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Dr. Daniel Nexon had a thought-provoking post at The Duck of Minerva entitled “Failed state and the global war on terror“. His post is long and contains many points worthy of attention and indeed, I could not help but leave comments on some of them at The Duck. I suggest you read Dr. Nexon’s post in full as I am going to critique particular sections.

Here follows excerpts from Dan’s post and my observations and questions:

“….I argue in the book that there are a variety of generalizable principles concerning religious conflict and the dynamics of imperial control. But these “lessons” tend to be rather indirect.When we got back I returned to the process of converting the footnotes from plain text to Endnote (note to all dissertation writers: use citation software now; doing so will save you a lot of time later) and realized that I could draw one rather immediate and, in some ways, rather banal lesson: if your aim is to limit the impact of trans-national religious movements, then your focus should be on enhancing state capacity. As some analysts might put it, the best way to limit “networks” is to develop “hierarchies.”[1]”

I would agree. There’s only so much social ” battlespace” in a given population and the unconstrained growth of hierarchies can crowd out potential competitors by thoroughly dominating the environment the way trees shade out grass. Taken to an extreme you have the Nazi “coordination” of all German institutions, professions, industries, charitable associations until effectively the civil society independent of National Socialism ceased to exist or was forced into collaboration with the regime. Or the Soviet Union where all private associations were simply abolished and replaced by Bolshevik ones.

Unfortunately neither of those examples are attractive options for a liberal democracy, representing a cure worse than the disease. The very definition of a liberal and open society is one in which its citizens are relatively free to associate and interact without government supervision and intervention which is where we’d like most Gap states to be someday. Yet most weak states are in danger of failing from an inability to provide basic security or attract the primary loyalty of its citizens and fear liberalization would cause what little authority they have to come unglued. Therefore I’ve argued that the United States should pursue building state resilience in a focused manner which means strengthening institutions in terms of their legitimacy and not simply showering weak states with massive amounts of aid money. Without a degree of resiliency and functional transparency the aid cannot even be effectively absorbed.

“As John Mueller remarked to me about a number of African polities, “their central governments are so weak that they face serious threats from roving bands of two hundred or so thugs.” In fact, the relative strength of central power across early modern Europe was a decent, if imperfect, indicator of whether or not religious contention would fragment a polity. Early modern European states tended to be relatively weak, composite entities with imperfect, at best, monopolies on coercive military power. The fact that they developed in relatively centralized and strong states later on rendered them, all things being equal, both relatively resilient in the face of such threats and decreased the likelihood that such threats would emerge in the first place.”

Here’s an interesting counterpoint, going back some 700 years earlier, the Byzantine Empire, a highly centralized polity tearing itself apart over the Iconoclast movement ( a religious reform that was also a bid for even greater centralization in religious or political affairs). That being said, I’m pretty sure Dr. Dan is right about early modern Europe.

“Israel’s policy of trying to compel the fragile Lebanese state to “take on” Hezballah not only seems to be failing at both the strategic and a “war of ideas” level, but, as I noted in my first attempt at videoblogging, looks almost like its designed to create a failed state–a consequence that would be far worse for Israel than intermittent low-level attacks from a relatively restrained (if odious) quasi-state organization in the country. Remember the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982? They drove out the PLO and got Hezballah in exchange.”

EBO attacks are, as John Robb once noted, system disruption warfare designed to produce failed states. This tactic was successfully used by the Clinton administration against Iraq with Operation Desert Fox and against Milosevic in Serbia in the Kosovo War. In both cases, the objective desired (” Get the Serb paramilitaries out of Kosovo”) was viewed as less costly a capitulation by the target government than suffering a destroyed state. Lebanon is simply unable to comply with Israel’s demand; even if Hezbollah was not actively supported and supplied by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah is far more likely to disarm the Lebanese Army than the reverse. An EBO attack on Syria, however, might have produced the result Israel wanted but that ran the risk of provoking wider regional war – and was perhaps vetoed by the Bush administration.

( For more on EBO, see Sonny’s series ” Defending EBO” at FX-Based)

“Strong states, simply put, are a important firewalls against “global guerillas.” Destroying them for the express purpose of creating democracies? Not such a good idea.[2] Strong states make it less likely that regional, substate, and transnational non-state actors will threaten US interests. Even though some of those “strong” states (such as Iran) sponsor violent non-state actors (such as Hezballah) the ultimate threat from those movements is very much conditioned by the number of low-capacity states in the world. Moreover, strong states do have the capacity to limit the activities of their proxies, and present themselves as targets for coercive leverage of the kind that might actually reduce the resources and capabilities of their clients”

They are certainly better than weak states or failed states however I would argue that legitimacy and demographic homogeneity are important factors here, not just expertise at social controls and potential police and military powers. Japan is not particularly vulnerable to Global Guerillas in the way that India or China might be.

“I believe, in fact, that these outcomes reflect a tension in US occupation policy between its “unite-and-rule” goals (e.g., the kind of intense “nation-building” that Bush derided in the 2000 campaign) and its commitment to providing the absolute minimal resources it can to the effort. This raises an interesting question: does a governing party have to be social-democratic or otherwise “statist” to do nation-building right? “

Bismarck, a conservative-nationalist junker, was a nation-builder par excellence as was General Douglas MacArthur, whose political views were both far-right and egomaniacal. Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts in South Vietnam were as unsuccessful as those of Richard Nixon’s ( which is saying something, as Nixon came into office looking to get out of Vietnam as cheaply as possible). George W. Bush has spent a large amount of money in Iraq but to very little substantive effect.

Getting things right in terms of nation-building, I suspect, depends a great deal on understanding what you have to work with.


Dr. Demarche weighs in on the problem that this scenario presents for statesmen in a guest post at Austin Bay’s blog.


John Robb’s incisive analysis of Hezbollah’s performance against Israel’s IDF has particular salience for this discussion. Israel’s unwillingness to accept casualties or inflict them effectively ( either by accurately hitting a high ratio of Hezbollah fighters or callously using the same WWII meat-grinder tactics Russia used when it took Grozny) has put the IDF at an uncharacteristic military disadvantage in Lebanon. The IDF can chew up Hezbollah but not without bringing it’s full power to bear and inflicting massive civilian casualties

5 Responses to “”

  1. Daniel Nexon Says:

    Mark, very provocative and thoughtful. Expect a reply in the near future.

    Can’t resist one quick note, though: I said “social-democratic or otherwise ‘statist’…” Conservative nationalism would certainly qualify, and MacArthur, moreover, was an agent–albeit a significantly autonomous one–of Truman’s administration.

  2. mark Says:

    Hi Dan,

    Bismark was certainly a paternalist who enginered the first social welfare programs (albeit out of pragmatic political concerns) so I agree he slides into the statist column.

    look forward to your post & your book ( when is that scheduled to be out roughly ? )

  3. Andrew Says:


    The difference between scope and strength when talking about “strong” states should be noted. However, in a state like the US where the state is relatively limited in scope, but strong within that range of functions, global guerrillas have found considerable space to operate given the limited scope of the state. Yet, as evidenced by the recent news stories of foiled plots, the US state is quite strong when it comes to law enforcement and other domestic counterterrorism missions, despite its relative (though growing) uninvolvement in the private affairs of its citizens.

    Building this sort of capacity in nascent states is not easy. It is not much easier expand the scope of new states than it is to grow the strength of institutions, particularly when faced with guerrillas’ own version of EBO. Thus scope can be expanded in name, but for state power to have true reach the state must be able to exercise power in a certain area, or just the same, choose not to exercise power in a certain area yet still maintain legitimacy. Strength and scope are therefore, at least partly, functions of legitimacy and the first order of legitimacy is the legitimate control of the use of violence.

    And the question of demographics is an important one for weak states, though often overlooked. If demographics are key, was the notion of a unified, democratic Iraq stillborn and a more “Baltic” solution inevitable. Perhaps something I will examine after giving it some thought.

  4. mark Says:

    “The difference between scope and strength when talking about “strong” states should be noted”

    Point well taken.

    Andrew, send me a link if you would when you have a post up on this topic

  5. Isaiah Roberts Says:

    video blogging consumes more server bandwidth than traditional text blogging but video blogging is more exciting*.,

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