Stephen Krasner – State Building in the 21st century

One of the preeminent political scientists of the last generation – Stephen Krasner gave a talk at the LSE on state building and how to intellectually grapple with the theory of failed states and bettering them such that they don’t pose threats to other states. Issues surrounding state failure have captured global attention since 2000 with the onset of 9/11 and concomitant zeal displayed by the Bush administration to root out societies unfit to govern and transform them into modern democratic societies with open societies, rule of law and functioning market economy. But this impulse was not and has never been adequately theorized on and still remains a problem lacking intellectual consensus.

Krasner commenced with an overview of the three dominant approaches to state building or state development – modernization theory, institutional capacity and elite bargaining and competition or rational choice institutionalism. Moving on, he recounted their core tenets and their chief criticisms. For modernization theory which argued that as states economically develop, they will also become more open, leading to political reform and democratization. It has a progressive tenor and largely been the dominant school within American social science over last fifty years. However, until now, it has yet to effectively account for the question of how growth starts, which is a fatal flaw. The second, instituitional capacities approach, posits that the building and development of political institutions is critical since it allows for economic and social rights that are mobilized to be institutionalized. Several sources of institutional capacity exist including war and its relationship to state development, colonialism and religion. But the problem with this approach is that it could seem rather naive and foreign for countries with distinct political and institutional histories. And the final and most recent and popular approach is elite bargaining and competition, summed up by the ascendance of rational choice institutionalism. RCI argues that elite competition and strategic bargaining is crucial to the functioning of modern political institutions; importantly, it suggests that given the propensity of elites to capture the state and acquire political spoils, its critical to constrain them through institutions and also incentives that enables effective governance. But RCI is problematic because it tends to dichotomize states into open and closed orders and is also rather ignorant of larger structural factors underpinning and influencing state development.

Krasner continued to taze out the policy implications of the state of extant state building literature to argue that RCI offers the best strategy for states and external donors when supporting failed states or states failing or in peril, the so called transitional states. And he argues this for two reasons: over the longer term, state building will rely on elite interests and their management etch will involve aligning of domestic and external elites coupled with an understanding of their innate interests. Thus, it is critical to acquire a sober understanding of power configurations within these states and their core interests, since they hold the levers of power that be. Engaging in grandiose projects of state building and democracy is of limited use and are bound to fail. And even the supporting of Weberian rational type bureaucracies is of limited utility given that they curb rent seeking opportunities. Ending, Krasner forcefully argued that state power lies in the hands off those that control the material levers of power and foreign donors need to therefore recalibrate their efforts around them instead of circumventing them. Though sober and realist in tenor, Krasner’s views offer a much needed intellectual alternative for external donors to consider given the failures associated with state building over the past decade.

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