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Jochen Hippler

Ethnicity, State, and Nation-Building -
Experiences, Policies and Conceptualization


The term “Nation-Building” is both old and new. It has been fashionable in the 1960s, and it is making it back center-stage right now. “Nation-Building” always has been a highly complex term, encompassing the description of historical experiences, a set of assumptions about “development” of Third World societies, and the policies of Governments North and South that were driven, among other considerations, by the desire to control and expand their own power.

These and other aspects and contradictions of terminology still cloud the discussion about Nation-Building today.

The historical debate about Nation-Building had been closely linked to De-Colonization, especially in Africa, and then spread to other areas and policies, like being applied to Viet-nam during the Vietnam War. After the USA left Indochina and with de-colonization mostly completed, “Nation-Building” lost its appeal, both politically and academically. Now, after the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the concepts and terminology of Nation-Building are experiencing a revival. States have been falling apart, not just in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, while other states (and Nation-States) are being created, reinvented and recognized. In quite a few cases we are witness to processes that actually do build state structures or Nations, often on the ruins of their predecessors. In other instances we observe states and multi-ethnic or more homogeneous societies fall apart and break up, sometimes resulting in situations of civil war and chaos: “failing states”. These cases have brought about a new desire at “Nation-Building”, both internally and internationally. This term has been applied to very many countries during the last decade: Haiti, Palestine, Somalia, Bosnia, the Kosovo, several successor-countries of the former Soviet Union (e.g. in Central Asia), Afghanistan, South Africa are only well known examples.

The question of Nation-Building, therefore, again is of importance – either because it is taking place, or because the lack of it is perceived as a key factor in creating chaos and war.
The relevance of Nation-Building for local, regional and international political processes at the beginning of the new century does raise a set of empirical, analytical and political ques-tions that are not easy to answer.

Aspects of Terminology

To avoid conceptional and terminological confusion our starting point should be to clarify the several layers of what “Nation-Building” can mean.
Historically, we can observe that out of several and quite diverse forms of rule and govern-ance along tribal, feudal, personal and other lines “modern” states (and a corresponding state system) have evolved, which generally are centered around bureaucratic rationality. This trend was linked to a tendency that transferred very diverse and localized societies into “Nations” – that is, integrating groups and communities of people and societies into political entities. The preliminary result was the preeminence  of the “Nation-State” as the model and norm of political organization. These processes of Nation-Building have been emulated in most Third World countries in very different circumstances and with diverse strategies and results. It is important to study and analyze these different approaches to Nation-Building to learn about their respective opportunities and dangers. This approach is focusing on historical and empirical study: Nation-Building has been and often still is an ongoing process in numerous societies. It can take decades, or even centuries to be completed, and the process may be relatively peaceful or dramatically violent.

An alternative approach to Nation-Building is a normative use of the term. In this context Nation-Building is perceived as a strategy, generally for “development”. Originating from the “modernization theory” of Third World development the high time of this approach was in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Its starting point was the assumption, that successful development (following the Western, especially European model) is linked to specific political preconditions, like a functioning national government and state as agents of change and development. Also seen as crucial was an integration of societies along “national” lines, and the overcoming of “pre-modern” or “primordial” communities, often sweepingly termed “tribal”. In this sense, Nation-Building was (and sometimes still is) a strategy to economic (and political) development. In recent years Nation-Building often is perceived not just as an strategy to economic development, but also to political stability, especially in post-conflict situations.

Finally, Nation-Building can be an approach to political dominance. This often is an aspect of the two points mentioned before, but is brought up as a separate argument here for its political importance. Nation-Building may be used by internal actors to strengthen their own power domestically or to politically integrate reluctant sectors of society into a existent or would-be “nation”. It also is being used by external actors (e.g. foreign governments) to build or stabilized influence in foreign societies or states, by linking nation-building with deciding on the models, structures and personnel. A foreign government that can shape the framework, direction and pick the ruling elites in another country’s Nation-Building effort, will generally exercise considerable influ-ence in this country’s affairs.

