The concepts of state building, nation building and society building

Vol. 4, No. 3 (2005) 367–379
The concepts of state building,
nation building and society building
Institute for Strategy and Security Policy, Defence Academy, Vienna, Austria
In 2003 global community experienced roughly 50 war-like conflicts. This number has
been in the trend since 1989/90. The global risk society of the Post-cold war period
cannot be compared with the clear-cut Cold War phase. The overall conflict was
embedded within a socio-political-economic context. New actors, new behaviors,
floating or no boarders, new types of conflict and new types of states of actors put a
high pressure on crisis prevention. The long-term target of building societies which are
structurally able to create and maintain peace has gained considerable currency. The
article deals with crisis prevention as the overall framework for state building, nation
building and society building; and with failed states, weak states and failing states as
objects of state and society building.
The systemic framework
In 2003 global community experienced roughly 50 war-like conflicts. This number has
been in the trend since 1989/90. It confirms the global conflict development since the
decay of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar system. The Cold War system was
characterized by a dichotomist structure. It was either in a war or peace-like state. Both
states were clearly separable. Currently, situation has changed. The global risk society
of the Post-cold war period cannot be compared with the clear-cut Cold War phase. The
decay of the Soviet Union provided a climate which facilitated conflict resolution. In
the first phase, emphasis was given to proxy wars (Africa, Southeast Asian) in regions
outside Europe. In the next phase, failing states and new wars within Europe were on
top of the agenda. In the wake of those wars humanitarian disasters were the order of
the day. The overall conflict was embedded within a socio-political-economic context.
New actors, new behaviors, floating or no boarders, new types of conflict and new types
of states of actors put a high pressure on crisis prevention. The long-term target of
building societies which are structurally able to create and maintain peace has gained
considerable currency. International community undertook numerous and enforced
Received: June 22, 2005
Address for correspondence:
Institute for Strategy and Security Policy
Defence Academy, Vienna, Austria
A. K. RIEMER: State building, nation building and society building
efforts to transfer situations of war after a very shaky armistice into a more stable peace
process. History displays a number of failures, such as Angola, Rwanda, Somalia,
Liberia; some undecided cases such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and FYROM; and
some cases which might be called ‘small success stories’ such as Cambodia,
Mozambique, Mali, and East-Timor.
Recently, the messy situation in Iraq brought the request for a systematic nationbuilding. An atomized society, undermined coherence and efficiency of state
institutions, enormous external pressure (sanctions, embargos) in the aftermath of the
war in 1990–91, a disillusioned Iraqi people full of fears, a very think fabric of
government institutions (which could hardly have been launching pad for a new state)
and much more were the bases for the U.S. to deal with when it decided to embark the
‘train of regime change’.
Crisis prevention as the overall framework for state building, nation building and
society building
Since 15 years the concept of crisis prevention has been broadened and dynamized. The
bases are idealized paths of violent conflicts, which are concentrated ways of factors
responsible for war.
Prevention can be classified into three categories: Primary, secondary and tertiary
preventive concepts. If we see prevention as a continuum between escalation and deescalation, prevention covers preemption, stop vertical and horizontal escalation of
already existing violent conflicts and stabilization of post-war situations.
What seems a simple step-by-step task is one of the key challenges in current
international politics. A glance to Afghanistan and Iraq clearly shows the difficulties.
One of the key pre-requisites in a successful order-restoring process with sustainable
power is the consideration of specific societal structures. A society has to fulfill at least
three tasks to secure its long-term perspective: Guaranteeing the material reproduction
ability of the society’s members; checks and balance for power; production and
securing values.
These three tasks lead to a number of questions, which must be posed before delving
into a nation-building process: Which is the financial background of the parties to the
war? Which persons gain in the post-war situation? Which forms of ruling do exist in
the post-war situation? How can the application of force be legitimized?
These few questions clearly show the difficulties and challenges in a post-conflict
peace building period.1
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Failed states, weak states and failing states: Objects of state and society building
Considerations on terms and objects
Due to the experiences in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the term failed states (failing states,
state failure) has gained currency. The phenomenon of societally and socially incoherent
states has been present for years, but was neglected. The erosion process of those types of
states is a sneaking one. The starting point for failed states is often a weak state.2–5
The main focus in this concept refers to the socio-political cohesion of a state in terms
of society.6 Weak/strong powers refer to distinction between states and their military and
economic capabilities. The socio-political cohesion of a state displays rather no
connection with the state as a power. “Of course, strong states can be strong powers, as
Germany. On the other hand, strong states can be weak powers, like Greece and Slovenia,
while weak states can be quite strong powers, like Turkey and Yugoslavia.”7 Theory
shows a high deficit of adequate indicators in the definition process of weak
states/powers. Nevertheless, the idea per se is a reasonable tool for analysis.
