November PF Topic Analysis

October 01 2009 by Stefan Bauschard

Tags: public forum, failed states, failed nations,

October Analysis  October Release  2010 PF Institute

First Draft 10/2/9

Resolved: Failed nations are a greater threat to the United States than stable nations.

The November Public Forum resolution asks whether or not U.S. security is more greatly enhanced by the collapse of other governments or stable governments.

This resolution has three things going in its favor:

1)    It introduces an interesting foreign policy question – the ramifications of failed states;
2)    Again, it makes counterplans irrelevant because it is advocates are forced to choose between stable states and failed states;
3)    It focuses the debate about failed states to questions of U.S. security.

That said, this topic has a couple of problems.

First, and insignificantly, it doesn’t user the proper term of art – in the literature “failed nations” are referred to as failed states.  This isn’t a big deal, but when researching you should use the keywords “failed states” rather than “failed nations.”  Here are two definitions of failed states:

Disaster Dictionary

failed state
A dysfunctional state which also has multiple competing political factions in conflict within its borders or has no functioning governance above the local level. This does not imply that a central government facing an insurgency is automatically a failed state. If essential functions of government continue in areas controlled by the central authority, it has not “failed.” An example of a failed state is Somalia.


The term failed state is often used by political commentators and journalists to describe a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. In order to make this definition more precise, the following attributes, proposed by the Fund for Peace, are often used to characterize a failed state:

Common characteristics of a failing state include a central government so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory; non-provision of public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations; and sharp economic decline [1].

Second, and most problematically, I don’t think that the negative side of the debate is defensible. Think about it: Negatives have to argue that it would be better for U.S. security if governments around the world COLLAPSE!   As noted on, there are basically no negative arguments.

When governments collapse, the entire legal, economic, and security structure goes with it.  There is complete lawlessness in the area formerly controlled by a collapsed government, making all of the following true:

-    There is no authority that exists to prevent terrorists from establishing safe havens in the country
-    There is no authority to prevent drug dealers from establishing sophisticated trafficking networks
-    There is no authority to prevent  organized crime syndicates from running sex trafficking rings in and out of the country
-    There is no authority to safeguard the countries weapons, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons
-    There is no authority to prevent massive resource extraction that threatens the environment.
-    State collapse generally triggers massive refugee flows as individuals

Keith Porter, Director of Policy and Outreach at the Stanley Foundation, writes in the October 2009 issue of the Rostrum:

Today, these so-called "fragile states" are seen as a major contributor to (or even the cause of) many global challenges including trafficking of all sorts, piracy, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, disease pandemics, regional tensions, even genocide and more. "In recent years, ti seems we've had more security problems from states that have been in trouble than we have from strong states that have been an adversary to us in the traditional way," U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in February and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flouroy recently wrote, "Conflict in the 21st century is at least as likely to result from problems associated with state weakness than from state strength." In other words, the world's weakest nations can pose the greatest global security threats. Therefore, promoting stronger states and preventing actions that will destabilize more countries ahs become a key focus of policy analysts and policymakers alike (p. 29).

How could this possibly be good for U.S. security?   I feel the need to emphasize here that the negative has to defend THE TOTAL COLLAPSE OF STATES, not the weakening of the governments or a change in the government ( a coup), but A COMPLETE STATE COLLLAPSE – ANARCHY!  Wikipedia notes:

The Crisis States Research Centre defines a “failed state” as a condition of “state collapse” – i.e., a state that can no longer perform its basic security and development functions and that has no effective control over its territory and borders. A failed state is one that can no longer reproduce the conditions for its own existence. This term is used in very contradictory ways in the policy community (for instance, there is a tendency to label a “poorly performing” state as “failed” – a tendency the Crisis States Research Centre rejects). The opposite of a “failed state” is an “enduring state” and the absolute dividing line between these two conditions is difficult to ascertain at the margins. Even in a failed state, some elements of the state, such as local state organisations, might continue to exist.

On balance, failed states are far worse for U.S. security than stable states:

The Gazette (Montreal), April 15, 2009, p. A17

But at least the Soviets were a known adversary, and a predictable one. And after both sides went to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Kennedy negotiated the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, the signal achievement of his presidency, unmatched until the Reagan-Gorbachev arms reduction accords of the late 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War signaled what the first George Bush called "the new world order." It could also be called the Pax Americana, with a lone dominant superpower, and it lasted only a decade, from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. This is the situation Obama inherited from the second George Bush, a world where conventional military forces are tormented by terrorists, insurgents and even pirates. Obama's morning briefing isn't about the challenge posed by a known state actor, the Soviets, but failed states and rogue states, a highly combustible and unpredictable mix. The failed states include Somalia, home to the pirates terrorizing maritime commerce along the east coast of Africa; Afghanistan, where the U.S., Canada and NATO are bedeviled by an intensifying Taliban insurgency; and in our own hemisphere, Haiti, a tragically broken nation in which Canada has interests as obvious as the concerns of our governor-general for the fate of her mother country.


Third, there is no context in the resolution.  Perhaps the negative could argue that if a government was about to declare war on the United States it would be better for U.S. security if that government collapse, but there is no discussion of particulars in the resolution.  Currently, it is difficult to imagine how the collapse of any current state would be good for the United States.

Fourth,  a problem for both sides – what is a “stable state.” This is not a term of art, making it incredibly difficult to research.

So, what is the negative to do? It’s not like you can flip affirmative in every debate.  

Here are a couple of ideas:

One, identify states that are a threat to the U.S., perhaps Russia and China, maybe Iran and North Korea, and argue it would be good if those states ceased to exist. This is a radical claim because the collapse of any of those states would produce huge threats to the U.S., but you can try it.

Two,  you can defend international anarchy – the complete absence of states.  Even then, this is somewhat odd because you have to defend international security – so you’d have to argue for a world in which only the U.S. had a “stable state” and the rest of the world lived in anarchy with no laws – how that could be good for security is beyond me.

Comparative Resolutions

While I'm generally in favor of comparative resolutions in Public Forum debate since they eliminate the possibility of a counterplan, I think it is unwise to essentially force comparative resolutions where they don't work.  This November resolution is a great example -- it is basically impossible to produce good arguments that it is good for states to fail.

If the writers of the resolutions think it is essential to eliminate the possibility of a counterplan but they cannot find an appropriate resolution, they could write the resolution to let the affirmative defend something as "a solution."  For example, a better resolution for November would be:

Resolved: Nation-building is an effective strategy to prevent state collapse.

A counterplan doesn't deny that nation-building can be "an" effective strategy, and nation building is very controversial so both sides have good arguments.

Finally, it is worth noting that counterplans aren't the work of the devil. It is simply not necessary to avoid them at all costs. In the "real world" people present counterplans -- alternative solutions to the problem -- all of the time. Allowing counterplans from time to time would be far superior to having resolutions where there are only good arguments for one side.

Research Support

Crisis States research Center

Institute for State Effectiveness

Failed States Index


Why Focus on Failed States?

Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire

Failed States Present Dangers to the International Community

Counter-terrorism in African Failed States

Pirates, Terrorism, and Failed States

World Order, Failed States, and Terrorism

Noam Chomsky on "Failed States"

Failed States and Flawed Logic

Afterword: Failed States

Global Economic Crisis and Failed States

Noam Chomsky's Failed States

Mexico's Failed State Threats

Failed States, Dubious Rankings

Failed States, or the State as Failure?

Failed States: A Global Impact








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