The term Nation-Building therefore is used in very different contexts and with quite differ-ent intentions. Any analytical attempt to deal with Nation-Building has to keep these differences in mind and never confuse the several aspects of terminology. Otherwise the term might become useless because of the resulting confusion.

What is Nation-Building?

To concentrate on an empirical and analytical use of the term Nation-Building (in contrast to it’s normative and political/legitimative uses) it is necessary to define what the broad term implies. Our starting point is not to judge Nation-Building to be either good or bad, but to ask what is necessary to create functioning Nation States where non existed before. Three different – though interlinked – processes seem to be key:

  • Creation of an integrating ideology. A “nation” as one of the preconditions of Nation-Building requires some form of ideology that legitimizes and justifies a “national” self-interpretation of the respective community. As long as the members of society perceive themselves primarily as members of specific tribes (e.g. Yussufzai) or ethnic groups (e.g. Pashtoo, Beloch) or religious groups (e.g. Ismaelite, Shiite) a common “nation” (e.g. Afghanistan or Pakistan) is difficult to develop. A uniting, unifying and integration ideology does not necessarily replace previous ideologies and identities, but has to exist and to be strong enough to convince the members of the subgroups (or-sub-national entities) that they have also something in common, which is meaningful and important, and distinguishes them from other groups, that may actually belong to the same ethnic, religious or language group but are located in a different society or state. The unifying ideologies or identities can cluster around explicit “nationalist”, but also around other concepts, like religion, language, “race”, citizenship, etc.
  • Creation of an integrated society. Besides a common identity and ideology, Nation-Building requires many practical preconditions, requires the integration of society on a practical level. It requires intensification of communication, of economic exchange, of traffic, public debate, in short: it requires that the different groups and subgroups do not just interact among themselves, but with other groups and subgroups on a “na-tional” level. The several existing networks of communication and intercourse, both in-tellectual and material, have to be integrated into a common network, to overcome re-gional, ethnic or other forms of isolation and self-centeredness. This implies an integra-tion of infrastructure, starting with roads and other means of travel, includes the estab-lishment of a common economy, and the functioning of the means of communication, like a functioning postal service, telecommunication (at least in modern times), and mass media which all reach the whole of society. Nation-Building will only succeed if these requirements do not only exist, but are also utilized to a significant degree, to create and sustain an intensification of exchange between the significant groups and elements of the society.
  • Creation of a functioning state apparatus. Nation-Building is different from just inte-grating a society. It also means building a “Nation State”. But this process of state building must correspond to the two processes mentioned above, it must fit the corre-sponding processes of identity building and societal integration. State building in this context has two interconnected aspects: it means that the respective society has constituted itself (or has been constituted by a dominant actor, including the state itself) as a political entity, or even as the key political entity. And the state is the main form, the main organization to express some form of political unity. Secondly, this implies many very practical and often organizational needs: the state has not just to be proclaimed, but it has to be functional. This means that it needs a functioning financial base (tax collection), it needs personnel which is loyal to it, and not primarily to some group or subgroup in society, it needs a monopoly of force (at least to some degree), a functioning legal system of some kind, and it needs to be functioning not just in parts of the country (e.g. the capital city) but in its whole territory. And, last but not least, it needs acceptance by the population.

As we can see, Nation-Building is a highly complex enterprise. It has very many precondi-tions to success, and it is made up of very many processes that interlink and can each succeed, fail, or stagnate. Its core from my perspective is the gradual achievement of the three mayor processes of creating a joint society out of quite diverse and often unrelated or even antagonistic groups; of the evolvement or the setting up of a functioning state apparatus which corresponds to the respective society in question; and the creation and acceptance of an identity that fits both thee processes, and of a legitimizing ideology.

