The Breakdown of States

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 defence).


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 
     of history. 

          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 
            Brazilian rainforests). 

         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 
     geopolitical factors). 

          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 
     old nations. 

          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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