Holsti2 claims that weak states show common structural deficits. These deficits are
created by larger forces, including colonial legacies and world economy aspects. He
indicates the following features: Low level or even absence of vertical legitimacy (i.e.,
massive lack in loyalty of the population towards its leaders). They are at once strong in
the field of despotic power, but quite weak in infra-structural powers. They face the
personalization of the state; i.e., rulers perceive themselves as the states. Lack in
horizontal legitimacy, i.e., there is non homogeneity within the certain communities of
the state; moreover, agreements between these communities are lacking. In fact, weak
states contain numerous communities which display a high potential for hostile
relationships. As found in empirical research, those features are usually key issues in
weak states. They vary from period to period in intensity within one and the same
research object. Moreover, they vary from research object to research object in their
intensities, alike.
At the end of the phase of a weak state the transformation to a dysfunct state may
take place. Key actors in the international system start to give up support for local
regimes. Erosion and the non-escapable failure are the results (failing state). In
consequence, societal, political and economic instability lead to the collapse of the state
(failed state). State failure refers to different degrees of a break-down of central
authorities of state, particularly in post-conflict situations. Afghanistan is a good
example of a failed state. In the 1990s, it lost the support of the Soviet Union and of the
U.S. It slid it chaos and anarchy.
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Literature does not provide a conceptual framework of state failure. The American
State Failure Project used the following categories:8,9
Revolutionary wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict between governments
and politically organized challengers that seek to overthrow the central government, to
replace its leaders, or to seize power in one region. Most revolutionary wars are fought
by guerrilla armies organized by clandestine political movements. Recent examples
include wars on democratic governance were not considered state failures and thus are
not included in this category.
Ethnic wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic,
religious, or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes
in status, may also cause state failure. Most ethnic wars since 1955 have been guerrilla
or civil wars in which the challengers sought independence or regional autonomy.
Recent examples include wars involving Muslims in the Philippines since 1972, Tamils
in Sri Lanka since 1983, and Chechens in Russia since 1994. A few, such as events in
South Africa’s townships in 1976–77, involved large-scale, violent protests aimed at
political change.
Adverse regime changes. Major, abrupt shifts in patterns of governance, including
state collapse, periods of severe elite or regime instability, and shifts away from
democracy toward authoritarian rule. Some adverse regime changes preceded by
revolutionary or ethnic wars, as in Cuba in 1959 or Liberia in 1990. Some precipitate
large-scale violence that m y be followed by massive human-rights violations. Adverse
regime changes analytically distinct from internal wars, however, and sometimes occur
with minimal open violence. Peaceful changes from authoritarian rule to democratic
governance re not considered state failures and thus are not included in this category.
Genocides and politicides. Sustained policies by states or their agents, or, in civil
wars, by either of the contending authorities that result in the deaths of substantial
portion of communal or political group. In genocides, the victimized groups are defined
primarily by their communal (that is, ethno-linguistic or religious) characteristics.
Recent examples include violence in Rwanda in 1994 and continuing violence in Sudan.
In politicides, victims are defined primarily in terms of their political opposition to the
regime or dominant groups. Examples include “dirty wars ”in Chile in 1973–76,
Argentine in 1976–80, and El Salvador in 1980–89.
Several reasons were figured out to justify state failure and with failure in many
different global regions. These key drivers were:
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• Quality of life, that is, the material well-being of country’s citizens.
• Regime type, that is, the character of country’s political institutions.
• International influences, including openness to trade, memberships in regional
organizations, and violent conflicts in neighboring countries.
• The ethnic or religious composition of country’s population or leadership.
State failure
State failure is new term for type of serious political crisis exemplified by events that
occurred in the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Burundi, Angola, DRC,
Liberia, Sierre Leone and Afghanistan. One state collapsed – namely Somalia.
Generally state failure is attributed to conditions such as civil strife, government
breakdown, and economic privation. In a narrow view, state failure consists of instances
in which central state authority collapses for several years. Fewer than 20 such episodes
occurred globally between 1955 and 1998.
