Its credit rating downgraded (in August 2011 by Standard and Poor's), its politicians deadlocked in a bipartisan danse macabre, it middle-class impoverished, its hordes of long-term unemployed a fixture. It has been called a rogue state, a colonialist-imperialist throwback, the puppet of Zionism. But, is the United States of America a failed state?
The US State Department's designation of "rogue state" periodically falls in and out of favour. It is used to refer to countries hostile to the United States, with authoritarian, brutal, and venal regimes, and a predilection to ignore international law and conventions, encourage global or local terrorism and the manufacture and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Most rogue states are not failed ones.
An "immature state" is a polity whose elites are dysfunctional, venal, and narcissistic; whose economy is not viable, frequently dependent on handouts; and whose coherence is threatened by a lack of social consensus. Immature states typically lack political traditions, change agents, goal-oriented bureaucracies, and institutional memory. Consequently, the denizens of immature states are often xenophobic and insular.
A "failed economy" fails to attract foreign direct investment. It is characterized by kleptocratic governments and rampant corruption, increased geopolitical risk, and lack of modern infrastructure. It features all-pervasive failure of institutions; lack of commitment to true reforms; absence of a functioning private sector; problematic mentality (laziness, passive-aggressiveness, pathological and destructive envy; xenophobia, resistance to learning, etc.); a low-level of research-and-development and innovation; an antiquated and dysfunctional education system; and primitive banking system and capital markets. While not failed states in the political and full-fledged sense of the word, "failed economies" come in a close second.
A "failed state" is a country whose government has no control and cannot exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a substantial part of its territory or citizenry. It is continuously and successfully challenged by private military power: terrorists, warlords, or militias. Its promulgations and laws are futile and inapplicable.
With the exception of the first criterion (hostility towards Pax Americana), some scholars claim that the USA is, itself, a rogue state (q.v., for instance, William Blum's "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower" and "Rogue Nation" by Clyde Prestowitz).
Admittedly, the USA's unilateralist, thuggish and capricious foreign policy represents a constant threat to world peace and stability. But labelling the USA a "rogue state" may be overdoing it. It better fits the profile of a semi-failed state.
A semi-failed state is a country whose government maintains all the trappings and appearances of power, legitimacy and control. Its army and police are integral and operative. Its institutions function. Its government and parliament promulgate laws and its courts enforce them. It is not challenged by any competing military structures within its recognized borders.
Yet, the semi-failed state - while going through the motions - is dead on its feet. It is a political and societal zombie. It functions due mainly to inertia and lack of better or clear alternatives. Its population is disgruntled, hostile and suspicious. Other countries regard it with derision, fear and abhorrence. It is rotting from the inside and doomed to implode.
In a semi-failed state, high crime rates and rampant venality, nepotism and cronyism affect the government's ability to enforce laws and implement programs. It reacts by adding layers of intransigent and opaque bureaucracy to an already unwieldy mammoth. The institutions of the semi-failed state are hopelessly politicized and, thus, biased, distrusted and compromised. Its judiciary is in a state of decrepit decline as unqualified beneficiaries of patronage join the ranks.
The result is social fragmentation as traditional and local leaders, backed by angry and rebellious constituents, take matters into their own hands. Centrifugal politics supplant statehood and the nation is unable to justly and effectively balance the competing claims of the center versus the periphery.
The utter (but insidious) institutional failure that typifies the semi-failed state is usually exposed with the total disarray that follows an emergency (such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack).