On State-Building and Wicked Problems: Stateness, Nationhood and Mimicry

Date01 April 2019
Published date01 April 2019
Subject MatterArticles
On State-Building and
Wicked Problems:
Stateness, Nationhood
and Mimicry
Klejda Mulaj1
Responding to a set of wicked problems pertaining to weak or failed states,
state-building remains circumscribed by many of the problems it strives to
address. Despite the expansion of literature, the challenging task of (re)building
states in a postconflict setting is characterized by inadequate intellectual and
policy coherence. Engaging with the existing literature, this article seeks to add
clarity in ways that relate directly to the agendas of academic research and
policy making. Casting into sharper relief what is distinctive and/or familiar in
state formation processes in the West and the rest of the world, the analysis
highlights the differing impact of nationalism. In considering the critique that
contemporary international-led state-building neglects nation-building, the
article suggests that the stateness of polities undergoing state-building is intrinsi-
cally linked with nationhood. State-building resides in both international and
national locations of politics which condition the constitution of national identity
via multiple (unequal) exchanges between external and local actors that can
be depicted in terms of mimicry. Multiple political locations of state-building
notwithstanding, the task of bringing the imagined community into being is
more suited to national actors. Ongoing challenges of nation- and state-building
require more acknowledgement that the realization of the nation cannot be a
primary domain of international actors.
Foreign Policy, nation-building, state-building, mimicry, wicket problems, east and
1 Department of Politics, University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom.
Corresponding author:
Klejda Mulaj, Department of Politics, University of Exeter, Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter,
EX4 4RJ, United Kingdom.
E-mail: K.Mulaj@exeter.ac.uk
International Studies
56(2–3) 129–146, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719844922
130 International Studies 56(2–3)
More often than not state-building tends to be understood as the obverse of state
failure or state fragility. This is so particularly since the early 1990s when con-
cerns with underperformance of weak states impinged firmly the security agenda.
Not only is the aspiration of security the bedrock of state-building, but strong state
performance is a mediating factor to the provision of peace and security. Conflict,
on the contrary, is understood to be a by-product of low state capacity (Call &
Wyeth 2008; Krasner & Pascual, 2005). More than one and a half billion people
live in (failed) states that cannot maintain security and order, regional stability, or
the rights and needs of their populations (Richmond 2014a, p. 12). At the same
time, threats from individuals and groups residing in failed states remain real. A
key strategy of the international community in response to these threats has been
to try to build more capable states that can govern their own territories effectively.
Hence learning how to do state-building better is hoped to benefit long-term secu-
rity and sustainable peace.
The link between state-building and security is a constant in the existing lit-
erature (e.g., Call & Wyeth 2008; Dodge, 2006; Edelstein, 2009; Krasner &
Pascual, 2005; Lake, 2016). Much has been written on how best to conceptualize
state performance (Badie & Birnbaum, 1983; Migdal, 1988; Skocpol, 1979) and
the levels of the state’s delivery of political goods (Rotberg, 2004). Moreover,
the understanding of statehood in terms of state capacity has led to a tendency to
approximate the state with its institutions. In fact, it is difficult to find a publish-
able piece on contemporary international-led state-building that does not pay
attention to state-building as institution building (e.g. Fukuyama, 2004; Hameiri,
2007; Lemay-Hébert, 2009, 2013; Paris, 2004). Another prominent faction of the
related literature concerns itself with the quality of the emerging peace
(Heathershaw, 2008; Lewis, 2017; Richmond & Pogodda, 2016; Richmond,
2014b; Visoka, 2015) and challenges of obtaining a modicum of legitimacy
(Lake, 2016; Mulaj, 2016). The rapid growth of literature, nonetheless, has not
resolved all the puzzles of state-building processes. It is curious that, as Richmond
(2014b, p. 12) notes, with the expansion of the literature and as state-building has
become mainstream, it has ‘lost its policy and intellectual coherence’. Indeed,
there seems to be no ‘comprehensive understanding of the scope of the concept
and of the conundrums that it presents for policy’ (Chandler & Sisk 2013, p. xx).
In the light of the vastness of the state-building literature and the experience base
of the process, one scholar openly declared: ‘I make no claim to comprehensive-
ness’ (Brinkerhoff, 2014, p. 334).
Acknowledging the wide range of the relevant literature and the ambiguity in
the understanding of the concept and practice of state-building, this contribution
seeks to add clarity with reference to two themes that are currently overlooked in
existing publications. These two neglected themes pertain to lack of (a) a focused
analysis of the genealogy of contemporary state-building and (b) a systematic
consideration of the correlation between state-building (as institution building)
and nation-building (as national identity building) and the international state
builders’ positions to these. Consideration of these two themes relate directly to

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