Conceptual Questions

Judging processes of Nation-Building is difficult. Often our analytical tools are insufficient to answer important questions, and therefore personal, political and other preferences color our views. Is it reasonable, for instance, to try to create an Afghan or Pakistani Nation-State – or should the focus of attention rather be a Pashto Nation-state instead, because “Afghans” and “Pakistanis” do not exist at all, while Pashtos do? In the context of highly diverse, multi-ethnic societies, is the creation of a “nation State” a good idea or feasible at all, or should we rather look for other forms of governance? In other words: can we safely assume that Nation-Building really is a solution to many problems of political organization and economic development, or should we also consider it a key problem?

With economic, political and cultural Globalization reshaping both international relations and reducing the ability of national Governments to function effectively in many regards (like economic and social policies, undercutting internal democracy by global economic power) the question of the relevance of Nation-States arises. Does Nation-Building make sense when Nation-States generally are being weakened and undercut by global forces? How do we explain the new trend to Nation Building at exactly this time of weakening of Nation states?

At the same time Nation-Building is of an ambivalent character: On the one hand the crea-tion of Nations States is a base for political participation and democracy, since alternative models of democracy (e.g. on a global or regional level) are still lacking or quite weak. At the same time Nation-Building also can lead to repressive or dictatorial systems, when local elites turn Nation Building into tools of domination over dissenting sectors of society or neighboring groups and entities.

Methodological Problems

In historical perspective Nation-Building has generally been a very long-term endeavor. In the European context, it has taken centuries, e.g. in France and Britain. If we now want to assess success and failure of ongoing Nation-Building processes, we can hardly wait a couple of centuries for our judgment. But on the other hand, if we analyse Nation-Building processes in Third World countries after decolonization (like in Africa) we have only a very short time to consider. And in many cases the indications for success and failure fluctuate quite dramatically. Afghanistan, for instance, has been considered a very successful case of Nation-Building in the 1960s, while few analyst today would still consider this true. Also Indonesia often was presented as a success story up to the 1980s or even early 1990s, which again seem more doubtful today. On the other hand, Ghana or Malaysia looked very fragile a few decades ago, while today many observers are much more optimistic.  The point here is that success or failure often cannot be judged at any specific time with confidence, since Nation-Building generally is not a steady process, but a development that moves and fluctuates with many ups and downs, and often can take catastrophic forms, followed by more peaceful phases.

Also, Nation-Building in the 21st century is a difficult topic because historical examples of it can and should not just be emulated. Nation-Building often has been quite a violent affair, using war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and other bloody practices to integrate and homogenize societies and strengthen state structures. These kind of practices are not acceptable in the 21 st century any longer, as they may have been in earlier times. Humanitarian considerations and regard for international stability should exclude similar options today. But this raises the question whether there are alternative means to achieve the same goal, and what they might be.

The last two points – the questions of time frame and violence – are even more relevant since in modern times expectations and speed generally are greater than in historical times: while Nation-Building might have taken a few hundred years, now it is quite doubtful whether people and politicians are still patient enough for that. A trend to favor quick solu-tions to complex questions is creating the danger of making violent means an attractive option of Nation-Building, despite its humanitarian cost. Experiences in the Balkans and other regions of conflict might be an expression of this.

Political Aspects

One key problem of Nation-Building today has to do with the fact that the new wave of “Nation-Building” occurs at a historical moment which most analysts link to a new era of “Globalization”. Globalization often implies the weakening of Nation states, a reduced capacity of national governments to function and regulate their own societies and econo-mies as effectively as they did a few decades ago. Why the rush to state- and Nationhood at a time when the general consensus is, that states are less important? When economic and political power has to some degree shifted from the national level to global markets and global policy structures, how can Nation-Building be achieved at all? Many classical tools seem to be lacking today. But then, empirically, Nation-Building still is taking place, despite the apparent lack of key preconditions. How do we have to reconsider or reconceptualize Nation-Building under conditions of Globalization? Or is it just a flight from reality to the former days of 19th century Nationalism, into a dream world of national independence, self sufficiency and nationalist ideology?

