Commentary

All Politics Are Local: State-building Outside the National Level

in Program

By Benedict Teagarden – Washington officials are making the link between US strategic interests and the challenge of weak or failed states. Recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and senior State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter explained how weak states can threaten US interests by harboring and supporting groups hostile to the US. This theory gained traction following 9/11, and has led to US policies aimed at building up these states to prevent them from becoming terrorist havens. Thus strengthening governance around the world is now seen as part of US national defense.

State-building, however, can be quite tricky. First, it is often assumed to relate to the sovereign nation state, the internationally recognized state entity, rather than looking at state capacity in a more holistic way. Secondly, it assumes that outside actors actually can be the agents of state-building.

Both these assumptions may be flawed. State-building frequently takes the central state at the national level as its focus. This reflects the global world order, which is organized around states. But before the middle of the twentieth century, many parts of the world were not compartmentalized in neat, political boxes labeled “states.” Only since decolonization has the world become a collection of centralized states, sometimes in name only (e.g. DR Congo). There are many parts of the world where people have little to no daily interaction with a centralized state. In these cases, the “state” is little more than a legal title demarking a territory.

Even in states where “national” identity or awareness is limited, effective governance may exist; governance occurs at multiple levels of societies. State building therefore should support ways to strengthen the state from the bottom up as well as at the national level. Supporting local governance offers an additional opportunity to improve the capacity of states.

State-building is a difficult process. External actors’ attempts at building states are even more difficult. Modern, strong states were not built solely by visionary political architects. Rather, they resulted from lengthy, often violent, political negotiations between actors within states. Institutions comprising states are the results of long-term, internal political bargaining and not a technocratic blueprint from the outside. Even if external agents draft a constitution for a state, it will only function effectively so far as the population buys into the system. In order to compliment the central state, local governance can be an integral part of the puzzle. At the local level, governing practice can draw on traditional, sub-national forms of governance, increasing effectiveness, durability, and legitimacy.

US policy increasingly recognizes the importance of governance at all levels. US strategy in Afghanistan now focuses on developing capacity at the provincial level, where ethnic and sectarian issues may be more manageable. The country is unlikely to have a strong centralized state, due to its historic legacy and its political and cultural diversity. While Iraq, in its modern history, has had a strong central government, there too the international community has helped draft a constitution that recognizes considerable rights to regional level government, namely, the Kurdish Regional Government.

By its very nature, nurturing localized governance requires locating and working with forms of traditional governance rather than trying to construct brand new ones. One notable example has been the northeastern province of Somalia, Somaliland. Somaliland boasts a democratically elected government, secure environment, and functioning economy. Further, Somaliland was created on its own accord, without foreign intervention. This stands apart from the rest of Somalia, where US efforts have focused on the state-level, supporting the Transitional Federal Government. That government has failed to bring stability or to prevent the growth of a radical faction, al-Shabab, which targets pro-American political actors in the failing state of Somalia. As a group, al Shabab acts on a platform of draconian Somali nationalism, with rhetoric of regional and global ambitions. It now controls a vast majority of Somali through its forces.

Local governance may prove pivotal in the struggle for building the Somali state. Al -Shabab’s political strength is relative; it thrives where the national government has failed to establish its writ and its legitimacy. While many have noted the achievements of traditional governance in Somaliland, the crisis in the rest of Somalia remains.

This raises several key issues in relation to local governance and the state in Somalia. First, while Somaliland shows a traditional form of governance that emerged to bring stability to an area of Somalia, it may not be easily reproducible throughout greater Somalia due to different negotiations in clan politics and a drastically different history. Second, the legal status of Somaliland remains a concern. Currently, it has few incentives to rejoin the rest of Somalia. Independence would still leave the rest of Somalia in crisis and make the African Union uncomfortable. Third, a focus on local governance opens questions about the nature and timing of US involvement. If alternative centers of government are established, to what extent should the US engage with these groups? And finally, the ultimate shape and structure of a central Somali state remains unclear.

While the central state remains a key actor in the international community, local governance is an important element in state-building. Yet local capacity in governance is largely shaped by context, and it is still an incomplete substitute for a functioning central state.

Photo Credit: “Strong Country” by Charles Roffey: 2005 in Hargeysa, Woqooyi Galbeed

Strong country


Benedict Teagarden is an intern at the Stimson Center’s Security for a New Century program.

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