If America is a failed state, is it failing upward?

By James Pethokoukis

It wasn’t so long ago — just a few months really — that there was plenty of pundit musing about whether America was a failing or even failed state. This is a pretty easy Google search:

Those are all from the first page of Google search results. Also on that page is the handy Wikipedia entry on “Failed state” that includes this definition: “A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly (see also fragile state and state collapse).” Indeed, most of the examples given are deeply impoverished, often chaotic countries. And many of the ones that aren’t real messes manage to make the list for their lack of democracy, such as Russia.

American Medical Response licensed practical nurse Lisa Wright administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Roy Wilson Training Center in Thousand Palms, Calif. on Thursday, January 7, 2021. Via REUTERS

Even accounting for columnist and headline writer hyperbole, the notion of America as a failed state is kind of absurd. Where is America just a few months later? No rich country has spent a greater share of its economy on pandemic relief than the US. Pretty good numbers on vaccinations, too. Goldman Sachs notes that the share of the population having received a first shot stands at 59.9 percent in Israel, 41.2 percent in the UK, 24.9 percent in the US, 9.1 percent in Italy and France, and 9.0 percent in Spain and Germany. Looking ahead, plenty of big banks are looking for 5 percent to 7 percent real GDP growth this year and maybe another 3 percent to 4 percent next year. 

And don’t forget: Last year was a pretty good one in terms of innovation. As I wrote around the same time as all those “failed state” pieces, 2020 was a year “when we witnessed — among other things — rapid vaccine innovation, good news about nuclear fusion, the AlphaFold breakthrough, a possible CRISPR-based gene-editing therapy for inherited blood disorders, AI as super research assistant, and a new age of human spaceflight for America. And there are actual driverless cars on the road. Definitely not a ‘we have Twitter but no flying cars’ sort of year.”

Then there’s this: Both parties in Washington (here and here) are putting forward ideas to boost US science and technology research to counter China and climate change. Now I am may have a problem or two with some of their ideas, but it’s the sort of forward-looking, substantive policymaking that I would think failed or failing or totally incompetent states don’t do.

Now, of course, we need to actually do it. There may be a lot of ruin in a nation, but even with a rich, technologically advanced one like the United States, there’s no reason to test the limits.