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Jochen Hippler

Violent Conflicts, Conflict Prevention and Nation-Building -
Terminology and Political Concepts

A large number of foreign policy discussions since the end of the East-West conflict have been determined by a series of regional conflicts – in addition to the dissolution and restructuring processes in the former Eastern bloc. Those that have stood out most include Iraq (Gulf War 1991, Iraq War 2003), Somalia, the wars during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia (particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo), Afghanistan, plus the wars and violent excesses  in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Liberia and others). The perspective had been shifting since the early 1990s because it was no longer possible to squeeze each conflict into the simple schema of the Cold War. The internal causes of conflict came more to the fore, with new modes appearing, such as culturalistic interpretations (clash of civilizations) or knee-jerk ascriptions to “ethnic” causes. In addition to other concepts – e.g. that of failed states – the term “nation-building” emerged more and more in the Anglo-Saxon debate, in particular. This was noticeable in the political discussion, e.g. in the case of former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali (Haig 1994; UN Chronicle 1994), in the media, e.g. Newsweek and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Newsweek 1994; FAZ 1994), as well as in scientific analysis, e.g. through the work of Eriksen (1993) and Lenhart (1992). At the beginning, there was frequent discussion concerning the processes and problems of nation-building or its failure, though the term itself was avoided. In the meantime, the term has been used more and more, but hardly explained or addressed in theoretical terms.

In the second half of the 90s, the term “nation-building” gained acceptance on a broad front and became a natural part of both the political and scientific debate. The experience of the international community in places like Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq made it clear that break-down of the state and the fragmentation of societies can trigger violent conflicts or make them insolvable. Such situations can, in the longer term, cause economic, social and political development to fail, give rise to major humanitarian disasters, destabilise entire regions and even turn them into sources of transnational terrorism – i.e. also generally affecting distant countries and calling Western political objectives into question. It is especially in these contexts that nation-building is discussed at international level: either as a preventive political option to avoid the break-up of the state and social fragmentation, as an alternative to military conflict management, as part of military interventions or as an element of post-conflict policies. Accordingly, a policy of nation-building constitutes a hinge between foreign, development and military policy for the purpose of preventing or managing violent conflicts, achieving local and regional stability, and facilitating development.
Nation-building is, however, neither easy nor without problems. The chances of achieving this objective from the outside are assessed very differently and often with scepticism; the paths and instruments to success are frequently unclear and its is questionable in many instances whether external players will be able to stay the course long enough in terms of time and financial commitment. External nation-building can drag outside players into local power struggles from which they find it very difficult to extricate themselves. Questions of legality are also difficult to answer in many cases because, although the ban on intervention under the UN Charter is often ignored, it does still exist - and for good reason. Finally, it is frequently not clear what nation-building is actually supposed to mean.

Nation-building: earlier discussions

Nation-building is an old term that has already flourished and declined. Nation-building was a key concept of foreign, security and development policy in the 1950s and 60s, in particular. At that time, it was closely related to the modernisation theories fashionable during those years, which viewed the development process in the Third World in terms of catching up with Western models. Societies were to be “modernised”, i.e. their structures adapted to the industrialised countries through “traditional” or “tribal” societies being turned into “modern” nation-states, with the European model implicitly or explicitly intended as the goal.
Nationality and the nation-state were fundamental categories, with economic and political development regarded as promising success only in this context. In Rivkin’s words (1969, 156) relating to Africa:

“Nation-building and economic development (...) are twin goals and intimately related tasks, sharing many of the same problems, confronting many of the same challenges, and interrelating at many levels of public policy and practice.”
Economic development was perceived to imply a market economy, and political development a nation-state. Political development as a component of or prerequisite for economic development was thus regarded above all as a nation-building process. The two together, i.e. accomplishment of the market mechanism and the nation-state, were regarded as being closely linked and as “modernisation”.

It is evident that this view of “development” – modernisation, nation-state and nation-building – applied European experiences to the Third World in a rather schematic manner. In some cases, Western state-building processes were even reappraised again in explicit terms in order to learn lessons for nation-building in the Third World (after Lipset 1963).
Nation-building also took place in the 1950s and 60s in the context of the East-West conflict and constituted a western strategy for containing socialism and the Soviet Union in the Third World. In the same way as other concepts, it was intended to represent an alternative to the victory of liberation movements and the “revolution”. Looking back, the head of the US development agency USAID, Brian Atwood (1994, 11), summed this up in the following terms:

“Thirty years ago, nation building was largely a postcolonial phenomenon, an ambitious program to help newly independent countries acquire the institutions, infrastructure, economy, and social cohesion of more advanced nations. Nation building was a strategic and competitive enterprise, part of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

The term “nation-building” almost vanished into oblivion during the 1970s. Compromised by the constant emphasis of it in the Vietnam War, its association with military strategies and its conceptional link with markedly brutal political forms of “pacifying” the country, it became unfashionable both politically and academically. As already pointed out, it was not until a generation later that it found favour again by being revived - first more by accident and then systematically - in the context of complex violent conflicts, especially where these displayed strong ethnic dimensions or elements of the break-down of the state.

