From ‘Failed States’ to ‘States of Fragility’: Logic of Conceptual Acrobatics

From ‘Failed States’ to ‘States of Fragility’:
Logic of Conceptual Acrobatics

Bartenev V.I.,

Cand. Sci. (Hist.), Associate Professor, Department of International Organizations and World Political Processes, Director of Center for Security and Development Studies, School of World Politics, Lomonosov Moscow State University,

elibrary_id: 627475 | ORCID: 0000-0001-9804-0630 | RESEARCHER_ID: O-1421-2016

DOI: 10.17976/jpps/2017.02.03

For citation:

Bartenev V.I. From ‘Failed States’ to ‘States of Fragility’: Logic of Conceptual Acrobatics. – Polis. Political Studies. 2017. No. 2. P. 26-41. (In Russ.).


This paper tracks the evolution and interactions of Western policy and academic discourses on statehood. With help of scientometrics it demonstrates that dynamics and trajectory of conceptualization of these terms were first framed by the end of the Cold War and later by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. However, the adoption of the first doctrinal documents on international engagement in fragile states in 2005 substantially altered the discourse. Instrumentalization of the ‘fragile state’ concept made it subject to a rigorous critique that revealed several drawbacks – political bias, normativity, state-centrism etc. Seeking to mitigate these limitations, scholars, experts and policymakers switched attention from ‘fragile states’ to ‘states of fragility’, elaborated multi-dimensional typology of fragility and borrowed the ‘resilience’ concept and a number of related terms from the theory of complex adaptive systems. These changes – influenced partly by geopolitical shifts – might help abandon outdated reductionist interpretations of state failure and de-dogmatize the discourse. Use of such concepts as ‘resilience’, ‘stability’, ‘external disruptions’, ‘risks’ favors a holistic approach to political systems which will take into account their complex interactions with the international system and the environment. However, it seems highly probable that the new concept might suffer from the same drawbacks, such as ambivalence. To avoid this risk, scholars will have to develop new techniques of measuring resilience of social systems to various kinds of disruptions, which, in turn, might help build efficient systems of early warning. 

statehood; failed states; fragile states; state-building; states of fragility; resilience; security development nexus.


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