The Breakdown of States by Dr. Richard Griggs, Political Geographer, Cape Town University
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T H E B R E A K D O W N O F S T A T E S
Dr. Richard Griggs
University of Cape Town
Center for World Indigenous Studies
The role that Fourth World nations play in state
breakdown and collapse is little studied and yet vital to
understanding how to create stable political structures.
Most multinational states are short-lived and fragile
because they are incapable of generating a single cultural
life that is sustainable. Every state has three basic
functions: (1) expansion (securing new sources of wealth and
land); (2) consolidation (assimilating captive nations,
refugees, and immigrants); and (3) maintenance (managing
income, resources, infrastructure, and defense). The
failure of nations to resist expansion and consolidation
leads to assimilation and the destruction of that nation.
On the other hand, state failure to capture and consolidate
these nations can contribute to a failure of state
maintenance resulting in break-up (two or more states emerge
from one state) or break-down (federation within state
Assimilation is far less common than break-up. More
than ninety percent of all states that have ever existed
ended in collapse. For instance, the expansion of the city-
state of Rome into a multinational empire embracing thrice
the number of non-Romans as Romans eventually collapsed as
long repressed nations reemerged and the costs of putting
down these rebellions exceeded the revenues of the state.
Modern history repeats the pattern: in 1945 there were
forty-six international states but by 1993 there were 191.
On average, nearly three states per year have emerged since
1945. This shows that large states are rapidly fragmenting
into smaller states and nation-states. In the 1990s alone
we have witnessed this process twenty-five times beginning
with Namibian independence in 1990, the collapse of the
Soviet Union into fifteen new states in 1991; the break-up
of Yugoslavia in six states in 1992; the New Years Day 1993
separation of the Czech and Slovak nations, and finally last
year's separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia.
On average, nations outlast states. Out of 191 states,
127 are less than fifty years old. A generous figure for
the geographical and political continuity of a modern state
is 500 years old (Spain). Compare that with Euzkadi (Basque
Country) that may be 10,000 years old. Friesland predates
all the states that claim her by more than a thousand years.
The aboriginal nations of Australia can claim 40,000 years
This means nations endure beneath the boundaries of
states like bedrock as ephemeral state boundaries shift like
wind-blown sand over the surface. Latvia offers a modest
example of nation endurance. The Baltic nation lost its
independence to the Teutonic Knights in 1242, only to
recover it again 727 years later with the collapse of the
Soviet Union, the sixth occupying state. Albania presents a
more dramatic example since 2,537 years elapsed between
occupation by Greeks in 625BC and independence in 1912.
The observation that nations generally outlast states
does not explain state collapse but the endurance of old
nations and the pace of state breakups does suggest that
nation resistance to consolidation plays a role. To isolate
nationalism in single factor analysis is not very useful for
understanding state collapse. It also contributes to the
newspaper portrait of an "ethnic scourge" that destroys
states. In reality the assertion of national identity is
one of a complementary set of structural problems incurred
by the state in the process of annexing and occupying
1. Expansion encounters nation resistance (eg. Afghani
nations resisted Soviet occupation).
2. Occupied nations resist consolidation (eg.
Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization).
3. Expansion replaces cultures appropriate to the area
of occupation with one that evolved elsewhere and
is usually inappropriate (eg. European farming
techniques are a failure in Australian deserts and
4. Other states will resist a state's expansion for
reasons of security, trade, or similar claims (eg.
international resistance to Iraq's occupation of
5. The increased scale of territory under centralized
control can lead to colossal planning failures (eg.
failure of Soviet irrigation schemes that dried up
the Aral Sea).
