Fixing Failing States

More than the independence of East Timor was celebrated yesterday with fireworks and the attendance of such figures as Bill Clinton. It was also a marker of progress in assisting people everywhere to create new nations or governments out of dismal conditions.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the international community has become steadily bolder in efforts not to let any place sink into chaos, killing, or starvation.

The idea of the UN or a coalition of well-meaning nations never intervening or interfering in a foreign land seems, well, so pre-"the end of history" (before the triumph of democratic market ideals following the cold war).

Now, the flexing of diplomatic, military, or financial muscle is almost instinctive – especially after the US learned the hard way on 9/11 that it can't let failing states become launching pads for terrorism. President Bush has since promised a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan to help bring about stable rule, education for all, a cohesive army, and steady prosperity.

East Timor, of course, was not a failed state but a land colonized twice (first by Portugal, then Indonesia). But the outpouring of aid to the new nation – such as Australia's sharing of oil-drilling wealth – shows a deepening moral commitment to not letting any nation become a human tragedy.

Another recent triumph was last Tuesday's election of a new government in Sierra Leone after a 10-year civil war. It took British troops and the largest UN peacekeeping force ever to bring that nation to its feet. Similar international efforts are under way in other troubled African nations, such as Angola, Liberia, and Congo.

The moral breakthrough for such foreign intervention came first with Bosnia in 1995, then with Kosovo in 1999, in a long effort against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia. The US also intervened in Haiti, and has sent troops and $1.3 billion in new aid to Colombia to fight a drug trade has fed a long civil war.

Some nations keep themselves immune to such outside interest. North Korea let more than two million of its people starve before taking food aid. Burma let its economy spiral downward before succumbing to foreign pressure this month and releasing its leading pro-democracy activist.

Israel, too, despite being a democracy, is a failing state: for not freeing itself and 2.9 million Palestinians from the violence arising from its control of land conquered in the 1967 war. The UN and Europe only await a wink from Washington to send in an international policing force.

The rules of foreign interference still aren't always clear. But an international consensus has matured to see no troubled nation as an island in a sea of apathy.

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