Representatives of the Syrian regime and rebel groups currently meeting in Geneva face an arduous task: ending a bloody civil war that has lasted three years, cost 130,000 lives, displaced nearly 9 million people and turned a developed, middle-income state into a failed one. Syria's problems — ethnic and sectarian tensions, weak institutions and little rule of law — aren't uncommon in the international arena. What is common among failed states is the international community's inability to effectively deal with them. According to the 2013 Failed State Index, there are 35 states that have already failed or are in serious danger of failing.
State failures rarely occur in a vacuum; they can destabilize entire regions, as Syria has already done. Some on the right and the left argue that military intervention is the best way to hasten a peaceful political solution and restoration of order. Perhaps they are correct, but only in the short-term; even if a political solution is found, it would be built upon an unsteady foundation of poor civilian institutions. Fixing failed states involves a long-term effort to help them build better, more inclusive institutions. Otherwise, a political solution will only prolong the inevitable.
While helping states end conflicts and restore political order is a vital first step, it is still just a first step. American policymakers tend to assume that a "transitional government" necessarily entails forward progress. That assumption needs to change. What happens with the bureaucracy is far more important than what happens at the ballot-box.
After all, countries that emerged from colonial rule or post-conflict situations were able to establish political order early on, but did not truly become stable until they moved from extractive political and economic institutions, which are designed to benefit a ruling elite, to more inclusive institutions, which are designed to benefit the entire populace. Extractive public institutions are designed to exploit natural resources and are the legacy of colonial rule, as was the case in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 75 percent of failed or failing states are found. In these states, the group — often a particular ethnic or religious group — that is in power has an incentive to maintain that structure, enriching themselves without focusing on ensuring rule of law, market reforms or good governance. Extractive economic institutions create an entrenched elite at the expense of the masses. Power can shift to different groups without any change in the underlying bureaucracy, as it has in Egypt, Syria and other countries.
States lauded as successes today, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey, were able to restore political order early on, but took decades to establish inclusive institutions. Turkey, for example, replaced the tottering Ottoman state with the strong, centralized state built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and brought order to postwar strife. Such strength, however, masked a weak foundation. State institutions and bureaucracy went straight from Ottoman control to Ataturk's party. The result was popular discontent and several coups, until political institutions became more inclusive and the economic playing field became more level. Consequently, while Turkey still faces problems today, they are not the problems of a failed state.
Of course, if this process takes decades, what can American policymakers possibly do? Critics argue that political stabilization is imperative, and that transforming state institutions too quickly is dangerous. The prime example is the swift de-Baathification of Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that left the fledgling state with few functioning institutions.
Order and stability are important; however, assistance in building better institutions can ensure that states do not fail again. The U.S. already has an array of tools at its disposal for this purpose. The National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and the State Department all have programs dedicated to increasing rule of law and institutional reform.
Many failed states have had several different political transitions that re-established order, but the fact that this happens several times shows that the underlying foundation is unstable. Syria, for instance, went from Ottoman, to French, to nationalist , to Ba'ath Party and finally to Assad family rule, but its economic institutions continued to benefit the elite few. American and European policymakers need to look beyond political negotiations and transitions, and help post-conflict and failed states design inclusive and lasting institutions. Otherwise, we will have more peace conferences, but little peace, for decades to come.
Faris Alikhan is a national security fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter: @FarisAlikhan1