Across the globe, we are witnessing unprecedented volatility in the nation-state system. Failing or failed states are not new to the international landscape, but the nature of their failure today is new. Unlike past eras, geopolitical conflict and economic shock are not the primary drivers. These are now amplifiers of trends already embedded within the system.

Today, one of the leading drivers causing instability among the nations is coming from below and within. Internal division and the ascent of deeply entrenched factions paralyze state systems even while pandemics, lockdowns, geo-political conflicts, and economic crisis worsen the environment in which they are arising. In other words, as the press of chaos increases the urgent demand for national and international response, leaders and governing systems find their hands tied due to entrenched domestic divisions.

Occasionally this level of factional division bursts into prominent view, such as during the insurrections in Washington DC in 2021 or in Brazil last month. At other times, it sits just below the surface but relentlessly present among domestic populations.

National elections are increasingly split down the middle, one group against the other. In recent years, more election victories are going to autocratic and right-wing nationalists than in the past, but even when they lose, near victories by authoritarians at the polls signal widespread support and division within their country. In a November 2021 article in the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum noted that the 20th century was a steady victory of liberal democracy. The opposite is happening in the 21st century. Authoritarians and their frustrated constituencies are on the rise.

No matter if the autocratic or the moderate candidates win at the polls, the split societies and constituencies they govern render them nearly powerless (– unless they use force which then leads to new issues). Frustrated and divided societies stop democratic systems from properly operating. The chaos is not adequately confronted. Problems worsen. Factions blame the other side. The states slide closer to the edge. The world and the nation-state system move from worse to worse.

In the extreme, these situations are manifested in the form of failed states. I contend our current measurements of a failed state do not adequately address the paralyzed reality of the global nation-state system. A people whose government cannot address the problems upon which they depend due to factionalized paralysis exists in as much a status of state failure as the government prevented from doing so due to limited power and systemic control from external factors.

What Is A Failed State

Put simply, a failed state is one in which the government can no longer carry out the basic functions a society depends upon from its government. This includes defense, social policy, and other high-level items but also basic components such as sanitation, job creation, healthcare, and more. When a state is failing, criminal and insurgent elements often rise to fill the vacuum left by the failing government. This usually accelerates the failed state’s predicament, increasing violence, chaos, and instability not only for the citizen of the failing state but also for regional neighbors.

failed state Haiti

In Haiti today, the nation has existed without a president for 18 months since the assassination of Jovenal Moise. Gang warfare is now dominating the cities. The last Senators within the national government saw their terms expire last month with no realistic plans for a new national election. Haiti is in failed state mode, and divided factions within its society are holding the nation there. No single leader or faction is strong enough to take the helm of leadership and lead the country to stability. In that vacuum, gangs are taking over social functions – usually with great violence.

A failed or failing state is ripe for civil war, coup, and persistent violence, leading to greater upheaval until it is brought under control. Because such control, by definition, cannot be employed by the government, a new party, whether it be military, insurgents, or external powers, usually intervenes to take control of the state, restore the government in a new image, and resolve the drive toward failed state status. The nature of which party intervenes in such a situation dramatically impacts the people living within the failed state.

Egyptian economy failed state

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently instituted another level of austerity measures in Egypt, where inflation soared over the last year. These measures will economically cripple many aspects of Egyptian society to maintain the criteria of IMF aid eligibility. In that scenario, the (already authoritarian) Egyptian ruler is being supplanted by an external actor whose policies and intervention will worsen situations for many average Egyptians. Such a picture may not fit the traditional status of a coup or civil war, but it increases grievances and factionalization and escalates the problems without a solution.

In recent years, the severity of failed states has escalated rapidly. Even while the number of failed states remained relatively consistent, the nature of failure in many regions of the world is intensifying. The trends within failing states are intensifying. The crises brought on by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns made things worse, and rather than turning back the trends of failure – they are escalating.

The Fund for Peace releases its annual Failed State Index, documenting the state of the world for the prior year each summer. The FFP uses a variety of metrics to measure the health of more than 170 nations and issues that might contribute toward state failure. The index tracks states that are worsening in their stability status and those that are improving. One consistent trend within the FFP Failed Stated Index is the escalation of group grievances. This indicator that contributes to state failure “focuses on divisions and schisms between different groups in society – particularly divisions based on social or political characteristics – and their role in access to services or resources, and inclusion in the political process.” On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the most stable and 10 being failed state status, the number of nations that scored at eight or above on the group grievances indicator has risen consistently over the last decade. Since 2006, 25% more countries are registering extreme danger from group grievance status.

The nature of politics, economics, and society at large is contributing to a worldwide trend of group grievances. Existential realities in the global north and south are contributing to a sense that the state supported realities are turning against some groups for the benefit of others.

failed states and group grievances
The factor of group grievances driving failed states has risen 25% since 2006.

In the 2022 Failed States Index, the FPP marked Yemen, Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (tied with South Sudan), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the five failed states in the worst situation. Each of these nations scored above an eight on the group grievances scale. This data covered 2021, as the world was coming out of pandemic lockdowns, and many hoped situations would improve. They haven’t!

Sri Lanka failed state

In Sri Lanka, (ranked 56th in the 2022 Failed State Index), the Prime Minister told the military to do whatever was necessary to maintain order last summer as the country faced economic collapse. Citizens experienced food, fuel, and energy shortages alongside rapid price increases. Schools closed and the government asked people to work from home instead of straining the system further with travel to and from work. Ethnic and religious polarization brought Sri Lanka to this abyss, even in the aftermath of a civil war driven by these same factors. It is not really a question of if an autocrat should lead the country, but more, what other options are there? The nation is too divided to be led otherwise, but authoritarian regimes do little better. They usually open the door to humanitarian crises and chaos that further worsens the problems.

These same trends of polarized nations hurtling toward the abyss of state failure status are recognizable across the globe. Many of the countries mentioned on such a list may not surprise readers. Myanmar. Mozambique. Iraq. Venezuela. Egypt. But while the chaos may appear less dramatic recent years have seen the same uptick in gridlocked polarization and worsening disorder in nations like the US, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and others. We are experiencing a global phenomenon with little reason to hope for improvement in the near future.

failed state

The most important trend to watch in our post-pandemic world order is not merely economic and geo-political status. It is the rise of factions and group grievances. These factors, represented in the form of opportunistic military and political leaders, drive greater wedges into the divides of the citizenry. They leverage fear and frustration for their benefit but only worsen situations.  

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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at