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The United States as a Failing State? A Perspective From 2013

A country’s success or failure must be measured against its inherent potential.

October 18, 2013

Credit: argus -

The very title used to beg disbelief – until now. We have all heard of “failed states” – the Somalias, Chads and, quite possibly, Iraqs and Afghanistans of this world.

They are, in fact, easy pickings. Even so, in the Washington think tank world, the “failed states” concept has great currency — no doubt because it might indicate fertile ground for terrorists.

Measure against a country’s potential

But can one seriously refer to the United States in a similar fashion? The answer, it turns out, depends on what your yardstick is. More specifically, should the assessment be made by measuring a state against its potential? Or does it only come into play when there are clear signs of the total collapse of civic order?

What complicates the analysis is that states don’t fail overnight. And their collapse may not be obvious. The seeds of their own destruction may be sown deeply within the fabric of their political institutions.

Properly understood, what makes the contemporary United States a possible candidate for a failed state is to measure where it now finds itself against the nation’s inherent potential.

Great natural factor endowment, but…

Very few countries have as large an amount of natural factor endowment as the United States. To be sure, its natural riches and other assets provide a strong buffer, making it much less likely that the country will ever fail outright.

By the same token, a country endowed with great natural beauty and other riches may be tempted to act rather recklessly and actively undermine its potential. Recent U.S. events, like recent episodes such as the complete shutdown of the federal government and near default on U.S. debt over political disputes, clearly attest to that danger.

15 items in urgent need of fixing

Look at this stunning list of shortcomings:

1. Washington, the U.S. capital, is riveted with a forbidding level of political infighting that mirrors how deeply divided the country is, not least across the urban/rural divide.

2. The U.S. Civil War in the 21st century may be fought out in a very different territory than Somalia’s, but it is not really that much more forgiving. Plenty of people even get shot.

3. For all its riches and for all the celebration of the civil rights era, the United States still has to overcome the legacy of racism. For evidence, look no further than the incarceration rates of young black males.

4. Also look at the blight of the downtown areas of some of America’s formerly proudest and richest cities. Think Detroit, Cleveland or Chicago. There are entire parts of these cities that are “no go” zones.

5. All that misery is certainly not because too little money is available in the United States to fix these issues. The wallet is there, but not the will.

6. The United States also still suffers from the belief that only short-term strategies can fix its problems, including when it comes to education and training.

7. It is mainly Republicans who resist any systematic efforts to tackle this and other challenges. They facilely declare them as “socialism,” while deluding themselves with the quaint idea that “being American” is enough to succeed.

8. Despite a lot of entrepreneurialism, on the two big challenges of our time – energy and the environment – Americans have come up with plenty of ideas, but at least so far with no real policy or successful track record either with regard to innovation or investment.

9. The country remains astonishingly wedded to the promotion of feudalist economic values. Politicians of both parties are remarkably eager to serve the upper crust. Seeking to counteract the market-driven excesses of further increases in income inequality always takes second place – if it is tried at all.

10. Hispanics continue to be considered an inconvenient afterthought across much of the nation. If prudence and an ounce of longer-term thinking prevailed, they would be the focal point of social and economic planning for the future, given the importance of the Hispanic demographic for a viable U.S. economic future.

11. Workers of all colors are often still treated as aliens – and unions even worse. In the supposedly refined American capitalism, those who hold the economic and financial power basically still hold to an inimical view of the workforce. Worse, people in the workforce are often viewed as disposable assets.

12. For decades, middle-class Americans wanted to convince themselves, and were convinced by their politicians, that the problem for the United States was just a black underclass. How wrong that was. Economic destitution is an equal opportunity destroyer, regardless of race. The old racism has morphed into color-blind classism.

13. For a nation this rich, closing one’s eyes and letting poverty fester is as irresponsible as it is shortsighted. It is also extremely cynical. The same elites that celebrate America’s vitality also point to U.S. population growth. They interpret it as an indicator of future growth potential and a reason for optimism. However, many elites shy away from helping those groups to be properly equipped to become a productive part of the future workforce.

14. That matters greatly. After all, over 50% of new babies are born to minority families, minorities are becoming the country’s new non-white majority. Many of them are in the bottom third of the U.S. income distribution.

15. U.S. elites and many Republicans alike ignore the fact, especially critical under these circumstances, that well-functioning and well-resourced public schools are the key to maximizing these youngsters’ future potential. Witness the politicians in virtually every U.S. state who fight hard to keep these immigrant kids out (!) of community colleges. Arguing that these young people are stealing precious education dollars from Americans is not only blatantly selfish. Over the long haul, it is downright self-defeatist.

Literal vs. lateral thinkers

Literal thinkers will state categorically that the United States, unlike Somalia and Afghanistan, does not have warlords. Lateral thinkers, in contrast, would question that assertion. They understand that warlords can also exist at a much higher level of economic development. And for evidence, they would point to the way in which Republicans now operate in Washington and many state capitals.

A country can be destitute simply because it happens to be located in a God-forsaken place on earth. But it may not be failing, owing to great human efforts of its people to beat the admittedly long odds.

The United States, in its current constitution, seems to be adamant about showing the polar opposite – that even very rich and well-endowed nations can be on track of failing. Who would have ever thought that even imaginable?

This feature was updated by the author in June 2015.


A country's success or failure has to be measured against that nation's inherent potential.

When measured against its potential, the US must indeed be considered a failing state.

States don’t fail overnight. The seeds of their own destruction may be sown deeply within the fabric of their political institutions.

US elites live in a splendid bubble. They are immune to the frustration and destitution of ever more of the population.

The wallet is there, but not the will. The US has the money to fix many issues.