Archives for category: State-building

In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory.[1] I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are influenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.

Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions,[2] others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states.[3] Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system.[4] In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.

The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed.[5] But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others.[6] Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe.[7] For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers.[8] This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.[9]

Overall, areas that were part of a geopolitical configuration that guaranteed border fixity had less of an incentive to pursue nation-building policies. Within these cases the only countries that I would expect to see nation-building policies emerging involve cases where an external power (major power, regional power, neighboring state, diaspora group and so forth) attempted to cultivate a fifth column within their territorial boundaries. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this phenomenon of external backing of non-core groups would be less pronounced in regions where border fixity was perceived to be really high. However, this ‘equilibrium’ becomes more or less sustainable based on the structure of the international system and the ability—real and/or perceived—of regional actors to defy these geopolitical configurations I described above.

The crucial question today is: What is the future of border fixity in today’s world? More importantly, what is the perception of the relevant actors across the world with respect to this question? The list of border changes is longer than we want to admit. One just needs to cite former Yugoslavia and USSR;[10] but more recently we find cases beyond the traditional spaces where nation-building has already made its mark like Sudan.[11]Discussion of border changes has also emerged in the case of Iraq, Mali, and even Syria. It remains to be seen if any such plans will materialize. Granted the list of cases could have been much longer if nationalist principles were to be fully operative but this is not a satisfactory answer. Even if we only get a few dozen of the hundreds of border changes we would get based on nationalist principles, the reverberations will be felt globally. Moreover, such a situation would further push the spread of nationalism, encourage external involvement, and boost nation-building projects across these areas. We are already observing manifestations of this dynamic, but more border changes would certainly intensify it. This in turn will have the direst consequences for the well being of ethnic groups that are perceived as having ties with external powers that are perceived as enemies by core elites. Shi’as in various Sunni dominated states in the Middle East are a case in point.

What can be done? The International community can impact perceptions of border fixity by either investing resources in upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty or by promoting regional integration schemes around the globe that would indirectly guarantee existing borders and, according to The Politics of Nation-Building, would also lead to accommodationist policies. However, neither of the two solutions is sufficient without important investments in economic and political development.


 The article was published at e-IR on May 8, 2013 | © e-International Relations (e-IR)

Harris Mylonas got his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2008 and then joined the Political Science department at George Washington University as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2009. He was also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies in 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years.


[1] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] William H. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith, “Political Institutions, Policy Choice and the Survival of Leaders,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 559-590; Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow. The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976; Ernest GellnerNations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983; Smith, Anthony. 1986. “State-Making and Nation-Building,” in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263; Rogers Smith. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. Cambridge University Press, 2003; Keith Darden and Anna Maria Grzymała-Busse. “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics – Volume 59, Number 1 (2006): 83-115.

[4] Connor, Walker. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984Barry Posen. “Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power,” International Security, 18, 2 (1993): 80-124; Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Charles Tilly (ed.). The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly.Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Charles Tilly and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). Cities and the Rise of States in. Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

[6] Leo Gross. “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 20-41.

[7] Boaz Atzili. Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

[8] Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[9] Livingstone, Grace. America’s backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. London; New York: Zed Books, 2009.

[10] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Ronald Grigor Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, 1993.

[11] Andrew Natsios. Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The killing of the US Ambassador last week in Benghazi and the recent wave of attacks on NATO personnel by uniformed Afghan police and military highlight the perils of international efforts to build states and societies on foreign soil. Why is it that the people we arm and assist keep on turning those weapons against us?

The New York Times, CBSnews, Washington Postall reported on Sept 17, 2012 that the number of NATO personnel killed in Afghanistan by uniformed Afghan military and police is already at 51 this year, up from a total of 35 for all of last year. Approximately one in six of the NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year were killed by our local allies and trainees. And this only counts those who killed while in uniform. The attrition and desertion rate from the Afghan National Army and police forces is exceptionally high and many have joined the ranks of the Taliban.  If we consider the number of allied personnel killed by soldiers and police who have been armed and trained by coalition forces, the number is certainly much higher.

The US has wisely put the training of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) on hold for a month until it can improve procedures for vetting its recruits, but the problem runs much deeper.

