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What to Read on State Building

In recent years, with the recognition that failing states can threaten U.S. national security and with the difficulties encountered in stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, state building has become an increasingly urgent and important topic for both policymakers and scholars. Although it is often confused or conflated with other aspects of political development, such as democratization or the construction of a national identity, state building is a distinct phenomenon and refers to the development of an organization capable of effectively commanding authority over a national territory -- an entity that can enforce laws and provide basic services to citizens while commanding a degree of legitimacy in their eyes. Such undertakings are inherently challenging and have always been so. Lessons from the historical record, however, can provide some insight about prospects and strategies for success.

"Warlordism in Comparative Perspective." By Kimberly Marten. International Security, vol. 31, # 3 (Winter 2006/7): pp. 41-731.
Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia. By Dan Slater. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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One dimension of state building involves the establishment of a central authority that can control local power brokers -- sometimes referred to today as "warlords." Centralization depends on the establishment of a consensus among important actors about the need for a powerful "Leviathan" that can effectively rule over all of them. But the sources of this consensus can vary depending on local conditions. As Kimberly Marten shows, following an argument developed by Hendrik Spruyt in the European context, state building is supported by economic actors likely to gain from increased trade across the territory in question. Dan Slater, meanwhile, emphasizes security threats to elites as the motivating factor in the establishment of the "protection pacts" that underpin the powerful states in Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. Elite support for a strong central state, in other words, can sometimes be driven by social divisions along class or ethnic lines that threaten to set off what Thomas Hobbes called a "war of all against all," making the Leviathan a palatable option.

The State-Society Struggle: Zaire in Comparative Perspective. By Thomas M. Callaghy. Columbia University Press, 1984.
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The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective
. By Crawford Young. Yale University Press, 1994.

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"Attaining Social Order in Iraq." By Michael Hechter and Nika Kabiri. In: Order, Conflict, and Violence. Edited by Stathis N. Kalyvas, Ian Shapiro, and Tarek Masoud. Cambridge University Press (2008): pp. 43-74
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If local contexts shape the prospects for centralization, so do the strategies chosen by the state builders themselves. As they impose centralized authority, leaders must decide how to administer their states. They face a choice of either incorporating locally powerful actors or replacing them with a separate administrative class -- choices commonly described as indirect and direct rule, respectively. Reliance on warlords as administrators can co-opt them by giving them a seat of power in the newly established order, but it involves stark tradeoffs in terms of efficiency, revenue, and authority because locally powerful actors have their own independent interests and capabilities. In a penetrating study of this calculus, Thomas Callaghy compares absolutist France to post-independence Zaire, showing how leaders in both cases sought to balance effective administration and control over local elites. Colonial rulers faced similar challenges, of course, and Crawford Young's account of the establishment of strikingly effective control in much of sub-Saharan Africa offers crucial lessons for aspiring state-builders today. Michael Hechter and Nika Kabiri, finally, address the effects of direct and indirect rule on state-building prospects in contemporary Iraq.

Peasants Into Frenchmen. By Eugen Weber. Stanford University Press, 1976.
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"On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View With Some Glances at Post-Communist Countries." By Guillermo O'Donnell. World Development, vol. 21 #8 (1993): pp. 1355-69.

Another crucial element of state building is the development of the capacity to penetrate society and turn policy into reality -- what Michael Mann has called "infrastructural power." The spread of state authority throughout France in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War brought the classroom and the regiment into far-flung communities, knitting the country together and creating a unified French nation. Eugen Weber's classic account shows how state building drove a process of turning diverse groups of peasants into "Frenchmen." Without the effective reach of state authority throughout the national territory, meanwhile, the rules introduced by the central state will have nothing resembling their intended effects. As Guillermo O'Donnell shows, the establishment of effective rule of law is necessary in order for the replacement of authoritarian regimes with democracy to have any effect on the lives of citizens. The prospects for democracy, in other words, depend on the success of state builders in extending the rule of law.

States and Power in Africa. By Jeffrey Herbst. Princeton University Press, 2000.
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Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America
. By Miguel Ángel Centeno. Penn State University Press, 2002.

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Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992
. By Charles Tilly. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.

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Weber's account shows that much of France's population lacked any ties to "French" culture until the late nineteenth century. That this was true of France, the paradigmatic strong state, demonstrates just how long a process state building can be. And the distaste many today would feel for the state-building practices Weber describes highlights the challenges involved. This should forestall any hasty judgments about the ultimate prospects of state building in contemporary cases. But it is also true that messy, bloody struggles over authority may not yield state building at all. As Jeffrey Herbst shows in his important study of colonial and post-independence Africa, leaders there have chosen to avoid state-building, and widespread domestic conflict in many countries has followed from that choice. And even where state building is attempted, decades of bloodshed are far from sufficient for success. As Miguel Centeno shows in his study of Latin American state weakness, since wars in many postcolonial contexts were limited and financed through loans rather than taxation, they often led to "blood and debt" rather than the famous "virtuous cycle" of war-making and state building described by Charles Tilly.

The Beginner's Guide to Nation-Building. By James Dobbins et al. RAND Corporation, 2007.
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Fixing Failed States.
By Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart. Oxford University Press, 2008.

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"Can America Nation-Build?" By Jason Brownlee. World Politics, vol. 59 #2 (January 2007): pp. 314-340.

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877
. By Eric Foner. Harper, 1988.

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"Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective." By Jeremy Weinstein. Center for Global Development Working Paper #57 (2005).


Foreigners seeking to build states in other countries face still more obstacles. Drawing on the lessons of dozens of cases in recent decades, James Dobbins and his colleagues offer guidelines for preparing the forces and plans international interveners are likely to require. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart address comparable challenges, including how to generate accountability between leaders and populations when those leaders are imposed by outsiders. Jason Brownlee's sobering review essay, however, reflects on the history of American state-building efforts and doubts whether contemporary operations have any hope of success. Skepticism can emerge even from the study of external state-building efforts undertaken in propitious contexts, such as the imposition of northern rule on the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Eric Foner's magisterial history of Reconstruction shows how the retreat of Republican state-builders after 1876 was driven by domestic politics in the North as much as by the challenges of occupation. Given the limited tolerance for costly and sustained state-building efforts in both the target countries and the foreign interveners, it is therefore worth considering the option that Jeremy Weinstein calls "autonomous recovery." He shows how, in cases such as Eritrea, Uganda, and Somaliland, state building has taken place in the absence of intervention. His essay serves as a caution about the limits of imposed state-building, reminding us that the strong states seem to emerge via domestic processes, while the record of imposition is spotty at best.


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