Brooke Ackerly


US policy toward failed states should focus on strengthening civil society and social movements so that people are better able to hold their leaders accountable.

The language of “failed states” disassociates foreign policy from international dialogue about human rights. Instead, “failed states” is a contemporary sound bite that connotes a lack of sovereignty, suggesting that intervention would not violate national sovereignty because in a failed state, there is none. Of course, we could have a similar cynicism about the use of human rights concerns to justify invasion. Certainly, states have tried to choose when to reference international human rights norms to justify their foreign policy. But the contemporary reference to “failed states” is no less prone to political manipulation and introduces a misleadingly simplistic narrative to discuss complex political circumstances.

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