A state fails because it cannot longer provide positive political and societal goods
(such as security, education, health services, economic opportunities, environmental
surveillance, legal framework to secure order, a judicial system, infrastructure and
communication) their people. Governments loose legitimacy and the state is perceived
as illegitimate.10 State failure transcends the scope of a political failure, since it is a
comprehensive breach of the duty to provide a minimum standard of public goods.
Additionally, the institutional framework does not exist anymore. The military often
remains the only working institution. Armies in failed states are often highly politized,
which usually causes additional problems.
It is understood as a process, which involves “the weakening of a state’s capacity to
provide legitimate governance.”11It does not mean that a state has finished or does not
exist anymore at a certain point of time. It is a sneaking process, sometimes erratic; it is
a continuum along which the state governing capacities are weakened. Usually, the
‘remaining’ cannot control its territorial borders and, finally, loose authority over parts
of territory.
Since a complete state failure seems to be the exception and not the rule, measures
undertaken already during the weak-state phase and during the dysfunct-state phase
have gained importance. It is far more difficult to reconstruct a destroyed entity than to
create or support strong elements in a weak or partially dysfunct entity.
Figure 1 provides a schematic and ideal overview of the different phases.
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Figure 1. Schematic overview
Empirical work showed that it is not a ‘pattern-by-force’ and a deterministic process
in a spiral, which leads from the weak to a failed state.
There is a possibility to swing between the states over a longer period of time.
The number of failed states is rather small. Many more examples can be found in
categories 1–3.
Reasons for states to enter into the stage of weak states and to carry on to failed state
are multifold:8
In the past fifteen years it has been demonstrated that states are not necessarily
unitary actors and do not display homogeneous characteristics. Strong states exist
next to failed states, weak states, and non-states. Even within some strong states
erosion emerged over the past decades.*
In parallel to the sovereignty-bound state, a considerable number of non-sovereign
actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs),** environmentalprotection, and lobbying groups (PACs) or anti-globalization movements have
surfaced. Non-sovereign actors also include actors on the private, individual level
(i.e. citizens and citizen groups), and also the so-called ‘leaderless public’.12
* The ‘rise of new pluralism and multi-centrism’ has become a phenomenon, which has to be regularly dealt
with. The difference between ‘inside and outside’ (domestic and abroad) has become blurred, if not to say
** NGOs are groups of private citizens that act on the national and/or international level. Many of them have
a consultative status within the framework of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).
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Non-sovereign actors cannot be classified accordingly to existing hierarchical
criteria, since they are organized in non-hierarchical, sometimes transnational
manner, thereby often contradicting and even topple usual patterns of behavior.
They are usually less controllable and sometimes follow anarchist-concepts.
Non-sovereign actors behave differently than sovereign actors and have different
interests. They are less bureaucratic and faster in decision-making and in
implementing their aims. They usually are inter-societal organizations who in a few
cases support the agreements among states on issues of international public
importance (e.g. environmental issues).
Some of the non-sovereign actors display strong influence on the decision-making
processes of sovereign actors although the latter usually withholds this fact. Nonsovereign actors existed, of course, already before 1989; the difference to the current
situation is that they are better organized and exercise considerably more influence
in the economic and environmental, and, finally political arena.
If influence by such groups would be fully taken into consideration by the state, the
traditional position and strength of the sovereign actor could be undermined. However,
exactly such developments have been observed particularly in the past decades.
This development raises the question: Which would be the observation units in the
new societal setting?13
One way would be to redefine the state as an actor in terms of addressing new tasks
and to undertake efforts to include non-state actors.* The state could stand
synonymously for a politico-societal-economic-historical construct with a high
degree of networking effects. It is important to understand that the state has neither
declined nor has it become obsolete, but its tasks have been reshaped and, probably,
reduced to core tasks, such as provision of security for citizens.
Sovereign and non-sovereign actors are not separated but form a network (‘map of
interactions’). Centers of interaction may vary over time and between different
areas. Within a certain time-area constellation, interactions will lead to a pattern
which is best described with the term ‘cascades’.12 Cascades are asymmetric, fuzzy,
interlocking, un-systematic, surprising and non-logical. They vary in their intensity
and duration and they may become the causes and effects (both at the same time) for
further developments.