But Globalization is not raising serious questions about Nation-Building on a very abstract level. It also creates very practical problems that have to be considered. Historically speak-ing Nation-Building generally was an inward-looking process, creating or strengthening psychological, political, organizational and geographic borders. It meant to create mecha-nisms of political, societal and economic rule und regulation, that were supposed to achieve – besides other things – an increase of “national” power and wealth. While this did not necessarily imply an even distribution of both among the citizens or subjects of the Nation or nation state it generally meant a high degree of autonomy for the new Nation. Autonomy was both a goal and a means, as it seemed to guarantee the freedom to act independently in favor of the “National Interest”. Today this road to Nation-Building may not have been closed altogether, but it generally is quite difficult to follow now. Uni-polar political dominance on a global scale after the end of the Cold War makes attempts at Nation-Building often subject to foreign consent – as cases like Iraq, Palestine, Kurdistan and others have demonstrated.

On the other hand, Nation-Building has become a contested concept even among the big powers: while it generally is being accepted as necessary or at least desirable in many places of regional conflict (e.g. Palestine, Afghanistan, East Timor), the United States and Western Europe quite often disagree on how and when to support it actively. On the one hand we can observe consensus, but on the other also a division of labor (with the US con-centrating on military activities, while the UN and EU on humanitarian assistance, rebuild-ing, and Nation-Building), and a political conflict over priorities.

Also, Nation-Building in a Post-Cold-War environment brings up the problem mentioned before: how to relate the foreign initiatives and policies in regard to Nation-Building, often aiming at regional stability, peace building and maximizing foreign influence, with a mean-ingful degree of autonomy, independence and self-rule. Nation-Building forced or imple-mented by outsiders and foreign powers might very well bring up a set of new problems that will escalate only at a later stage of the process.

Finally, while Nation-Building is presented as a more or less technical enterprise – like strengthening institutions and infrastructure – it also is a highly political process. It has to do with power. Some groups and people will win, while others lose. Nation-Building always means a re-distribution of power in a society. It therefore always will trigger resistance, which might be expressed in very different ways, including by force. How should we deal with this aspect of Nation-Building, especially taking into account the legal principle of non-interference in other countries?

Why does Nation-Building Happen?

Given all the problems connected to Nation-Building, why does it happen at all? What are (or have been) the key factors working in its favor? Generally we can distinguish economic, political, ideological, internal and external actors.
The following chart can give a short overview.

(only in printed version)

It is obvious that these factors are of very uneven importance and will vary from case to case and under different circumstances. They also emphasizes different actors involved in Nation-Building, again both internally and externally.

Among the more important internal actors we will find governments, the armed forces (which may or may not be fully or partially controlled by the government), economic inter-ests and interest groups, ethnic, ethno-religious and similar groups, independent warlords, political parties and elements of civil society. External actors include foreign governments, foreign armed forces, international organizations, and also external economic interests and civil society sectors of foreign countries.

Final Remark

Nation-Building is a highly complex and risky undertaking. It involves a wide range of actors, of interests, mechanisms, strategies and potential outcomes. It can lead to stable, successful Nation-States or to war and chaos. It is the more complicated the more it is taking place in heterogeneous, even fragmented societies. The questions of ethnicity and other forms of political identities is therefore one of the key factors.

But at this point in the research process it looks like the state being at the center of impor-tance. The state in Nation-Building processes generally is both an actor and a means, it is both the problem and part of the solution. The state structures and their relation to different segments of society are at the core of Nation-Building. Many sectors of society may try to influence, to infiltrate or even control or conquer it. The state can help regulate and moderate societal processes of integration, or it can become a tool of dominance of some elites over the whole of society or competing elites and contribute to fragmentation. The state and its relationship to diverse and heterogeneous societies may very well be the key point to analyze complex processes of Nation-Building.

Conference Paper for:
SEF-Symposium 2002 (Development and Peace Foundation, Bonn)
Nation-Building in the Globalisation Process - A contribution to regional stability and global security?
11 - 12 December 2002, University Club, Bonn



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