Clarification of the concept

The term “nation-building” is used today in a markedly vague and inconsistent manner. To simplify matters, we can distinguish between several uses of the term, which are either directed at the real course, description or analysis of (past or present) historical-social processes or are normatively oriented and focus on a system of objectives or political strategies (Hippler 2002). The two frequently overlap in day-to-day usage.
Nation-building is, on the one hand, a process of socio-political development, which ideally – usually over a longer historical time span – allows initially loosely linked communities to become a common society with a nation-state corresponding to it. Such a process can get off the ground as a result of political, economic, social, cultural and other dynamics. However, it is not automatic that such nation-building processes will proceed successfully. They can involve extremely different dimensions and instruments, such as economic integration, cultural integration, political centralisation, bureaucratic control, military conquest or subjugation, creation of common interests, democratisation and establishment of common citizenship or repression and acts of “ethnic cleansing”.

There have been rather peaceful and particularly bloody nation-building processes, both in Europe and the Third World. They are thus not peaceful or conducive to constructive conflict management per se, nor are they necessarily violent. These processes combine “natural” developments of an economic, political or cultural nature which can hardly be controlled by individual players with strategic decisions and active politics of key players who incorporate the developments for which they are not answerable and take advantage of them for themselves.
Nation-building can, on the other hand, be a political objective as well as a strategy for reaching specific political objectives. Internal or external players strive to create or strengthen a political and social system constituted under a nation-state where this appears to serve their interests, where it fulfils particular functional requirements to a greater degree than a previously existing arrangement, or where it strengthens their power or weakens their opponents.

In such a context, the term “nation-building” has a programmatic or conceptional character rather than serving to describe or analyse social and political processes. Either internal players strive to assert nation-state models of power or external players pursue the same objective. In both cases, this can ensue for functional reasons, such as improving social stability or economic development opportunities, though also in order to gain dominance and control in the relevant society. Nation-building can therefore be a development or imperial strategy depending on the political circumstances and players concerned.
Both variants of usage of the term “nation-building”, i.e. the descriptive or analytical vs. the normative-strategic, are very multifaceted and heterogeneous. This is especially evident in the second form, given that nation-building can be handled very differently in strategic terms as far as the specific objectives, players, instruments and results are concerned. For this reason, the two uses of the term not only imply differing views of the same subject, they also comprise very different dimensions with regard to the time factor, mechanisms and results. However, there are certain core elements in all nation-building processes without which the process could hardly proceed successfully over the long term.

Elements of nation-building

A distinction can be drawn between three central elements for successful nation-building, which are closely interlinked in most cases: a unifying, persuasive ideology, integration of society and a functional state apparatus.
Nation-building will only be successful in the long term if it stems from an integrative ideology or produces this from a certain point on. Fundamental restructuring of politics and society requires special legitimation with regard to justification of policy as well as social mobilisation for its ends. The different variations of “nationalism” clearly have to be regarded as the classic ideology of nation-building – with “nationalism“ here meaning everything ranging from the meaningful development of a common national identity up to and even including violent disassociation from other national or ethnic groups. Nation-building necessarily presupposes the forming of a “nation”, which can, however, be constituted in extremely different ways. As long as people in a region define themselves primarily as Pashtuns, Maronites, Bavarians, Yussufzai (a Pashtun tribe), Ismailites or members of a particular clan, nation-building has either not been concluded or has failed. The existence of the respective identities is not in itself the problem but, rather, their relationship with a “national” identity covering all groups. It is quite possible for someone to be a Pakistani or Afghan and a Pashtun or Shiite at the same time if the two are made possible ideologically, just as someone can simultaneously be a Bavarian, Muslim and German. However, as long as the primary identity and loyalty lies with the tribe, clan or an ethnic or ethno-religious group and the “national” identity level remains subordinate or is missing, a nation-state will continue to be precarious. It is not absolutely essential, though, for such an integrating ideology forming the basis for nation-building to always and automatically be “nationally” oriented. It can also be replaced by other value and identity models, at least for a time: constitutional patriotism - “liberty, equality, fraternity” -, secular ideologies (e.g. socialism) or religion can assume the same function or auxiliary functions. The cases of the founding of the states of Pakistan and Israel are illustrative in this respect: when states were founded for the “Muslims of India” and “the Jews”, these originally religious classifications were increasingly reinterpreted in a “national” way.

