this like “de-recognizing” a state? If so, doesn’t this take the politics of recognition and instead of making it effectively a one time “on/ off” choice (think Kosovo or South Ossetia), it turns it into an ongoing debate as to how much recognition a state should receive?

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