State Building

State-building is a fashionable theme in international relations. It is a subject in which I am particularly interested. The thought is that the cause of civil wars and failed states is weak political and legal institutions. Thus, so the reasoning goes, to prevent the recurrence of those problems one needs to provide training and support to build strong and effective social institutions where none existed before. An army of specialists offering just these skills has recently emerged, deployed to all four corners of the world. And yet state-building is truly a science in its infancy, about which we know remarkably little.

One thing is for certain: improving institutions within failed states is far harder than it sounds. In a country with no history of an independent judiciary, democratic politics, compromise and power-sharing, effective civil society, and a free media, transplant of institutions and standards from western nations turns out to be remarkably hard. The level of resources required is formidable. The temptation to find easy solutions is strong. The international missions managing state-building projects are usually unaccountable. Recruiting capable people to work in primitive or even dangerous conditions is hard. Foreign political systems and cultures typically take longer to understand than the time scale within which one can expect an educated and trained international expert to commit to the country in question.

steamroller squashing flat a load of guns

Yet state-building appears to be here to stay. The international community perceives unstable, dangerous states to export their instability and violence elsewhere. Military solutions can take one only so far; without resolving the underlying political problems explaining a failed state’s instability, the country’s problems will soon return, even after a military victory. And so we must learn from the state-building projects that occur, to carry forward the lessons of each project for the next.

Through my writing, teaching and research, I am trying to promote this goal. I have experience of state-building projects through my work in Bosnia and Herzegovina and at the World Bank, and I am currently engaged in a research project to transfer the lessons from the Western Balkans to crisis spots elsewhere in the world. My book, A Free City in the Balkans, and a number of my Writings, address issues under the theme of state-building, and I invite you to peruse the Writings section of this website for more information.