Kimberley Brown: Failed States, Global Security, and the Case of Tunisia

We welcome a guest post today from Kimberley Brown, coauthor (with Shawn Smallman) of Introduction to International and Global Studies. Their new book is a thematic introduction to the intellectual and structural underpinnings of globalization. In this post, Brown considers recent events in Tunisia in the context of how Americans are used to thinking about threats to global security.–ellen

Students of international/global studies are routinely introduced to the historical significance of nation states. This happens even as the power of a globalized economy pushes people out of their homelands to work in new spaces. In addition, social networks redefine boundaries and substitute virtual space for geographic space.  Do we need to fear globalization or to fear instability within countries and regions?  Is it the failed states that most induce fear among us?  Somalia, Chad, Iraq, and Pakistan rank among the top ten, according to the most recent Failed States Index available from the Foreign Policy website.

For many Americans, though, a sense of safety and security comes not from the lack of large-scale domestic terrorism here, but rather from a sense that we are personally secure—access to safe food and water, access to justice in our court system, and freedom to use electronic media with minimal intrusion from the government. These markers of human security are more important to me than markers of military prowess.  Perhaps this is because I am not worried about Huntington’s famous “clash of civilizations.”  I am more worried about our abilities within the United States to be civil to one another and to tolerate diverse opinions and diverse beliefs.

Where are failed state hot spots and how will 2011 differ from 2010? We see recent instability in Pakistan, the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, and the flight into exile of Tunisia’s president following a grassroots social media campaign urging his ouster. Of these three countries, only two rank in the top 15 Failed States:  Pakistan (#10) and Haiti (#11).  Tunisia is listed all the way down at #118.  Its neighbors Algeria (#71), Morocco (#91), and Libya (#111) rank nowhere near the top fifteen, yet the international press has been asking whether a potential domino effect could occur.

Tunisia’s president recently fled to Saudi Arabia during what is being touted as the relatively bloodless “Jasmine Revolution” in his home country.  Tunisia is not a failed state—yet.  Markers such as levels of education and foreign investment are quite stable. However, sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh at the University of Pittsburgh reminds us that Tunisia has indeed been a state that has severely restricted Internet access.  Thus while the press lauds the power of Facebook, it may have been the power of mobile phones that was the real social network.  Bamyeh states that Tunisia placed “third among the most dangerous countries in the world from which to blog,” and according to the OpenNet Initiative was “the most hostile Arab regime to Internet freedom” (email, 16 January 2011).

We must hope that Tunisia’s neighbors do not become failed states. Geographically, North Africa has not recently posed security threats to the U.S.  For this reason, Americans are unaccustomed to reading about Tunisia in our press—at least not on the first five pages of the front section of papers other than The New York Times and The Washington Post. Yet we are part of the global world—our individual security needs both as a nation and as individuals do not relieve us from seeking information about areas that do not seem to be in imminent danger of failure.

Kimberley BrownKimberley Brown is professor of applied linguistics and international studies at Portland State University and coauthor of Introduction to International and Global Studies. Information about the book, including an instructor’s manual and supplementary chapter, are available at