The Seven Lessons of State Building

By Carl Bildt, Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden

Children peer through the rubble following an airstrike by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in September 2015 that killed 30 civilians and wounded 48 in Sawan district, among the poorest areas of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. MAGNUM/Lorenzo Meloni
Carl Bildt

We failed to see war coming in former Yugoslavia. After Bosnia, resting on our laurels, we repeated our mistake as Kosovo slid into open conflict. The international community’s interventionist wisdom was tested again in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most recently in Libya.

Today, as Syria looms ever larger, one hopes there is full recognition at last that the phase of winning or ending a war must be seen as just the initial part of the far more complex and demanding task of winning peace, building states and consolidating nations.

I have long maintained that there are seven lessons of nation-building to be heeded whenever intervention leaves instability in its wake. I have been refining these ever since Bosnia war ended two decades ago, at which time I first became immersed in the far more complex and demanding phase of recovery.

Lesson 1: Establish a secure environment fast.

Establishing a secure environment means much more than separating warring parties. As long as the gun is seen as the fastest way to power or property, we can be certain that it will be used. There will be little room to develop the most elementary part of economic recovery: democratic dialogue and entrepreneurship.

In Iraq, there was a serious shortage of both soldiers and plans for a secure post-war environment. The U.S. decision to disband virtually all structures of the previous regime, including the entire army, is probably one of the worst decisions in the history of post-conflict efforts. It opened the door to the instability that today haunts the entire region of the Levant and Mesopotamia.

In Libya, naivety reached new heights after the previous regime’s massive stockpiles of armaments were looted. Virtually no effort was made to disarm rival groups; indeed, different parts of the international community actually armed some of them. Libyan instability spread across the Sahara, making necessary new interventions and international peace operations.

Lesson 2: Focus on state building first.

Too often it is said that the task immediately after war is reconstruction, implying a need to pour in money to rebuild houses, bridges and whatever else might have been destroyed by the conflict.

In fact, the central challenge is nearly always state building. If that succeeds, other tasks will have the possibility of progressing. If it fails, we can be certain that everything else will fail as well.

From the start, the focus has to be on building a political infrastructure that unites competing forces and ensures some sort of order, and creates a framework for economic governance that promotes jobs and growth.

The essence of many of the post-conflict situations we are confronted with is often that there is too much nation and too little state. The central task is therefore to build a state that can transcend the differing national agendas — ethnic, cultural, religious — that otherwise risk tearing everything apart.

Lesson 3: Know what kind of state to build.

States come in different incarnations, and it is important to establish early on which type of state to build. This requires agreement on a constitutional framework and in many cases trying to resolve up front some of the core issues of the conflict.

In all of the post-Ottoman area, from Bihać in Bosnia in the north west to Basra by the Gulf in the south east, we have been faced with essentially the same challenge of devising a constitutional framework that can be accepted by different national or cultural groups.

The key goal of state building is to prevent national disintegration, which, despite extensive efforts since 2003, is now a real possibility in Iraq, with vast implications for the entire region.

That’s because the Baghdad government now faces a serious crisis of legitimacy for key groups. In any new constitution, different groups must be able to accept that any lasting solution is one that meets the minimum demands of everyone, while not meeting the maximum demands of anyone.

Lesson 4: Focus early on the preconditions for long-term economic growth.

While humanitarian issues are always at the forefront, it is dangerous to give them precedence over long-term challenges. There must be an early focus on establishing the conditions most conducive to economic growth. Priority must be given to basics like currency, taxation, and the banking system.

The fate of sanctioned states merits particularly close attention. Iraq’s strict pre-war sanctions drove many of its entrepreneurs and the middle class into poverty or exile, forcing the population to live on UN-financed and state-supplied food handouts. The country still hasn’t recovered.

Job creation, and bringing back a vibrant middle class, is the key to long-term stability. Without them, despair and resentment will soon disrupt even the most ambitious state building efforts.

Lesson 5: Nurture a benevolent regional environment.

In the Balkans, regime change in Zagreb and Belgrade was the key to improving prospects in Bosnia and Kosovo. Integration with the European Union (EU) has done much to regularise the position of Kosovo.

In Afghanistan — bridging South and Central Asia — the cooperation of all neighbouring and regional states as a precondition for long-term stability has been belatedly, if too modestly, recognised so-called Istanbul process since 2011.

In Iraq, the failure to establish a benevolent and coherent regional framework has contributed to the continuation of the conflicts inside the country. With fundamental interests at stake for neighbours like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, any regional tensions are bound to be reflected inside Iraq. Long-term stability will be elusive until such differences are at least to some extent overcome.

Lesson 6: The greater the international support, the easier the process.

As the Balkans showed, if the outside world can’t agree on the terms of a political solution, it is hardly surprising that those fighting can’t either. The war in Syria, soon to enter its sixth year, has tragically illustrated this again. If there is a divided UN Security Council, there is no way to avoid a divided country.

Some sort of UN framework can help, although it is no guarantee. It is very hard to stand against the legitimacy given by the UN and its Security Council. And the greater the legitimacy of any state-building enterprise, the less there is any need for coercion.

Building peace is a far more fragile, complex, costly and drawn-out process than fighting a war. Accordingly, a peace coalition normally needs to be much broader than a war coalition.

Lesson 7: Nation-building takes time and resources.

As the first high representative in Bosnia, I was told that everything should be concluded within a year. When the folly of this was recognised, a new deadline of two years was declared. Twenty years after the war, there is still a high representative sitting in Sarajevo, with some international actors still believing this is vital to keep the country together.

Peace building requires an abundance of patience. It also needs resources, from those most able to give them.

Today around 110,000 people are deployed in UN peacekeeping operations across the world, in addition to EU, NATO and African Union peacekeepers. But the share supplied by European countries has diminished from more than 40 per cent to less than 7 per cent. And the U.S. today provides just 82 persons to all UN peacekeeping operations. We face even larger shortfalls in other critical areas such as administrators, judges, policemen and engineers.


Nation- or state building after conflict remains one of the most complex undertakings the international community can engage itself in. While the bitter experiences of the last decades have discouraged many, there is no doubt that we must prepare ourselves for more of these missions in the future.

We know how failed and failing states in distant areas can threaten our security: there is the obvious scourge of terrorism; we have again been reminded of the destabilising effects of large refugee flows; and hard drug production is most prevalent in failed states, with their trade routes of death becoming highly destabilising too.

Ahead of us, at some point in time, lies the task of bringing some sort of stability to the Levant after the civil war in Syria has run its course, the forces of fundamentalism have been defeated and all the international and regional actors have reached a consensus on what needs to be done.

When that day comes, it will be the mother of all state and peace-building challenges. We must prepare ourselves to meet it.

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