6. Cultural genocide destroys knowledge of strategies
for coping with diverse environments (eg. libraries
of indigenous knowledge burning down with the
7. Expansionist states tend to breed cultures of
consumption that destroy resources at an exorbitant
rate (eg. the expansion of Americans across
depopulated American Indian lands bred a consumer
society with a belief in boundless natural
8. Excessive concentration of resources breeds
corruption that drains the state economically and
fosters perceptions of illegitimacy (eg. Mobutu's
These problems and others do not result from
nationalism but from state expansion. The geopolitical
antagonism between states and nations is a by-product of
this. States claim by occupation and seek out treaties with
other states to recognize the annexations. Older nations
persist with claims to their cultural homeland. When the
breaking point comes, many states fracture along the
boundaries of these old enduring nations. This is not
because nations prove to be more militarily powerful than
states but because expansion involves a variety of
synchronous problems that lead to break-up (synchronous
The collapse of the Soviet Union provides a case in
point. Nationalism converged with economic, environmental,
and social forces. From a core in Moscovy (Moscow) a series
of monarchs engaged in territorial expansion for state
maintenance. The Soviet Union from 1917 continued this
pattern of expansion. Ultimately the annexation of the
Baltic States in 1940 completed the basic outlines of a
state that claimed one-sixth of the earth's land area, and
embraced more than one-hundred nations. Resistance to
occupation persisted throughout all seventy-five years of
Soviet rule necessitating expensive internal policing,
crackdowns, and army occupations. Coupled with the costs of
the cold war (another form of expansion), environmental
breakdown (eg. Chernobyl cost 14% of the GNP in 1988),
economic breakdown owing to failed five year plans, and
social breakdown in the form of a failure of legitimacy,
small, poorly armed, nations were able to assert a powerful
geopolitical force. By 1991, the Soviet Union withdrew from
a ring of fifteen nations around the original Russian core,
that it could no longer afford to occupy. Nationalism,
then, was not the downfall of the Soviet Union but rather a
host of structural problems related to occupying nations.
This includes occupying recalcitrant nations.
If the process of expansion and consolidation are
faulty, the solution is unlikely to be more of the same.
Given the large numbers of Fourth World nations (6,000 to
9,000) and the frequency of state collapse, "nation-
building" by nation destroying seems to be a failure.
Nonetheless, it is the tactic most modern states continue to
follow. It dates from the Jacobin effort in 1789 to unite
more than a score of nations into a single state culture
with one revolutionary ideology and one language for sharing
it. After some two-hundred years of Frenchifying "France"
most of these old nations like Alsace, Lorraine, Brittany,
Burgundy, Provence and others endure in one form or another.
In fact, from 1982 France began an ongoing process of
devolving power to some 22 official regions corresponding to
There is evidence that break-up can be deferred with an
approach that awards substantial territorial autonomy to
Fourth World nations. This process differs from the ideology
of nation-building by recognizing that states and nations do
not have to be mutually exclusive polities. Identification
with the state as a legal conception (citizenship) or an
emotional one (patriotism) does not have to interfere with
the sense of belonging to a nation. Peace can be a dividend
from carefully distinguishing national and state territories
in such a way that problems pertaining to the national level
of sovereignty are handled there (cultural issues,
schooling, environment, etc.) while concerns affecting more
than one region (international trade, monetary policy,
defense) are taken care of at appropriate scales. Under
this principal, known as subsidiarity, there are middle tier
commissions that facilitate problems and plans that involve
any group of regions.
The post-modern state with this structure of autonomy
for nations and regions; and subsidiarity as policy, is
already evolving. Spain and Belgium's autonomous communities
and even Italy's South Tirol provide models. The entire
European Union is also studying the possibility of a Europe
of Regions including Fourth World nations, city-states, and
cultural regions that might cooperate on this basis. These
state-nation relationships represent a form of federation
that preserves the integrity of state boundaries, reduces
cultural conflicts, and by a process of devolution addresses
some of the problems created in the process of expansion.
The endurance of nations, the ephemeral nature of states,
and the general historic failure of assimilationist policies
indicates that some form of confederation or federation is
required to address the instability of the state structure
consequent to a history of state-building by nation
Dr. Richard Griggs
Environmental and Geographical Science
University of Cape Town
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