Nation-building, does it matter?
November 22, 2006
Nation-building matters to countries such as ours, that are locked in intractable conflict, because of the theory that a strong state is necessary in order to provide security, that the building of an integrated national community is important in the building of a state, and that there may be social and economic prerequisites or co-requisites to the building of an integrated national community.
Further, when nation-building implies democratisation, there is the further hypothesis, known as the democratic peace hypothesis. Originally explicated by Immanuel Kant in the 17th Century, the democratic peace hypothesis says that perpetual peace can be achieved by developing a federation or league of free republican nations. Representative democracies, organised in an international organisation, would bring peace. Political scientists who have explored this hypothesis have focused on one of two versions: democracies don't make war against each other, or democracies don't initiate war at all. There is certainly evidence of the former, and some evidence of the latter.
The other side of the coin is that nation-building may sometimes be simply another name for external intervention and the extension of empires. If it can be said that failed states are the cause of national, regional, or world security problems, or that human rights abuses are so extensive that the need to overcome them in turn overcomes the traditional sovereignty rights of states under international law, then intervention in the name of nation-building can be seen to be justified. Sometimes nation-building may simply be used as a justification for the expansion of imperial control. So nation-building matters, but what is meant by nation-building, matters even more.
The first major question that needs to be asked is whether nation-building should be done at all. In the context of intractable conflict, is nation-building an appropriate method of providing stable peace and a secure community, which can meet the needs of the people within it? There are mixed conclusions here. The democratic peace hypothesis argues that democratic states do not initiate wars; or alternatively, in its more limited version, do not initiate wars against each other. Immanuel Kant's original statement of the hypothesis in his essay on ‘Perpetual Peace' in the 17th Century argued both for the necessity of republican (or representative democracy) governments, and for their participation in a league of peace, or federation of free nations. This would mean that the simple creation of democratic nations would not be enough; peace would require also the creation of some sort of international governance and international law.
There is disagreement among current theorists of nation-building as to the relationships between the development of a free market economy and the development of democratic participation, as well as over the necessity of building a civil society as a prerequisite for the development of state institutions for democratic participation. Different theories of nation-building emphasise different parts of the arguments. Different versions of nation-building benefit different groups. Some appear to benefit more the outside countries, and/or the international governmental and non-governmental organisations which are involved. Some benefit elites in the nation being built or rebuilt. Some spread benefits widely in the society; some do not.
Nation-building that will be likely to contribute to stable international peace will need to emphasise the democratic participation of people within the nation to demand rights. It will need to build the society, economy, and polity which will meet the basic needs of the people, so that they are not driven by poverty, inequality, unemployment, on the one hand, or by a desire to compete for resources and power, either internally or in the international system. This does mean not only producing the formal institutions of democracy, but the underlying culture which recognises respect for the identities and needs of others both within and outside. It means development of human rights— political, civil, economic and social, and the rule of law. But it also means development of sewer systems, and roads, and jobs. Perhaps most important, it means the development of education.
Nation-building must allow the participation of civil society, and develop democratic state institutions that promote welfare. Democratic state-building is an important part of that. This is a multi-faceted process that will proceed differently in each local context.