* This is only one possibility to solve the issue of a more diversified actor’s arena. It seems that social reality
is at least one step ahead of theory. So far, theoretical efforts, which deal with the changed actors picture are
rather rare and underdeveloped. We admit that it is a big challenge to frame the very diverse collection of
actors in one model or integrate it into an applicable approach. The presented way is a very first effort, which
needs to be developed and refined.
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Since Westphalia, the western nation-state model has been the dominant ordering
category. In parallel, numerous efforts to overcome the nation-state were launched.
Transnational systems were intended to substitute the nation-state (e.g. EU). This
reflects the idea of colonial empires and the European super-state. Transnational
efforts were the driver, which led to the emergence of nation-states. Drucker calls
this phenomenon the ‚paradoxon of the nation-state‘.14
Summing up, state failure is in many case also society failure. For reason, a
combined approach is indispensable to regain a solid basis for an entity.
Definitions and concepts
Failed state and failing states have become the center for nation, state and society
building. The following subchapter comprises several definitions and concepts, which
stand in close connection to nation building. One is confronted with a ‘wood of
definitions and concepts’ in realm of what to do after war has ended. This reflects
different needs, different approaches and different interests. Some of them are
overlapping, others are coinciding, and again others are even contradicting. For reason,
clarity on options is important. Without some guideline, rebuilding a state and a society
will be a trip, most likely a very unpleasant and full of pitfalls one.
Post Conflict Peace Building
Military interventions into dysfunct or failing states with the clear target of reforming
the political system and society have become a common task in the post-Cold war
period. An interim assessment clearly shows that the results are very mixed. Numerous
cases have to be labeled as unsuccessful. Root-and-branch reforms are challenging
tasks, which take more than boots on the ground. Probably the most important
ingredient is patience. The ingredients not needed are lacks of plans, no understanding
and in-depth knowledge of the local situation, a culmination of a protracted and
uncertain process of occupation and state-building, looting, widespread criminality,
violence and lawlessness.
Post Conflict Peace Building is a concept which has strong self-interests of the
international community of states in its backdrop. The stabilization of a post-conflict
situation usually saves the community time and money, which might be used up by
following violent conflicts and the restoration of a failed state. Expensive humanitarian
and military actions become obsolete. Consequences such as migration, chronic
instability, organized crime or terrorist attacks can be avoided.
In the 1990s, United Nations dedicated numerous efforts to further concepts and
operative materialization of Post Conflict Peace Building activities:
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1992: Agenda for Peace
1995: Supplement to the Agenda for Peace
1996: Inventory of UN-activities in Post Conflict Peace Building
1999: Brahimi-Report (complex peace keeping and peace building missions)
2001: Axworthy Report (humanitarian intervention – commitment of the
international community to support Post Conflict Peace Building and restoration
activities after military intervention).
Cambodia and Mozambique served as role models for successful Post Conflict
Peace Building. The core elements are military demobilization and democratic
elections. Many activities were seen rather as a technocratic and bureaucratic process.
Capacities, means and methods of external actors should be applied as efficient as
possible according to the needs and requirements at the location.
Post Conflict Peace Building is a deeply political undertaking – something which
has often been forgotten. For reason, only a few examples proved successful. Post
Conflict Peace Building is a process which supports the transformation of a war society
into a peace society. This process must contain rehabilitation, reconstruction and
renewing elements.
One of the core targets is avoiding ‘negative peace’, i.e., the break-out of a new
violent conflict based on old patterns and claims. Understanding Post Conflict Peace
Building this way, one could label it as ‘recovering prevention’. Additionally, the post
war society must be brought into a position to deal with future conflicts peacefully and
to build up ‘positive peace’.15
One of the most delicate issues is disarmament in the very first phase of post
conflict peace building. This was the case in Somalia and it is currently the case in Iraq.
The combination of the inability to guarantee personal safety and the inconsistent and
biased application of disarmament regulations usually encourages groups who feel
deprived of deans of defending themselves to look to militias.
Nation Building
Nation building is a multi-step concept which has become a catchphrase in the past ten
years.16 The concept, which lacks a strict scientific foundation, but comprises a number
of very practical steps after a violent conflict or a war has been ended. Usually, nationbuilding starts already before the actual end of a conflict.
There is wide-spread agreement in literature that conflicts pass through numerous
phases of different intensity. Constructing an ideal conflict life-cycle, a conflict begins
with tension, escalation, crisis, instability etc. It ends with resolution, transformation,
reconciliation, reconstruction etc.17
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For nation-building, both, the begin and the end are important, since the begin might
bear already the solution or the obstacles to solve a conflict. Therefore, it is
indispensable to investigate the reasons for a conflict to provide sustainable solutions.
