The Evolution of the Project of Building Other People’s States

William Reno, December 2009


  • State
  • state collapse
  • international intervention
  • state institutions
  • rules of governance
  • counter insurgency
  • Anbar awakening
  • military
  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan
  • Iraq
  • the United States

Many scholars and policy analysts give poor marks to the post-Cold War project of intensive intervention to build States through the wholesale importation of institutions and rules of governance. Now US officials claim that they have jettisoned large-scale state-building interventions in favour of a pragmatic, flexible approach to intervention since at least early 2007. The “Anbar Awakening” in Iraq saw former insurgents join the American effort to pacify the country and is touted as evidence of the success of a new approach that marshals local authorities and their networks for more modest goals of protecting populations and controlling territory.

Counter-insurgency represents a new approach to state-building through intervention. The concept of counterinsurgency as it is used in this paper and among many officials does not just apply to active combat. It also includes aid to governments to help them assert stronger control over territory and people and their transactions that are beyond the grasp of formal State institutions and rules; in effect, helping incumbent regimes to build their own States. This approach also is reflected in the security doctrines of States beyond America’s shores.

Considerable elements of this “American style of counterinsurgency” are built around assumptions drawn from the US experience in Iraq that included the shift of large numbers of local authorities away from supporting the core group of indigenous and foreign insurgents. This shift reinforced a tendency among American scholars and observers to place confidence in the proposition that pragmatic calculations in conflicts drive all but a small portion of ideologically committed actors. This proposition is based on the assumption that when people are able, they will maximise their personal or their immediate community’s material interests and political power. Counterinsurgency, and by extension, state-building thus rests on broad axioms familiar to the academic disciplines of social science about using violence and material resources to shape people’s environments so that they make the predictable and desired choices. State-building in this way involves shifting incentives and opportunities so that people cooperate in particular ways as they pursue their own self-interests. These tools eliminate the need for intervening forces to do everything, and instead marshal the self-interests of indigenous groups to accept State authority.

While there may be a lot of truth in these assumptions, evidence beyond the Iraq case demonstrates the limits of their applicability. The argument below is that actors in Iraq’s conflict made choices for reasons that are very particular to Iraq, and that this behaviour is not consistent across cases. American counterinsurgency doctrine currently grapples with this reality in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in doing so, this doctrine returns to some features of the intensive brand of state-building intervention such as importing wholesale the institutions and rules of governance. The impact of this engagement with local societies can be even more intensive than the undesirable predecessor and produce strong negative reactions from local populations.

This pragmatic state-building through counterinsurgency holds several perils that are common to the historical experience of imperial state-building. As in the British experience with the colonial administrative doctrine of Indirect Rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, local intermediaries often find that they can use external backing to exploit their positions for personal gain, which simultaneously reduces the authority of both sets of actors. External backers in turn further reduce their ambitions and instead compromise for political and financial expediency.

Some insurgents prove to be far less amenable to compromise. They discover that they can articulate an ideological framework to mobilise people around anger about corruption and the self-serving behaviour of incumbent elites. This category of insurgents relies more heavily on ideas, compared to their pragmatic counter-insurgent opponents. In places like Pakistan, their strategies borrow elements from the great state-building social revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, rather than Iraq in recent years. Though still relying upon coercion, they also build parallel structures to provide services in the place of the current regime. They graft their political project onto popular criticisms of governments and use this to mobilise followers across social boundaries. Their political projects can look more like those of Chinese insurgents in the 1920s and 1930s and less like the coalition of parochial elites and foreign fighters in Iraq.

These developments present a serious problem for American-style counterinsurgency. They highlight the extent to which counterinsurgency by in large fails to offer an appealing idea of state-building that can mobilise people behind its project. It does not offer anything like the ideas that anchored the great state-building social revolutions of the Modern Era. Contemporary counterinsurgency has little to compare to the quintessentially western ideology of Marxist-style nationalism that mobilised and organised impressive numbers of people in newly independent countries to build western-style national States in the middle of the 20th century.

Some contemporary insurgents pursue state-building projects in diverse ways. Many of these offer a vision that is alien to globally dominant liberal ideas about States and their relations with societal groups. Nonetheless, their actions, while reducible to individual self-interest from a very limited perspective, revolve around an intensive idea about how to build a State or whatever they imagine should be in its stead, and address anger over exploitation and insecurities about rapid social change, and claim to support community ideals. Many insurgents fail to develop viable political projects of this sort. But where they do appear, they present a significant challenge to the modest ideational appeals of the counterinsurgency style of state-building. Moreover, these counter-hegemonic state-building projects also might gain broader popular followings as responses to the intrusive nature of foreign-imposed state-building.

The next section explores the dissatisfactions with the intensive, foreign imposed state-building projects of the immediate post-Cold War era. The section that follows presents the outcome, an American style of counterinsurgency and how its application in Iraq illuminates some of the problems and limits of its application elsewhere. The argument culminates in the exploration of the challenge of ideologically based alternative state-building projects.

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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)