SELDOM since the end of World War II have so many countries of the world seemed so broken down. From starving Muslims in Serbian prisons to starving Somalis in Baidoa, from Haitian boat people to Liberian refugees, evidence abounds of what some experts judge a disturbing new trend: bankrupt states unable to function as nations.
Somalia is the worst case at the moment, but it could be a model for things to come. Over the next three years, there are at least four other nations - two in Africa, two in Asia - that could fall apart as completely as Somalia has since the overthrow of dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, says Andrew Natsios, assistant administrator for food and humanitarian assistance at the United States Agency for International Development.
Mr. Natsios declined to name the countries, but it is not hard to draw up a short list. In Zaire, an unpopular dictator is barely clinging to power. In Sudan, civil war has split the country. In Cambodia, the infamous Khmer Rouge is balking at further participation in a United Nations-brokered disarmament and peace process. In Afghanistan, a bitter civil war continues despite the withdrawal of the forces of the old Soviet regime.
"I am nervous that all the criteria present at the collapse of the Barre regime in Somalia are present in a number of other places," Natsios told a small group of reporters last week.
An article in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine argues that "failed nation-states" are a matter of major concern for the entire international community. The co-authors - Gerald Helman, a retired State Department official, and Steven Ratner, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - point out that the Somalias of the world threaten not only their own citizens but their neighbors as well, because they promote refugee flows, wars, and general instability.
The handful of nations already teetering on the brink of insolvency are not the only problem. There is also a much larger secondary tier of nations under stress - including a number of former Soviet republics - whose long-term existence is by no means certain. "It is becoming clear that something must be done," Messrs. Helman and Ratner write.
They propose a more "systematic and intrusive" approach by existing international institutions. For the most part, that means the UN. "Conservatorship" is the basic model. In other words, the UN would become a sort of guardian for failed states. Helman and Ratner lay out three levels of involvement:
* UN assistance in the work of governing for states such as the Republic of Georgia that are battered but still standing.
* UN conservators assuming some governmental responsibilities in semi-states such as Cambodia
* And out-and-out trusteeship for countries whose governments no longer exist, such as Somalia.
There have been nations under UN trusteeship in the past, of course, but they tended to be micro-states, such as South Pacific islands making the transition from colonial rule to independent statehood. Until now, respect for national sovereignty has kept the world community from interfering with the affairs of larger, more established nations.
But the concept of sovereignty has been eroding in recent years - in part because such financial agencies as the International Monetary Fund often meddle in a country's affairs as the price of aid.
"Notions of sovereignty are changing," Helman and Ratner insist.
Whether current UN members would be willing to come up with the cash needed for running indigent nations around the world is another question. The UN is already hard pressed for contributions to its current effort in Cambodia, projected to cost more than $1.5 billion over two years.
Care would also have to be taken to ensure that rescue efforts do not degenerate into the international equivalent of a welfare system for poor nations.
The sheer proliferation of nations, which has accelerated since the breakup of the Soviet Union, might also have to be addressed by the world community as a method of heading off failures in the future. Many of the states in trouble today have their roots in the last great expansion of nations, after World War II, when self-determination perhaps received more emphasis than viability.
"It would be mistaken to believe that every people in, say, the Balkans or the former Soviet Union that wants to should have a nation," says F. Stephen Larrabee, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation "You'd have interminable turmoil."