The second prerequisite for a successful nation-building process involves the integration of a society from the loosely associated groups that existed previously. Pashtuns, Baluchis and Punjabis must not only be convinced that they belong to a common nation, this notion must also be found in the social reality. To achieve this, the patterns of communication between the social groups need to be intensified to the extent that communication does not principally take place within the groups. Even though the internal communication of the (ethnic, religious and other) groups may remain stronger than that between them, a certain degree of close communication among them is a requirement for successful and enduring nation-building. However, apart from the political-cultural aspect, there are also practical requirements for this: nation-building needs a “national” infrastructure. Transport and communication infrastructures, the development of a “national economy” from regional or local economic areas, plus nationwide mass media for establishing a national political and cultural discourse are key variables.

A crucial component of nation-building is the development of a functional state apparatus that can actually control its national territory. This implies, firstly, that the corresponding society has constituted itself as a political society, which corresponds to the two processes outlined above, especially the formation of a common society with its own self-awareness. In this way, the state becomes the political organisational form of a society that is able to act – if it did not already exist before playing a key role in the social integration process. State-building is a key aspect of successful nation-building. It presupposes a range of practical capabilities, such as creating a financial basis for a functioning state apparatus, i.e. an effective fiscal system, as well as an organised police and legal system and an administrative apparatus that is effective and accepted throughout the country. The state needs loyal personnel that do not identify primarily with individual social, ethnic or religious communities but, rather, with the state and the “nation”. In particular, the state apparatus must assert its monopoly of force over the entire national territory in order to be successful over the long term.

For successful nation-building, this results, all together, in a triangle formed from the highly complex individual elements of state-building, social integration and ideological legitimation. Certain components can be provided relatively easily from outside, such as parts of the infrastructure, while others are very difficult or even impossible to furnish from outside, e.g. in the case of ideological nation-building. In the end, however, it is only engagement with each other providing mutual strength that will decide the success or failure of nation-building. As a rule, external players will consequently make nation-building easier or harder, but hardly ever be able to force it or completely prevent it where the internal factors stand in the way of this.

Nation, state and social mobilisation

The core political elements of nation-building comprise the nation-state plus a high level of social mobilisation and political integration. The state is not the central element solely by virtue of its modern, nation-state form being one of the most important results of nation-building; it is also the decisive player for the most part.
Contrary to the view prevailing in Germany since the Age of German Romanticism that a nation exists a priori and must – or should – eventually be constituted in a state, most historical processes have been considerably more complex and frequently even gone in the opposite direction. “Nations” do not just exist, rather they emerge like many other social phenomena in a difficult and inconsistent process – or simply do not. And in most countries, the existence of a state preceded that of a nation, even in the classic examples of European nation-states like France and England (Greenfeld 1992). For merely practical reasons, it was not rare for a state apparatus to create, intentionally or rather incidentally, a nation corresponding to itself: the old monarchies were hardly ever based on ethnic or national borders but, instead, on religious or charismatic legitimation mechanisms and compulsion. They adopted their later form through conquest or marriage with other ruling houses and not through any defined right of self-determination of the nations, which did not yet exist. And it was only via what were often long historical processes that the state apparatuses, which were becoming stronger and more bureaucratic, were able to form a nation from diverse social groups, e.g. through repression of local rulers, legal regulation of social relations and the fiscal system increasingly affecting everyone, the pressure of homogeneity for a common religion and, later, through nationwide education systems or general military conscription.

In many multi-ethnic (proto)-societies, the impetus for pushing through social integration and creating a nation-state came and comes from the state apparatus itself, using methods like material incentives (financial, economic, public service employment etc.), cultural means (language policy, education system, policy on religion) or compulsion. In many cases, there was and is a link between internal and external causes in this regard, such as the attempt of a weak or rudimentary government to consolidate its position in its own society (and extend its tax base or repress local power factors) and to be able to better overcome foreign policy challenges, especially those of a military nature. The interest in having a fiscal system independent of the local nobility or warlords plus a well-organised and powerful military has represented a particularly important impetus for developing and re-legitimizing systematized state apparatuses. In this sense, most cases of nation-building would have been dominated from the top down rather than the nation-state evolving naturally from society. And, almost always, this type of state-induced nation-building has given rise to complex dialectics between the state apparatus and social groups (as well as between different parts of the state apparatus and between different social groups).

