A revised version of my 2009 Christian Michelsen lecture is published by the London Review of Books. In the lecture, I argue that conventional models of state-building that are based on trying to achieve an end-state that accords with an idealised, western view of a state, are not only doomed to failure, but also miss or even undermine what can actually function in these countries.
The original sin of much international policy in this field is a familiar intellectual error, to overlook the necessary analysis of how countries, in which state institutions do not possess the autonomy or capability required for them to manage political conflict, actually function. It’s an argument in which an “ought” is derived from an “is not”: a country like Afghanistan or Somalia doesn’t look like Austria or Sweden, but it ought to. Better, I argue, for the outcome to make Afghanistan or Somalia more like a better version of itself. Superficially it’s a pessimistic analysis, insofar as it implies that the existing international toolkit isn’t up to the job. At a deeper level it is a more optimistic account, because another implication is that “failed”, “fragile” or problematic countries may possess the mechanisms that could enable them to achieve stability — provided that those mechanisms are supported.
Central to my argument is the observation that we have been witnessing a monetisation, in convertible currency, of loyalty payments in a patronage system. This is a facet of globalization that has profound consequences for the ability of the rulers of patronage-based political systems to stay in power at an affordable price. The dollarization of political markets means that it may be getting harder, not easier, to build capable states.
The implications of this analysis go well beyond state building and also are relevant to the functioning of peace support operations. I argue that peacekeepers face a real risk of becoming entrapped in the multi-layered politics of their host countries, over time becoming as much part of the problem as part of the solution.
It is also relevant to the design of peace processes. For example, over the last nineteen years there have been innumerable attempts to bring peace to Somalia, all of them based on the same formula of talks among armed groups with the objective of establishing a power sharing formula for a sovereign government. The same template has been applied time and again, with only very minor modifications, and has run into very minor variations of the same fatal flaws. The first peace efforts back in 1991-92 at least had the virtue of credibility, in that many Somalis expected them to succeed. Today’s efforts lack even that. Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. If there are reasons why international institutions persist in the same formulae, despite such obvious flaws, they must be reasons other than hope of success.