Most wars don’t make states (so what’s a policymaker to do?)

Most wars don’t make states (so what’s a policymaker to do?)

Most modern warfare is intrastate. Most take place in poorer, weaker states and challenge many of our assumptions about the evolution of most states. Foreign policymakers should reevaluate their priorities and focus on ending civil wars rather than building centralised state structures.


Since 1945, civil wars have been the dominant form of conflict in the international system. Even as interstate wars have become infrequent, civil wars have persisted. Unlike interstate wars, which tend to be short, civil wars are so long that one scholar has named them never-ending wars (more than half of civil wars last 7 years or longer).  While there are several explanations for the persistence of civil wars, scholars and policymakers focus their attention on the problem of weak states: governmentsthat cannot monopolize violence or provide services to their people. Weak states are characterized by low per capita GDP and ineffective tax systems, which leads to both the opportunity and motivation for rebellion. In weak states, rebel groups find unpoliced areas from which to launch offensives (sometimes into neighbouring countries). In weak states, governments often buy the support of one group by excluding others, and this fosters grievances that can lead to civil war. The policy solution seems obvious – strengthen states – and indeed, multilateral agencies and Western governments have sought to improve the functioning of weak states in myriad ways. But these efforts have generally proven ineffective. In my book The Myth ofInternational Order, I provide a longer-term historical analysis of why states are weak, and why trying to strengthen states is, often, misguided.
What we now see as a ‘strong’ state – think Canada – that monopolizes violence and taxes around 30% of GDP and spend 15% of GDP on social services like healthcare is a relatively recent development.
What we now see as a ‘strong’ state – think Canada – that  monopolizes violence and taxes around 30% of GDP and spend 15% of GDP on social services like healthcare is a relatively recent development. Until 1900, no European state taxed more than 10% of GDP and spent more than 2% of GDP on social services. That a small group of Western states – about a third of all states – came to tax and spend at such high rates was due largely to the world wars: Canada, for example, first instituted income tax in 1917 as the Income Tax War Act. Wars lead governments to extract, and in return, grant rights and provide services to citizens. This was pithily captured in the sociologist Charles Tilly’s claim ‘war made the state, and the state made war.’ The evidence of the world wars would suggest he was right. But my research shows the claim requires qualification, and this qualification has important implications for contemporary Western foreign policy.

Recommended: Why would anyone trust a British Prime Minister or an American President ever again?


The world wars led to the expansion of strong states in the West, but as wars go, the world wars were anomalies. The world wars were long and costly interstate wars, but such wars constitute 10% of interstate wars, and since 1945, most wars have been intrastate wars. So when we are thinking about the relationship between war and the state, we find a quite weak relationship between wars as they actually occur, especially now and the formation of states. I have rephrased Tilly’s aphorism to say that ‘most wars don’t make states!’ Interstate wars that are short, as most are, do not require high levels of taxation; intrastate wars divide a society and, being long-lasting, diminish state capacity by damaging infrastructure. Since 1945, most wars have been intrastate wars, not interstate wars. But most states in the international system emerged after 1945, as the European empires folded. So we should not expect the states that recently gained independence to have developed the types of extractive capacity that Western states developed through (unusually) costly interstate wars. If we drill down further to why this is so, we essentially invert the logic of ‘war made the state.’ In Europe, citizens faced with the threat of conquest were willing to pay high levels of taxes and serve in centralized armies. In the absence of such a threat, citizens should be less willing to do either. They may not pay taxes, and they may support other armed actors against the state. Put starkly, in the absence of interstate war, the primary threat to many citizens may be a central government that is strong enough to oppress them.
The Myth of International Order: Why Weak States Persist and Alternatives to the State Fade Away by Arjun Chowdhury, Published by Oxford University Press (2017)
We can understand this through a recent example. A 2007 survey in Iraq, when violence was high, revealed the following views: 51% supported attacks on US troops, but 65% did not want the US to leave Iraq. This means a group – 16% to 51% of the respondents – supported attacks on US troops and  did not want them to leave. How could this be? Were they ‘confused,’ as a New York Times contributor put it? No, they were not confused. In Iraq, two factions, Sunni and Shia,  were fighting each other as well as the US. For each faction, attacking US troops  prevented the US from becoming too strong, but having the US stay would prevent  the other faction from getting too strong as well. Put differently, Iraqis were fighting to  prevent the emergence of a strong state under the control of a rival faction. This means foreign policy practitioners face a dilemma they may not realize they face. On the one hand, they wish to end intrastate wars (and this is wise because intrastate wars don’t make states!). On the other, they wish to strengthen states. It appears that the two are compatible: if you strengthen the state, you will monopolize violence and end civil wars! My research suggests the two goals may not be compatible. In the absence of interstate war, strengthening the state is likely to make citizens, at least a subgroup of them, insecure, and may raise the risk of intrastate war. The example of Iraq suggests that a balance of power within society, where different factions remain armed, maybe an outcome that citizens are willing to fight for because it prevents the rise of a potentially repressive centralized state.
The primary goal of foreign policy should be to prevent or end civil war. As strengthening states can possibly worsen the risk of civil war, this should not be a focus of foreign policy.
What does this mean for foreign policy? A simplified task: the primary goal of foreign policy should be to prevent or end civil war. As strengthening states can possibly worsen the risk of civil war, this should not be a focus of foreign policy. Rather, policymakers may have to accept a balance of power within a society if it brings peace and allows non-state actors to extend services like immunization. And this may mean bargaining with unsavoury armed actors, from autocrats to rebel groups. Most wars don’t make states. This is especially true of the intrastate wars prevalent today, so  policymakers should work to end them. But building states today, in the absence of  interstate war, may raise the risk of intrastate war. Policymakers are better off passing on the challenge of building centralized states.

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