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State strength: means, not end

May 24, 2011

It is generally assumed that strong states are well-behaved states, and well-behaved states are more likely to become strong. But the causation is not always so clear, even in this supposedly postmodern security environment. Despite whatever correlation there may be, the belief in state building as either panacea or ultimate goal for US security policy, whether in a specific conflict or as a global strategy, may result in some unfortunate long-term occurrences.

Consider this thought experiment, where Afghanistan is able to emerge as a strong state with the security capabilities that necessarily entails. As Gulliver has pointed out, strong state capacity is only a potential means to fighting terror, it does not automatically translate into better counter-terrorism. Going further, however, consider that state capacity is generally not just a matter of internal concern. Creating a strong Afghan government, if that is even achievable with the resources and strategy, does not mean that Afghanistan stops being an area of concern for its neighbors. On the contrary, suppose a new Afghan government aligned itself with India. Now, if this new Afghan government was relatively weak, this might mean a continuation of a disastrous civil war. If it was strong, it might mean escalating chances of a conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Pakistan and India. An Afghanistan that chose to interfere, covertly or, less likely, overtly, in Balochistan or the Pashtun areas of Pakistan would be a serious threat to international security, even if these measures were counterweights to Pakistani interference in Afghanistan.

This is not a post specifically about Afghanistan, which I don’t claim any kind of expertise in. But certainly a blind belief in the importance of building state strength and state capability has negative consequences, and not just in a bird’s-eye regional hypothetical. As this article in the Washington Post points out, a relentless emphasis on extending state capacity at all cost – taking Weberian sovereignty as a prescriptive necessity rather than a theoretical point of departure – leads to excessive bloodletting and wasted resources.

Building state capacity, when taken as a strategic endpoint for an intervening 3rd party state rather than a means to some other objective, invites insolvency, avoidable harm, and unintended consequences. Remote mountain or hill populations with anarchistic, or at least anti-state tendencies will tend to partner with whoever keeps centralized government out of their way. The process of state building is extremely ugly in many cases, because it often requires the suppression of potentially disloyal populations or neighboring states. Even democratic states are prone to this sort of behavior, and indeed, there may be an ugly trade-off in that states which have secured more loyalty, or at least compliance, from their own population are even more effective against neighboring states.

The Arab Spring poses similar questions. What sort of violence would a post-Assad Syria bring about, internally or externally? Would democratizing, nationalist states actually increase the likelihood or potential damage of war and conflict in the region? Viewing threats to US security or US national interests primarily through the lens of regime type and state capacity obscures these sorts of questions. Whether posed as a moral imperative or a new national interest, over emphasis on regime type and state often locks the US into a teleological mindset which discussions of state building or regime “evolution” often digress into. Developing the instrumental capacity of state power cannot substitute for a conception of greater national interests or a way to harness that state power in foreign lands to support them.

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