A Freedom Problem

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Appeared in the American Legion Magazine, November 1, 2009

In decades past, Washington looked across the oceans and worried about the threats posed by powerful states: the British Empire, the Kaiser’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Hitler’s Reich, the Soviet Union.

In an ironic twist of history, what occupies most of Washington’s attention today is the very opposite: weak states, failed states, states that are poorly governed or ungoverned. Indeed, we overlook failed states at our own peril. It pays to recall that after the defeat of the Soviet army, a crumbling Afghanistan was considered unimportant to America—until September 11, 2001.

Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace monitor these countries by maintaining a Failed States Index (FSI), where the likes of Somalia and Sudan rank at the top by being the worst. Failed states face refugee and demographic pressures; “uneven economic development” or “severe economic decline;” and/or a range of political problems, such as human-rights violations, deteriorating public services and unchecked internal security machinery (Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy, “Failed States Index 2008”). Click on the free download link below to view the FSI’s bottom 10 and other failed, failing and at-risk states of particular relevance to the U.S.

Thousands of American troops have died and billions of dollars have been spent in these failing states over the last several years—feeding the hungry in Somalia, uprooting tyranny and planting democracy in Haiti and Iraq, hunting for mass-murderers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting stability in Yemen, fighting drug cartels in South America, ending genocide in Bosnia and Serbia.

What all of these basket-case regimes have in common—from totalitarian North Korea to lawless Somalia—is a freedom problem. Indeed, the connection between a lack of freedom and state failure comes into focus when the FSI is overlaid against various measures of freedom.

Failure in Focus
It’s counterintuitive, but failed states can be places dominated by tyranny, which is another word for too much government, or places where there is anarchy, which is another word for no government at all. In either case, liberty is in short supply. In the former, it is smothered by the state; in the latter, it is overwhelmed by license.

Consider how our FSI focus countries rate on the Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World index (EFW), which measures “the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom,” defined as “personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property.” (Click on the free download link below for these and other rankings.) The EFW takes into account government size, rule of law and property rights, access to sound money, freedom to trade, and regulation of credit, labor and business (James Gwartney, et. al, “Economic Freedom of the World 2008 Annual Report,” Fraser Institute, 2008).

Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and most of the ex-Soviet Central Asian states aren’t even ranked on the 141-nation EFW index (due to a lack of data). Zimbabwe is ranked last. Pakistan is 104th, Colombia 105th, Haiti 106th, and Egypt and Iran are in the bottom half of the survey.

A similar picture emerges in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom (IEF), which measures the degree to which people are “free to work, produce, consume and invest in any way they please” and the degree to which this behavior is constrained or encouraged by the state. The IEF’s components include: business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, labor freedom, property rights, freedom from corruption, and government size (Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, “The 2009 Index of Economic Freedom”).

Again, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan don’t even make it into the rankings. North Korea is last, just behind Zimbabwe. Haiti is 147th. Iran is 168th. Pakistan and Yemen don’t crack the top 100. Egypt flounders in the IEF’s bottom half.

As the inputs for the EFW and IEF surveys underscore, property rights are an integral part of freedom. The great 20th-century economist Friedrich Hayek called private property “the most important guarantee of freedom.” John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker who inspired Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, argued that every man has a right to “preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men.”

The International Property Rights Index (IPRI) ranks 115 countries. Not surprisingly, among those not included are the worst of the failed states: Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, North Korea, Syria, Iran and most of the Central Asian states. Colombia, Egypt, Pakistan and Zimbabwe all languish in the bottom half of the rankings (Property Rights Alliance, “International Property Rights Index 2009”).

Freedom House offers a pair of helpful surveys: The Freedom in the World survey measures freedom, defined as “the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of government,” especially relating to political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2008”). And the Freedom of the Press survey measures press freedoms as defined by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which declares “everyone has the right…to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” (Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2008”).

On the political rights/civil liberties survey, countries scoring between 5.5 and 7 are considered “not free.” Countries scoring between 3.0 and 5.0 are considered “partly free.” Somalia, Sudan, North Korea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are consigned to the very lowest category. Iran, Iraq and Zimbabwe are just a shade better. Pakistan and Egypt also fall into the “not free” category. Finally, Afghanistan, Haiti, Colombia and Yemen are considered only “partly free.”

The Freedom House press index adds further detail to this sad portrait of failed states. North Korea is dead last. Uzbekistan (189th), Zimbabwe (186th), Iran (185th), Somalia (181st), Syria (179th) and Sudan (170th) aren’t much better. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and Colombia also are cellar-dwellers. In fact, all of our FSI focus countries rate in the triple digits on press freedom.

Ingredients of Success and Failure
What this survey of surveys tells us is that failed states are not free—and countries that embrace freedom are generally not failed states.