One of the most difficult periods it the beyond-conflict phase. Conflict still remains, but
first effort to restore order are already under way. Response usually is uncoordinated.
The chance for a continuation of the dispute is rather high. If nation-building could start
already during this phase, the phasing out into a stable era seems rather promising.
Nation-building is a comprehensive approach, which usually is intensified after the
decision to end a conflict (no matter in which way, be it victory, defeat, armistice, peace
accord). In a narrow interpretation it refers to the “restoration of law and order in the
absence of government authority, the reconstruction of infrastructure and security
forces, and the facilitation of the transfer of power from the interim authority to an
indigenous government.”17 In this view, nation-building is closely linked to peace
In a much broader view, nation-building could be seen as a strategic task, which
supports entities to reach the level of the western state model (i.e., the Westphalian
model). Conflict is not a necessary precondition for this approach.
In a broader view, nation-building is a strategic task, which might cover
– the support for modern forces within an entity,
– the creation of a certain educational level,
– the promotion of women,
– the improvement of the societal role of women,
– the support in creating modern infrastructure,
– the support for a democratic landscape of political parties,
– the support for free elections,
– the support of a freely elected government,
– a peaceful regime change from inside.
Key dimensions are
security policy (e. g. demilitarization and reintegration of combatants; reformation
of the armed forces; peaceful conflict resolution; redefinition of civil-military
relations; reconstruction of social services, regulations concerning war criminals and
crime against humanity, reconstruction of the law system and law enforcement;
questions of justice, trust, confidence, amnesties, reconciliation; reintegration of derooted people etc.);
social policy and economy (transformation of a war economy into a sustainable
peace time economy; creation of jobs, reintegration and job provision particularly of
young men who show a higher potential for violent action etc.);
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psychology (restoration of neighbourly trust and social networks; reintegration of
refugees and traumatised people etc.).
Many of those measures will be applied in a parallel manner rather than in a sequential
manner. It will take years, if not decades, until such a project will be completed. One has
to bear in mind, that there is no success guarantee for a ‘peaceful nation-building’. If those
measure do not bear fruits and the wish for change from inside is strongly articulates,
external support for a forceful regime change may start. If a forceful regime change took
place, the steps of a narrow view of nation-building will start.
Nation-building is a complex task. For reason, one may be confronted with complex
Security dilemma: To which extent was the demilitarization successful? Was a basis
for public and private security achieved? Was criminal, private and political violence
Dilemma of efficiency, legitimization and participation: Was an authorized and
legitimate government installed? Does an efficient public administrative body exist and
does it work at a minimum basis? Do the former parties to the conflict participate in the
democratic process and in the civil society?
Dilemma of social justice: To which extent were violent elements suppressed and
peaceful elements supported? Does a peaceful welfare economy work? Was it possible
to fight poverty and to improve the survival rate of the majority of the population?
Dilemma of reconciliation and confidence building: To which extent were war
crimes made public and were prosecuted? How were individual and collective traumata
dealt with? Do processes exist, which promote neighborly trust and reconciliation?
A narrow view of nation-building (ideally) reads as given in Figure 2.
A critical appraisal of nation building: from nation building to state and society
Using nation building as phrase to rebuild a state and a society might turn out dangerous
if it is applied in the strict Western understanding (clear concept of what is a democratic
state and society, clear values, clear legal framework, separation of religion and state
etc.). Some entities equate nation with ethnicity, which may lead into a disaster.
Western mirror-imaging could lead to unwanted consequences; such is the case in Iraq.
Entities may show similarities with Western examples, but they do not necessarily have
to be similar. Additionally, similarities are often not enough for success.
The term nation is a clearly Western term, framed with Western historical
experience. For reason, many entities are reluctant or even distant to accept the Western
nation-concept as their basis to build up a state and a society.
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Additionally, it is not the Western states which need assistance in nation-building,
but it is many non-Western entities. For reason, it seems justified to rethink the
terminology. State-building (i.e. a more legalistic approach) and society-building (i.e., a
nation-transcending approach) may be more appropriate. Since it is well-known that
terms create pictures and perceptions among all actors, this renaming should be
considered – if one is interested in a successful pacification of unstable regions.
Figure 2. Schematic overview of nation building
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