Build a state first, a nation comes later

This review of Fukuyama's book shows the distinction between the concepts of state and nation.  What Fukuyama does not deal with are the problems of imposing a state on top of two existing nations as in the case of Sri Lanka. -- Editor

by Janadas Devan, September 8, 2004

A nation is not the same as a state. The latter refers to an institutional capacity 'to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently', as Professor Francis Fukuyama writes in his important recent book, State-Building: Governance And World Order In The 21st Century.

Or as sociologist Max Weber put it: A state is 'a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory'. A state that fails to establish this monopoly, cannot accomplish the various goals of modern government, from providing education to building transportation infrastructure, from regulating financial institutions to managing a stable currency.

A nation, on the other hand, is something larger than a state - 'a community bound together by shared history and culture'. A matter more of shared sensibilities than institutions, a nation is the work of generations.

Given these facts, the first thing the international community should realise about the nation-building exercises it is undertaking in various parts of the world is that it is an impossible task.

Nobody from outside parachuting into Afghanistan or Iraq can convert these geographical entities into nations. Only Afghans or Iraqis can do that - and only after several generations, and only after they have constructed strong states.

It is possible, of course, for a nation or people to persist despite the absence of an effective state, as happened in the histories of old countries like France or China.

But that is not possible in the case of newly-created countries. There the trajectory is clear: State first, nation next - some time in the future. It is state-building, not nation-building, that should be engaging the United States and the international community in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

And learning to do it is going to be 'central to the future of the world order', Prof Fukuyama argues.

In fact, this was already clear in the 1990s, when a series of humanitarian interventions placed "a de facto international imperial power over the 'failed state' part of the world."

Sept 11 added an acute security dimension to the problem, for it became clear then that 'violence had become democratised' and was no longer the monopoly of states. Traditional forms of deterrence or containment would not work against non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, 'so security concerns demanded reaching inside of states and changing their regime to prevent threats from emerging'.

Afghanistan clearly met this definition; and one need not accept the Bush administration's shifting justifications for Iraq (Prof Fukuyama certainly doesn't) to see that the chief challenge for the post-Sept 11 world is to build up 'stateness' in failing or failed states.

The professor specifies three distinct phases in state-building:

The post-conflict reconstruction stage, 'where state authority has collapsed completely and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up'. Here the issue is 'the short-term provision of stability through infusions of security forces, police, humanitarian relief and technical assistance to restore electricity, water' and so on;

Creating 'self-sustaining state institutions that can survive the withdrawal of outside intervention'; and

Strengthening weak states, 'where state authority exists in a reasonably stable form but cannot accomplish certain necessary state functions, like the protection of property rights or the provision of basic primary education'.

What has the world learnt from the last decade of state-building? Three lessons might be specified:

The international community has had a mixed record in dealing with the post-conflict phase. Many mistakes were committed in Panama, Bosnia and elsewhere. But there was also a learning process, an accumulation of institutional memory. By the time of Kosovo and Timor Leste, both the US and the international community had devised better means.

The US, however, failed to draw on this institutional memory in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, this was due in part to the unilateral way in which the administration went into the war, and in part to the fact that the US approached state-building in an ad hoc fashion, with no one directing the effort. 'State-building is something needed, not just in collapsed or weak Third World states, but occasionally in Washington as well.'

(One reason the US succeeded in Germany and Japan after World War II, Prof Fukuyama told me two weeks ago, was that those efforts were led by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Dealers, committed believers in the transformative power of government. The present administration, by contrast, is filled with conservatives who have spent their political careers running against government. How are people who don't believe in government to build states?)

The record on the second and third phases is poor, in large part because the interventions often resulted, not in 'capacity-building', but 'capacity sucking out'. 'The international community, including the vast numbers of non-governmental organisations that are an intimate part of it, comes so richly endowed and full of capabilities that it tends to crowd out, rather than complement, the extremely weak state capacities of the targeted countries.' Better to teach a man to fish...

But that takes a long time. 'It is not clear, given the low to non-existent level of stateness in many failed states, whether there is any real alternative to a quasi-permanent, quasi-colonial relationship between the 'beneficiary' country and the international community.'

It took five years to get Germany and Japan back on their feet and walking by themselves - and these were countries that were already highly developed before the war. Afghanistan and Iraq can't take less.

Everyone pays homage to the idea that state-building is going to be a major issue of the 21st century. The trouble is no developed country, especially the US, has come to grips with the enormity of the task. To borrow a recent remark of Senator John Kerry, on this front of the war on terrorism, it is still 'all hat and no cattle'.,1886,145-271450,00.html



Posted September 15, 2004