BY NATE HAKEN AND SARAH COCKEY
If the FSI’s 17-year history is any indication, a global shock comes around about once every 15 years or so. When it does, it presents an opportunity for comparative analysis and forces us to rethink our models or at least to revisit them, as we consider what we mean by fragility and resilience. To the extent that a country’s aggregate FSI ranking is meaningful, it can be useful to say that the United States is not a “fragile state.” However, 2020 has shown us that there are some shocks, that under certain conditions and circumstances, can be equally as dangerous to wealthy countries than to poor ones.
Before the pandemic, the hypothesis would have been that for pandemic preparedness, countries with strong health systems, public services, institutions, and high GDP per capita, would have done better than countries with poor health systems. The Global Health Security Index,1 for example, scales and scores a range of highly relevant indicators such as immunization rates, the prevalence of zoonotic diseases, infrastructure, quality of and access to healthcare, and international agreements, to find that the United States, in 2019, was the most prepared country in the world to prevent, detect, and respond to a potential health crisis. However, as of January 1, 2021 the number of COVID-19 fatalities per capita in the United States2 was almost exactly the same as the number who died in Liberia during the Ebola crisis of 2014-2016.3 What happened?
Part of the answer, no doubt, has to do with the nature of this particular disease and the susceptibility of older populations to be more infected. But only part. It turns out that a health shock at a certain level of severity is more complex than just a health crisis. It can be exacerbated by, or have cascading and compounding effects across, social, economic, political, and security dimensions, leading to vicious cycles, feedback loops, and broader systemic failure. In cases of deep structural vulnerability, a health shock could ultimately escalate to a breakdown of public order. This was validated quantitatively in a tabletop exercise we did recently through a series of regressions that suggested a significant relationship between COVID-19 prevalence, economic recession, and protests and violence. The key questions then, for policy makers, are 1) to understand which countries were vulnerable and why; and 2) for those countries that were able to avoid the vicious cycle of COVID-19, economic recession, and violent protests, what made them resilient?
Looking beyond the annual global ranking to the broader patterns may suggest a different way of approaching these questions. The FSI’s 17-year history suggests a medium-term tendency toward homeostasis, where after a shock like a natural disaster or a political crisis affecting a handful of indicators in a given country, there will be a tendency to revert to the mean in the subsequent year. And at a higher level, among most countries there is actually a long-term drift toward less fragility overall, corroborating the findings of Steven Pinker on violence,4 Hans Rosling’s research on indicators such as life expectancy, child mortality, and GDP per capita,5 and the reduction in global poverty over the last twenty years.6 This, notwithstanding rising humanitarian crises associated with mass displacement, and protracted and recurrent crises in the most fragile of situations.
The United States, however, is among a handful of countries that have gotten incrementally more fragile in the last 17 years, driven almost entirely by a deterioration in the indicators for Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites. For comparison, other countries that worsened by about the same amount (although starting at very different baselines) in those two indicators were Bahrain, the United Kingdom, Libya, and Mali. Countries that worsened overall by about the same amount (again, starting from different baselines) were Greece, Brazil, Bahrain, and the United Kingdom. If the one-year snapshot tells us something about the relative intensity of pressures and how they impact people’s lives today, when it comes to diagnosing vulnerability to the destabilizing impact of a potential shock, this long-term trend also seems important.
Conventional wisdom has it that social cohesion is a dependent variable that flows from a strong and growing economy, and under normal circumstances there may be truth to that. But in the event of a shock, when societies must pull together in new and difficult ways, with shared sacrifice, and buy-in to a national strategy, even the richest and most powerful of countries may be as vulnerable as the poorest country in the world.
In the United States, this long-term trend in the worsening of the FSI indicators of Group Grievance and Factionalized Elites clearly accelerated after the financial crisis of 20097 with the collapse in public confidence in institutions (e.g., financial institutions and national government)8 and a subsequent rise in scapegoating of the perceived villains and undeserving by opinion leaders. A hyper-partisan media landscape, reinforced by social media vortexes and rabbit holes turbocharged by opportunists, pranksters, and trolls has laid waste to whatever social capital we once had – even as the economy recovered. Then when faced with a crisis, though flush with financial, human, natural, and physical capital (compared to the rest of the world), the US did not have the social or political capital necessary to respond and found itself bogged down in brinksmanship and gridlock at every level.
In 2020, fully half of the FSI indicators worsened significantly in the United States, with impeachment proceedings, followed by controversy over lockdowns and school closures, followed by the murder of George Floyd and the largest protests in American history, followed by a delegitimization of the electoral process. Anarchists burned cars. Militias targeted government officials. Protestors and counter-protestors faced each other down with ethnic, racial, and religious overtones. And it all played out on Twitter, Facebook, and Parler, with diametrically opposing narratives over which “side” was patriotic or seditious.
As we move into a new year, there is much to be optimistic about. Government institutions did show resilience. The economy may even come roaring back. If past is prologue, things will go back to normal. The overall FSI score in 2022 will come back down to what it was before the pandemic. But the long-term trend in the worsening of Group Grievance and Factionalized elites preceded 2020. Normal isn’t good enough. Eventually, perhaps in 15 years, there will be another shock. And if we do not get a handle on our social cohesion, we’ll be just as vulnerable the next time, maybe more. It’s not enough to have a strong military, a big economy, a robust emergency management system, excellent hospitals, and infrastructure. We need reconciliation.
4. Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking Books 2011
5. Rosling, Hans, Factfulness: 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better than You Think, Flatiron Books 2018.
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