Washington, 26 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the discussion in Western capitals about how the outside world should respond to Moscow's economic and political difficulties has been cast in terms of the proposition that Russia must not be allowed to "fail."
Russia, the argument runs, is simply too large, too important, and too well-armed with nuclear weapons for the West to avoid trying to save it.
But even if most such claims are primarily rhetorical devices intended to force Western institutions to act, they nonetheless call attention to three important characteristics about the nature of states and of the international system as a whole.
First of all, states do in fact fail. That is, their political systems simply collapse and are no longer able to organize or protect the life of the population on the territory they are supposed to control.
Scholars have pointed out that countries like Somalia and the Congo may now fall in the category of "failed states," in that neither has an effective central government. And historians have frequently noted that the German state "failed" in the wake of its defeat in World War I.
Consequently, suggestions that states including large and powerful ones can in fact fail or even "die" are not necessarily wrong, even if in any particular case, they may be overstated.
Second, the international community cannot be indifferent to such failures but has only a limited ability to help states recover.
Both because the international community is based on sovereign states rather than on some broader or narrower set of institutions and because failed states often present a threat to themselves and to others, the international community cannot ignore failed or even failing states.
When state institutions simply collapse or even cease to be effective in key areas, neither other states nor international institutions like the United Nations or the World Bank have anyone to talk to who can effectively implement anything that the latter commit themselves to.
But in such circumstances, these outside actors regardless of how generous they may be willing to be typically find that they can play only a marginal role in helping the failed state to recover.
The chief responsibility for doing that invariably lies on the people and institutions of the failed state itself. And these individuals and institutions must do so precisely at a time when by definition they are extremely weak and lack the kind of resources necessary for the task.
And third, failed states in almost every case face a long and difficult road back, one that few have successfully traversed using democratic means alone.
Indeed, the very divisions within society that democratic forms inevitably reflect and even magnify can, when state institutions are extremely weak, make it more rather than less difficult for the state to recover. And that is especially likely when the decay of the state is accompanied by the collapse of the economy as well.
As a result, most failed states have tended to recover as the result of the appearance of a charismatic leader who will then translate his personal authority into something larger, through the articulation of a national ideology that justifies rebuilding the state, or sometimes through military action that generates patriotic feelings.
But given the risks that such traditional means of rebuilding state authority now entail, the international community is faced with the task of identifying a way to help countries avoid failing or recovering if they have by democratic and peaceful means.
That will be not be easy, but the problems of not finding such a way may prove to be even more of a challenge in the future.