Is The Era Of State Building Over?

State building has proven too complicated, too costly, and it rarely works. Yet, despite all of the setbacks, costs, and expended resources there are several reasons why the concept and practices of state building are almost certainly here to stay.   


Image: Flickr/United Nations PhotoIT'S NO SURPRISE that ongoing challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled significant skepticism, both in the United States and Europe, with state building. Public opinion in every ISAF-contributing country is solidly opposed to the war in Afghanistan and majorities want to see their troops come home. The Obama administration is more aggressively looking for ways to broker some kind of deal between President Karzai and the Taliban, and both the US and NATO are scaling back their ambitions for creating a stable and democratic Afghan state. 

More broadly, many in Washington and Brussels seem to be concluding that the ambitious post-Cold War state-building project that began in Bosnia and then moved on to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, is now over. State building has proven too complicated, too costly, and it rarely works. Yet, despite all of the setbacks, costs, and expended resources there are several reasons why the concept and practices of state building are almost certainly here to stay.   

First, state building is a response to state failure and state failure is increasingly perceived as a real and fundamental challenge to global peace and security.  To be sure, not all cases will degenerate into a situation like Afghanistan in the 1990s, enabling an organization like Al Qaeda to plan and orchestrate a direct terrorist attack against the United States.  But since 9/11, concepts of security and governance are now intertwined in both strategic thinking and security doctrine.  The US national security strategies under Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as NATO’s new strategic concept, explicitly identify failed and failing states as significant threats to international peace and security.   In an era of globalization with low-cost transportation, mass movements of people and money, and instant communication connecting all of us, conflicts and instability in remote regions are increasingly unlikely to stay local. 

Second, the numbers of failed and failing states are staggering.  In their book Fixing Failed States, authors Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart reported that between 40 and 60 states with a total population of some two billion people are “teetering on the brink of implosion.”   If even a fraction of these states collapse, the strategic and humanitarian fallout will be enormous.  The demand and political pressure for external support to control these humanitarian crises, stabilize economies, and help in the development of functioning state institutions, is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Third, the norm of democratic state building has gained significant traction over the past decade. The concept of state building is seen as a critical element of broader peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes that exploded in the wake of then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace.   Building governance and institutional capacity are not just seen as critical elements of a lasting and sustainable peace. They are seen as the “right” thing to do. 

In addition, there are very few normatively acceptable or effective alternatives.  It’s hard to mobilize and deploy troops from advanced liberal democratic countries and ask them to fight, die, and kill on behalf of the development of an illiberal regime. Simply intervening to prop up some form of national security state or strong authoritarian leader holds as many dangers and challenges as the democratic state building project, as evidenced by the extensive levels of US and western support for Mobuto Sese Seko’s regime in Zaire or Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia during the Cold War.  Both regimes pilfered the state coffers and created corrupt regimes that contributed to widespread domestic and ultimately, regional instability.  Indeed, most of the failed and failing states today are the result of decades long rule by corrupt and illegitimate strong-arm regimes.   

Fourth, despite the frustration over Afghanistan, there are dozens of other cases in which other international actors are faring better on the enterprise. Since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has deployed comprehensive peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts in more than two dozen operations. The record in these operations has been mixed, but there have been some very real successes in both peacekeeping and in state building.   United Nations and international efforts have contributed to significant improvements in security and governance in Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, eastern Slavonia in Croatia, and Timor-Leste.   Furthermore, the United Nations efforts have cost only a fraction of the expense and troops that the United States committed to the efforts in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.   

Finally, there are simply more international organizations and international non-governmental organizations that are operating in post-conflict state building projects than ever before.  Many of these organizations have developed a cadre of professionals with functional, administrative, and technical skill sets into a wide range of post-conflict peacebuilding efforts.  These organizations bring larger budgets and resources as well as new political constituencies in support of post-conflict state building.  

Both the United States and NATO are showing signs of exhaustion with the state building project. Both are scaling back their ambitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they do so, they will continue to be confronted with demands and expectations from the broader international community that sees looming challenges from more and more failed and failing states, and little alternative to the global state-building mission to cope with those challenges.