PALO ALTO, Calif. — “Failed state” is a glib phrase thrown around in foreign-policy discussions. Diplomats roll their eyes, shake their heads and earnestly hope they aren’t assigned to one.

As generally defined, a failed state is one that does not control all of its territory, provide public services, exercise authority over the state or represent it competently in international relations. Given all of that, the shorthand definition of a failed state is, Somalia.

Late last month, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, staged a conference on the Somalia problem and urged delegates from 55 nations to work with the Somali government “in its reconciliation effort and its fight against extremism.”

Why the concern right now? Ban realizes that a truly failed state isn’t a problem just for its people. No, failed states victimize the world. Look at North Korea, Pakistan, Haiti or Sudan. Each of those nations meets most if not all of the criteria. Think of the money, time, effort and trouble they cause.

Still, Somalia remains the archetypal failed state. Right now, pirates hold “the highest number of vessels ever at the Somali coast, and the U.N.-led Somalia-process has completely failed and has collapsed,” declared ECOTERRA, an Australian organization that monitors Somali piracy. As of June 2, it added, pirates held 23 foreign ships plus one barge and 436 victims, “including an elderly British yachting couple.”

In the last two years, foreign-navy warships have captured 1,090 Somali pirates, killed 64 and wounded 24 others. In fact, an unprecedented and undeclared war is underway off the Somali coast. At least 20 warships are on patrol — a naval armada from the European Union, NATO, Russia, China, the United States and Arab states, including Iran.

At the same time, Somalia is exactly the sort of place where Al Qaeda and other extremist groups love to set up their training camps. Now one watches what they do. Al Shabaab, Somalia’s principal fanatic group, has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda and is intent on taking control of the state — giving Al Qaeda a nation of its own. Already, Somali diplomats are warning that Al Shabaab is trying to send extremists into the U.S. through Mexico. How many ways can one state inflict its chaos and criminality on the rest of the world?

But some of Somalia’s neighbors say that is not really the point.

“There is rising concern that” Somalia’s problems “pose a threat to regional and international peace,” wrote Boubacar Gaoussou, who is the special representative for the chairman of the African Union’s Commission for Somalia. “But we need to keep in mind that the bigger threat is first and foremost to the Somali people, who now live under constant threat to their lives.”

Gasussou’s op-ed column was widely published across Africa on May 31. “The extremists’ menu for the people of Somalia,” he added, “keeps unfolding like a horror film” — a film that few people outside of Africa ever watch. Can you imagine an Islamic group so extreme that it would forbid schools to ring the bell to end classes because some miscreant worried that somebody, somewhere, might confuse the sound with a church bell? That happened in the town of Jowhar, just 55 miles from Mogadishu, the capital.

About the same time, a different group of group ordered the state’s Somali radio stations to stop playing music and threatened to kill any station manager who did not comply. Music, of course, “is un-Islamic,” the group averred, adding that they wanted to purge the influence of Western culture and ideology. (Pol Pot said more or less the same thing before he massacred 2 million of his countrymen in Cambodia 35 years ago.)

The Somali government, such as it is, ordered the radio stations to keep playing music. But then the government controls just a few blocks around its own office buildings, and even that is tenuous. Last month, insurgents attacked the parliament building while the parliament was in session, killing 16 people.

The radio stations went off the air, and then back on again — with no music.

Ban Ki-moon, Gasussou and many others continue to urge the world “to show the Somalia leadership that we are ready to talk with them in partnership,” as the secretary general put it. Yes, but what does that high-tone language mean? Send troops to Somalia? That’s been done. Remember America’s 1993 misadventure in Somalia? No one in the world wants to take on still-another war against dug-in Islamic militants.

Train the Somalia military to manage the problem itself? That’s been tried. Last month, hundreds of Somali soldiers trained with American funding deserted because they had not been paid — and then joined the insurgency, the Associated Press reported.

Another characteristic needs to be added to the failed-state guidelines. As unfortunate as it seems, in Somalia, just like North Korea, Pakistan, Haiti and Sudan, the world’s best minds have been unable to find solutions.

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