In a symposium published recently in Ethnopolitics we debated the merits of international state-building efforts.  Our main lesson: There is more to state-building than simply expanding the ranks of the army and police.  Expanding the army and police may be state-building, but it might just as easily be insurgency-building if it is not preceded by systematic efforts to build loyalty and to carefully select recruits. If you are unsure of the loyalties of the recruits who you are training, it’s best not to train them at all.

Here is the link to our piece, which was followed by some responses (Erin JenneFotini Christia,Gordon BardosDavid Siroky & Yoav Gortzak) and our reply to their thoughtful comments.

Keith Darden and Harris MylonasThis post first appeared on The Monkey Cage (September 20, 2012).

Building democratic states is a complex and challenging task at the best of times. After violent conflict this task is additionally complicated by the fact that peace needs to be secured, institutions need to be comprehensively reformed, if not built from scratch, civil society and political culture need to be reinvigorated, and economies need to be put back on a path to sustainable growth.  All these tasks are urgent and success (and failure) across the state-building agenda mutually reinforcing.

Sustainable peace, democracy and prosperity depend crucially on choosing the right institutions, but these institutions cannot flourish unless there is security. For Libya, this means first and foremost putting an end to the current violence resulting from the resistance that the old regime is still offering. It also means ensuring that law and order are restored quickly, weapons collected, rebels demobilised and reintegrated. Given the brevity of the revolution, the latter should be relatively easy to accomplish without leaving the new transitional government defenceless. In the medium-term, a proper security sector reform needs to occur, establishing full democratic control over all armed and other security forces.

As the new government assumes responsibility for running the country, a functioning system of law and order needs to be established, including mechanisms to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by the Gaddafi regime and to ensure that justice is also accessible to those who came to harm during the revolution, regardless of who the perpetrators were. This will require a carefully balanced approach that is neither equivalent to wholesale criminalisation of former members and supporters of the regime nor offers a blanket amnesty for past crimes. As the National Transitional Council has already made clear, justice needs to enable reconciliation.

A stable, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Libya can only be built with international support, especially in the short-term. This will require financial and technical assistance, especially when it comes to rebuilding the economy, formulate a sound economic and fiscal policy, restore sources of government revenue, and avoid long-term dependency on international aid. A secure environment and international assistance are crucial factors to rebuild public finances, create a climate in which economic growth can be fostered, and gradually enable states recovering from conflict to become less aid-dependent and provide a range of public services that, in turn, will contribute to greater legitimacy of their institutional framework. Libya’s hydrocarbon wealth should make this task easier, but here, too, pitfalls exist. As the haggling over Iraq’s oil and gas law has demonstrated, managing resource wealth and sharing it fairly are demanding tasks that require balancing local, national, and international individual, state and corporate interests.

State-building also requires nation-building, or more precisely establishing a vibrant civil society and a political and media culture that can sustain peace and democracy by promoting cooperation and trust between different segments of society. This process can be facilitated by international actors, but it needs to be organic and bottom-up if it is to succeed. It is important that political institutions are built with the input from all local and civil society actors, that institutions are built which enable civil society and media to develop and to shape the nature of the state that is being built in the long-term as well. The legitimacy of the state that now emerges in post-Gaddafi Libya will crucially depend on the ability of institutions to facilitate the growth of civil society and truly free and independent media.

In the short-term, and beyond, however, the most crucial link is that between security and legitimacy. Any post-conflict state’s capacity to provide security for its citizens determines its legitimacy. Vice versa the legitimacy the state has (in terms of elections, the participation of key stakeholders and elites in decision-making) conditions the degree to which security is seen by citizens as protecting them rather than a new regime. The new government will need to consider carefully its options: ensuring a broad-based transitional government, preparing elections in which all political actors committed to a political, democratic process can participate, and containing those forces within the country that are set to disrupt this process. This is unlikely to be a smooth process, but nonetheless one which can succeed if all actors agree to a set of basic principles of political conduct, enshrine them in institutions, and remain united against anyone violating this consensus.

Building a secure and stable, democratic and prosperous Libya will not be easy or quick to accomplish. If local leaders realise this, and make an effort to explain the complexity and length of the task ahead to their constituents, if the international community musters the resources, stamina, and enthusiasm to support Libya on its difficult road ahead, and if the institutions being built now establish inclusive, transparent and accountable government, Libya might well turn into a case of successful democratic state-building.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is