Vantage Point

The United States marks on July 4 its 244th year of independence. But is it a “failing” or even “failed” state? At least two distinguished US authors think so.

Derided as a Western concoction to justify intervention in the affairs of other countries, the theory of failed and failing states has defied both popular as well as scholarly validation.

Its main advocate is the Fragile States Index (formerly the Failed States Index) published by the US Fund for Peace, and until 2018, by the magazine Foreign Policy, a partisan of the US’ supposedly global responsibility of overseeing the conduct of governance everywhere.

The Index compiles a yearly list of states allegedly in varying conditions of deterioration, as well as a compilation of countries whose situation has supposedly worsened — implying thereby, so say critics, that they require US intervention and even regime change to set things right.

The same critics have questioned not only the Index’s methodology but also the philosophy behind it, which some have summed up as the presumption that the standards of governance of Western countries, particularly those of the US, are superior and should be universally applied.

Despite these issues, however, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Noam Chomsky, who is certainly no advocate of US intervention anywhere, has argued that failed states do exist, but that among them is — the US itself.

Chomsky defines a “failed state” as one unable “to provide security for its own people, guarantee rights at home or abroad, and maintain functioning democratic institutions.”

Supposedly the bearer of democratic values and freedom around the world, according to Chomsky the US is not only in economic decline with a growing army of unemployed and an uncaring and irresponsible political elite. Its own institutions are also suffering from a “democratic deficit,” with protests being met with intolerance and violence, and minority groups targeted by an increasingly brutal and racist police. Its rulers have ignored both domestic and international laws, and adopted policies that endanger their own citizens and the rest of the world.

Chomsky was saying these as early as 2006 in his book Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy — 10 years before Donald Trump became US President, and 14 years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both those events now seem to validate Chomsky’s views. Writing in the June 2020 issue of the US liberal magazine The Atlantic, the journalist and author George Packer doesn’t say so, but his essay “Underlying Conditions” appears in the online edition of the magazine under the title “We [Americans] Are Living in a Failed State.”

Packer points out that the pandemic exposed how severe are “the chronic ills” of US society, among them “a corrupt political class, a sclerotic (unresponsive) bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public.”

The COVID-19 crisis demanded a “swift, rational and collective” response, but the US acted like a Third World country with a “dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or too stupid to head off mass suffering.” Under the flawed leadership of Donald Trump, the Federal government has “no national plan” to deal with the contagion and “families, schools and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter.”

Trump “saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms” — as crucial to his reelection to a second term. He “pitted [Americans] against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region and political party.” He further divided an already divided country, while his incompetence led to the US’ having the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (over two million) and the highest number of deaths (a hundred thousand plus) from the infection.

The details Packer unfolds are reminders of what has happened in the country of Filipino afflictions. Like the Trump administration, the Duterte regime also squandered two precious months before taking any semblance of action to stop the spread of the disease, with the initial three cases spiraling to hundreds within days. Despite the continuing quarantine protocols in the entire country, the number of COVID-19 cases had breached 34,000 by the week of June 20-26. If the calculations of the University of the Philippines Institute of Mathematics are correct — and they have been in the past — that number was already approaching 40,000 as the month ended last Tuesday.

The number of deaths from the contagion, although lower than the number of recoveries, is also rising as a consequence. But in another illustration of the chaos generated by the absence, as in the US, of a national plan, neither has prevented the Department of Health (DoH) and Malacañang from claiming that things are actually getting better on the pandemic front.

In unwitting contradiction of these rosy declarations of DoH and Palace spokespersons, President Rodrigo Duterte sent to Cebu Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu — whom he named to his present post in 2017 for no other reason than his military background — as a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on COVID-19 to oversee the enforcement of quarantine protocols there.

The number of cases is surging so alarmingly in that city that it is still under near-total lockdown, and is contributing to the Philippines’ being the leading country in the Asia-Pacific region in the rate of increase of COVID-19 infections in it.

Although almost the entire country is under various forms of quarantine, in patent betrayal of its skewed sense of priorities the national government is using public concern over the pandemic to mask its campaign for the unconstitutional Anti-Terror Bill. It mobilized the police to urge local chief executives to sign on to a “manifesto,” and falsely claimed overwhelming LGU support for it, while protesters against it were arrested, detained, and charged with “illegal assembly” in violation of the Bill of Rights.

One of the most severely affected sectors by the lockdown, some jeepney drivers have been reduced to beggary. But they’re subject to arrest and detention if they protest government indifference to their woes, as the regime exploits the crisis to phase out “traditional jeepneys” and implement its “jeepney modernization” plan that will add more unemployed to the four million workers who have already lost their jobs.

These are only two of the many instances indicative of the skewed priorities, cluelessness, insensitivity and sheer inhumanity of the Philippine state. The same state is listed among those on the planet whose situation, says the Fragile States Index, has been deteriorating since 2016, and has further worsened in 2020. That listing should be no excuse for foreign intervention, whether Chinese, American, or whatever. But as problematic as the failed and failing state concept may be, that evaluation of the state of this country does seem as accurate as Packer’s and Chomsky’s view of the US.

The question is, what then? Can anything be done? Or, as Packer noted about the US before the twin maladies of Trump and COVID-19 struck that country, is the only option to live with such endemic ills as corruption and ineptitude and to grin and bear it?

Filipinos would do well to consider the dangers of doing so to their lives and the future of their equally ailing country. Despite the siren song of jobs and immigration abroad, it is still the only country they will ever have, and only they can rescue it from the contagions of tyranny and incompetence that are destroying it.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).