There is a Great Deal of Ruin in a State

Much of the current debate about the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and frustrations with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Syria, implicitly or explicitly concerns the type of states that might emerge (Democracies? Dictatorships? Friends? Foes? Stable regimes of any stripe?). Beyond these basic uncertainties, there is a general frustration with the tragedy of persistent conflict, corruption, and poor governance in many of these areas.

Alas. Building a state, building any form of political order, is hard. Rarely does it emerge without a struggle. It’s tempting to think either that democracy is the optimal form of government, or that ANY form of government is preferable to an ongoing mess. Both may be correct. But, a move towards one political order necessarily entails a move away from another. And, crucially, the interests of the current political order will be threatened by this change from the status quo. And those who stand to lose will fight to avoid that loss.

This is part of what makes statebuilding so hard for outsiders. Foreign involvement can and does shape both conflict and statebuilding. But this influence is mediated by domestic actors who have their own interests, and for whom such alliances are often strategic means to (quite rationally) pursue their own goals. Failures to understand who stands to lose or gain from which outcomes and options magnify the risk of outcomes interveners don’t like.

In part because of this dynamic, outside assistance is not necessarily a shortcut to the mess of statebuilding. There will be winners and losers. And many will try to shore up their wins by taking what they can when they can get it. And by getting rid of their enemies—in ways we find repulsive.

Statebuilding is hard. Implicit or explicit proposals to pursue it are often accused of forgetting recent lessons on these difficulties. But we forget our own history, too. America itself experienced multiple flashes of unrest before the Revolution. The United States went through two constitutions in less than a decade, experienced multiple rebellions, fiscal and monetary crises, riots by unpaid soldiers and farmers facing foreclosure, and decades of severe and persistent corruption. Unresolved international issues led to the War of 1812. Unresolved domestic issues produced a bloody civil war in the 1860s, and unrest a century later in the 1960s.

Why do we expect others to emerge more seamlessly and with such immediacy? It would be marvelous. But it seems unlikely.