Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, March 05, 2009

What's a failed state?

Karen Coston, who teaches at Blacksburg High School in Virginia, reminded me of a valuable resource I should add to my regular list of sources: Foreign Policy magazine.

I have often used articles from Foreign Policy. They tend to be a good length for supplementary student readings and they require enough analysis to make reading a valuable exercise.

She pointed out two articles in the current issue that present the question: Are Russia and Mexico on the verge of becoming failed states?

I've asked that question about Mexico several times in the past year, but I've not asked it about Russia the way Arkady Ostrovsky does.

Assign half the class to read each article. Add some other readings to the mix. Get groups to explain to their classmates what they've read. Ask the students to defend or contradict the failed state prognosis. Ask them to come to some agreements.

Reversal of Fortune

"Vladimir Putin’s social contract has been premised on an authoritarian state delivering rising incomes and resurgent power. But the economic crisis is unraveling all that. And what comes next in Russia might be even worse...

"Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. But just as historians view 1929 as the end of the revolutionary period of Soviet history, scholars will (and already do) define Putin’s rule as a restoration that followed a revolution. Restoration—of lost geopolitical influence, of Soviet symbols, of fear, of even Stalin’s reputation—has been the main narrative of the past decade. But as history shows, periods of restoration do not restore the old order; they create new threats. This is what Russia is today—a new, much more nationalistic and aggressive country that bears as much (or as little) resemblance to the Soviet Union as it does to the free and colorful, though poor and chaotic, Russia of the 1990s...

"Confidence in the rule of a wealthy, heavy-handed Russian state has been shaken, and it is now a real possibility that the global economic crisis, as it persists and even intensifies, could cause Putin’s social contract to unravel. What is not clear, however, is what would take its place—and whether it would be any improvement. The nationalist passions and paranoia that Putin has stirred up have poisoned Russian society in lasting ways. Now, 2009 could be a new “Great Break” [1929] for Russia, but the result might just be a country in upheaval—broken..."

State of War

"Mexico’s hillbilly drug smugglers have morphed into a raging insurgency. Violence claimed more lives there last year alone than all the Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And there’s no end in sight...

"Mexico’s surge in gang violence has been accompanied by a similar spike in kidnapping...

"All of this is taking a toll on Mexicans who had been insulated from the country’s drug violence. Elites are retreating to bunkered lives behind video cameras and security gates. Others are fleeing for places like San Antonio and McAllen, Texas...

"Mexico’s gangs had the means and motive to create upheaval, and in Mexico’s failure to reform into a modern state, especially at local levels, the cartels found their opportunity. Mexico has traditionally starved its cities. They have weak taxing power. Their mayors can’t be reelected. Constant turnover breeds incompetence, improvisation, and corruption. Local cops are poorly paid, trained, and equipped...

"In addition to fighting each other, the cartels are now increasingly fighting the Mexican state as well, and the killing shows no sign of slowing. The Mexican Army is outgunned, even with U.S. support..."

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