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Venezuela’s recent political and economic crisis has grabbed headlines around the world as it has escalated from food shortages to violent riots to helicopters dropping grenades on the nation’s supreme court. Recently, Foreign Affairs cautioned that the country is on the verge of becoming a failed state.

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There have been numerous attempts by third parties to step in. Neighboring countries have spoken up against the government’s actions. The Union of South American Republics tried to actively mediate. Even the Vatican intervened. None have had the desired effect.

Outside intervention isn’t solely altruistic, but built on the idea that the fallout of a failed state has ramifications beyond its national borders. Foreign Policy writers Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner warned in 1992:

The demise of a state is often marked by violence and widespread human rights violations that affect other states. Civil strife, the breakdown of food and health systems, and economic collapse force refugees to flee to adjacent countries. Neighboring states may also be burdened with illicit arms traffic, solidarity activities by related ethnic groups, and armed bands seeking to establish a safe haven.

States have vested interests, then, in joining regional and international bodies tasked with the upkeep of their fellow countries.

Many experts agree a coordinated effort is useless unless it’s targeted. As powerful as these states may be individually, a misguided effort can mean they make little difference, if any. Over the last few years, financial and political contributions have often fallen flat, especially in countries where the failing state has passed a point of no return, in other words, countries like Venezuela. Foreign Policy is dubious about placing too much faith in softer interventions: “those methods have met with scant success in failing states, and they will prove wholly inadequate in those that have collapsed.”

While there are a rainbow of philosophies and suggestions on the ethics and effectiveness of international interference, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs agree that efforts which do not deal directly with the government, and do not dare to carry out real consequences, are of little use. Writes Christopher Sabatini, “Outside actors must threaten to impose costs for noncompliance—sanctions, for example—or promise to provide benefits for compliance, such as financial aid or improved diplomatic relations.”

So far, other countries in the region have been reluctant to get too entangled in the Venezuelan crisis, in part because of culture and in part because of historical ties. Venezuela is symptomatic of a larger problem that we’re witnessing across the world with Syria, Libya and more to come. As Helman and Ratner prophesied: 

Failing states promise to become a familiar facet of international life. They will necessarily exact heavy tolls on their own people and on all countries… The real challenge to U.N. members is to address the problem directly, by creating a conceptual and juridical basis for dealing with failed states as a special category, and by forming institutions to succor them. The international community needs a cost-effective way to respond to growing national instability and human misery.


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Foreign Policy, No. 89 (Winter, 1992-1993), pp. 3-20
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