Failed states cannot blame their problems on ethnic diversity (see the U.S.), size (see Luxembourg), geographic isolation (see Australia), political isolation (see Taiwan), dangerous or unstable neighbors (see India or Estonia), a lack of natural resources (see Japan) or a difficult past (see South Korea).

In fact, there is no more exquisite proof on earth of what makes a failed state and what makes a successful state than the Korean peninsula. After all, here is one nationality arbitrarily divided into two countries, two forms of government and two economic systems. One is free and connected to the world, the other enslaved and isolated. The difference, as captured in the CIA’s World Factbook, is breathtaking:

 North KoreaSouth Korea
GDP$40 billion$1.27 trillion
GDP growth rate-2.3 percent2.5 percent
Per capita GDP$1,700$26,000
Exports$1.68 billion$419 billion
Life expectancy6378
Infant mortality/1,000 births51.344.2


“The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a ten-year-shorter life expectancy than his seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea,” as James Morris observed when he was director of the World Food Program (Michele Kelemen, “Departing UN food chief reflects on world hunger,” NPR, May 14, 2007).

Between 1995 and 2005, the WFP shipped some 4 million metric tons of food into North Korea. With U.S. help, the WFP had planned to distribute another 630,000 metric tons of food aid by November 2009. But North Korea blocked food shipments ahead of its latest fit of missile tests and brinkmanship (Radio Free Asia, “U.S. Hopes To Resume Food Aid,” March 25, 2009; WFP).

A regime that cannot feed its citizens and is unwilling to accept the help of others is the very definition of a basket case.

Modern Problems
“In ancient times, the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations,” Adam Smith observed in the 18th century. “In modern times, the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, p.708).

The 21st century, it would seem, is more ancient than modern. After all, we can virtually plot U.S. intervention around the globe by glancing at the FSI.

By my count, the United States has engaged in significant military operations in five of the bottom 15 failed states over the past 15 years: Somalia, Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Plus, the U.S. is still technically at war with North Korea.

U.S. forces also have bombed Sudan (2nd on the FSI); intervened in Yemen (21st), site of the USS Cole attack in 2000, U.S. missile strikes in 2002 and U.S. embassy bombing in 2008; deployed to Chad (4th) and Nigeria (18th) for “training” missions; and engaged in operations inside Syria (35th).

In addition, Uzbekistan (26th), Tajikistan (38th), Kyrgyzstan (39th) and Turkmenistan (46th) have seen or soon will see U.S. assets deploy through their territory to support the war in Afghanistan. U.S. military and economic resources also are deeply committed to propping up Colombia (37th) and Egypt (40th).

We should remember that these countries are not broken because the United States intervened. Rather, the United States intervened because these countries were broken. In fact, when not one American soldier or Marine was deployed within their borders, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq were already failed or failing states:

  • In 1992, the United States was sucked into Somalia by anarchy and a manmade famine.
  • In 2000, after five years of Taliban rule and decades of war, Afghanistan was universally considered a failed state. (See, for example, Center for Defense Information, “Afghanistan: Reemergence of a State,” December 21, 2001.)
  • By the late 1990s, as Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute observed in 2002, “the growing consensus among American policymakers and lawmakers was that Pakistan was…becoming an unreliable ‘failed state.’” To underscore Pakistan’s haphazard, cobbled-together existence, essayist Christopher Hitchens reminds us, “It is not a real country or nation but an acronym…it stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir and Indus-Sind.”
  • A 2000 report by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management concluded that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had experienced several “state-failure events” and rated miserably on measures of state effectiveness and state legitimacy (Ted Robert Gurr, Barbara Harff, Monty G. Marshall, “State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings,” Center for International Development and Conflict Management September 30, 2000). And as Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami has observed, U.S. forces found in Iraq “a country wrecked and poisoned” by dictatorship (Fouad Ajami, The Foreigner’s Gift, p.194).

However, Iraq is on the road to recovery. By many measures—political reconciliation, regional cooperation, economic growth, democratic governance—Iraq appears to have turned the corner. In fact, according to The Economist magazine’s Index of Democracy, Iraq rates above such countries as Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, China, Qatar, Iran and the UAE (The Economist, “Index of Democracy 2008,”).

Likewise, it’s worth noting that while Afghanistan is far from mended, it is better today than it was in 2001 for no other reason than this: It is no longer ruled by the Taliban and no longer a sanctuary for al Qaeda to plot against the United States.

If nothing else, Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that the advance of freedom, while fitful and even painful at times, is in America’s interests and in the interests of every person on earth—aside from a handful of dictators, warlords and jihadists.

Failed States Index 2008 (pdf)

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