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Torunn Wimpelmann
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Since the end of the 20th century, state-building became an overall framework and objective of peace-building By then, peace-building had consolidated into a large scale, standardized, and externally led transformation of war-torn societies deemed necessary to prevent the recurrence of conflict. The establishment of state-building as its overall goal was the peace-building enterprise at its most ambitious heights. As it turned out, levels of ambitions would soon waver and the goal of state-building was more or less abandoned.

State-building grew out of at least two different academic discourses and policy fields. One was a political science preoccupation with state failure–both a cause and a consequence of the inability of some states to upheld the monopoly of violence and other basic functions (Jackson 1991; Zartman 1995). With the post-9/11 war on terror, such state failure became framed as a threat to global, and in particular Western, security, specifically as a haven for terrorist groups but also as a more generalized source of destabilization of the world order. Another backdrop to the emergence of the peace-building as state-building doctrine originated in development studies and international aid practice, with the so-called Post-Washington consensus holding economic growth to be contingent on a specific kind of state, characterized by efficient and capable institutions able to implement and support liberal economic policies.

As a space where development agencies, military forces, and political missions now found themselves working alongside each other, postwar societies became a meeting ground for these two strands of state-building, both conceptually and physically. For some time, all aspects of state-building (marketization and economic liberalization, democratization, and the rebuilding or restructuring of the security apparatus, legal frameworks, the judiciary, and the state administration more generally) came to be seen as mutually constitutive. This idea was articulated perhaps in its purest form in the notion of “vicious” and “virtuous” cycles, which was coined by Ashraf Ghani, Clare Lockhart, and Michael Carnahan (2005). The authors argued that failure to perform one or many of the core functions of the state such as security will undermine other core functions (such as market formation or the rule of law) in a vicious circle, and vice versa.

This line of thinking was criticized by scholars for being ahistorical, being based on flawed liberal assumptions of linear progress and “all good things going together” (Milliken 2003). Some pointed out that actual state formation in the West was driven by specific political and economic elite interests rather than functional convergence. Others questioned the legitimacy or possibility of imposing external Western frameworks on non-Western settings (Suhrke 2011). Arguably, however, the fatal blow to state-building as a guiding principle for humanitarian intervention in postwar or conflict countries came from political and strategic quarters. Since 2001, the international peace-building regime, and consequently humanitarian aid, have coexisted uneasily with, and increasingly merged with, the “war on terror,” which has had the effect of aligning the former closer to Western security interests–and exposing it as such. The two initial sites of the war on terror–Afghanistan and Iraq–were also sites of multilateral state-building and large humanitarian theatres. Here, the idea of a mutually reinforcing virtuous circle was extended to include military operations, as commanders sought to coopt development and humanitarian aid for the purpose of shoring up support for their counterinsurgency campaigns. Certainly, many development and humanitarian agencies resisted being made part of the war effort by “winning hearts and minds” for the military, but largely ended up being associated with it nonetheless. In turn, the rather spectacular failures of United States-led attempts at pacification in these two countries undermined the expansive visions of state-building everywhere. By the beginning of the 2010s, the narrowing of objectives and pragmatism was observable across the pillars of state-building: security, administrative reform, democratization, and the justice sector. Military operations shifted their focus from providing security to the population and ensuring states’ monopoly of violence to more selective, “enemycentric,” missions. United Nations peace enforcement operations increasingly worked alongside and resembled American-led counter terrorist missions (Karlsrud 2019). Some suggest that new forms of “liquid warfare” made the control of territory (and thus state-building) abundant and counterproductive (Demmers and Gould 2018). A more minimalist, pragmatic, and decisively less liberal approach also took place in other fields of state-building. Increasingly, it was proposed that the public provision of security and justice be relegated to informal and “traditional” actors, such as militias and religious or traditional councils, and ambitions for democracy and “good governance” were downscaled or abandoned. Some saw this as a corrective to the imposition of Western frameworks and a belated recognition of “the local” (Boege, Brown, Clements and Nolan 2009), whereas others saw parallels to colonial templates of indirect rule and constructions of the Other as unfit for modern statehood (Wimpelmann 2013). A return to strongman politics and its denunciation of liberal intervention (and often liberalism per se) in many Western countries added to the sense that the historical moment of state-building as a framework for Western-led intervention might have passed. Humanitarian agencies have struggled to emerge from the lingering shadow of state-building. In most of the contexts where humanitarian action is implemented, it remains tainted by perceptions that it serves other, more transformative, political agendas.


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