At the same time, nation-building has always signified a process of social mobilisation, either from the bottom up or from the top down. This especially applies to the constituting phase in many instances. The ideological and political process of the shaping of a nation implies its members being involved in its politics, with large numbers of people entering into the political sphere. While politics – and therefore power – was reserved for a small group or stratum of privileged persons over long periods of history and the population was the object of politics, this situation is undergoing fundamental change. The constitution of a “nation” means that ideologically (in principle) all its members now first become political subjects instead of being subservient and tolerant of the politics of the rulers. In this sense, nation-building takes on a democratic potential because belonging to the nation is defined by citizenship or common ethnic-national interests rather than by noble birth or religious position. The power now no longer lies, at least as far as is claimed, with a king chosen by the grace of God but, rather, with the newly constituted society. The fact that it does not necessarily have to exercise what is in principle its sovereignty in a democratic way and can often be organised in a clientelistic, elitist and dictatorial manner is most regrettable, but changes nothing with regard to the legitimatory bond between power and the “nation”, i.e. what is at least claimed to be an all-inclusive community. Nation-building thus opens up democratic potential, but not necessarily the door to actual democracy; on the contrary, power “in the name” of the nation can be more repressive than feudalism or the doctrine of divine right, not to mention “traditional” forms of rule.

Nation-building therefore makes the members of a nation political subjects in principle, even if the exercising of participatory rights is often denied in reality. Nation-building “politicises” the population into a nation, mobilising broad sections of society in the constituting process, in particular. This mostly implies particular social prerequisites, e.g. presupposing a significant degree of communication within the society, which is aided, in turn, by a high level of literacy and appropriate mass and communication media (in certain phases of history this was the invention of printing and, later, newspapers, radio and television).

The process of constituting the nation plus the greater participation of and ability to politically mobilise the population that has become the “nation” does, however, mean that conflicts previously lying dormant in the society and which had little chance of being articulated by virtue of the population being excluded from politics can be effectively intensified. This is all the more true if the determination of who actually belongs to the “nation” has not been settled or is disputed, i.e. especially in multi-ethnic or multi-religious societies that cannot agree on common citizenship as a community criterion. If belonging to the nation is to be determined according to language, ethnic origin or religion rather than on the basis of civil equality, this can easily have two problematic consequences. First, there is a danger that ethnicizing the political discourse in the context of latent conflicts and social mobilisation will lower the threshold for violence and trigger violent conflicts which are ethnically structured. Secondly, such a context transforms the nation-building process: instead of striving for or achieving the integration of society as a whole, the alternative then arises to conduct nation-building either as a repressive project of hegemony by one ethnic group over others or bring about a situation of competition between different nation-building projects conducted by the various ethnic groups. Both lead to the intensification of existing conflicts and the risk of these being waged in a violent manner in the future.
Each nation-building process involves the creation of new political and social structures and mechanisms while overcoming and destroying old ones at the same time. For this reason, it is always and necessarily associated with the redistribution of power. Nation-building has winners and losers in political, economic and social terms – so it can also be used as a means of obtaining advantages for one’s own political or social group.

Pushing through a central government where there were perhaps only regional or local rulers or extensively autonomous rural communities beforehand and bureaucratically regulating a political system formerly based on personal ties, clientelistic relations or charismatic rule are not simply elements of a more technical “modernisation” of social structures; rather they represent a redistribution of power which is perceived as positive by some groups and as a threat by others. Nation-building is thus always a contentious process, fought out in a political, cultural, social, economic or military setting. As soon as a society in this situation is divided in ethnic or religious terms besides the economic, social and other lines of conflict, a further dimension is added to the existing potential for conflict, which can then intensify the course of the conflict as well as give it a completely new structure. Distribution and power conflicts can, for example, be ideologized in an ethno-religious way, which further increases the degree of social mobilisation and makes possibilities for pragmatic solutions more difficult. This also applies, of course, to cases where nation-building is attempted principally as a strategy by external players. Regardless of whether their intentions are of a humanitarian or imperial nature, in the target country nation-building has to bring about passive or active resistance and a shift in the balance of power.

Nation-building as a concept

When nation-building is discussed nowadays as an element of crisis prevention and a means of post-conflict policies, the general mechanisms, experiences and problems relating to nation-building should not be ignored. It goes without saying that stable, functioning nation-states can, compared with fragmenting societies and failing states, better provide for the security of their citizens, as well as social and economic development and regional stability. Cautious and intelligent policies for supporting nation-building processes do, therefore, serve a purpose. However, we should guard against thinking of the concept as a simple solution that can be applied everywhere regardless of local conditions. The risks and resources that need to be allocated are just too high (see Hippler, concluding chapter of this book).
Furthermore, it is not helpful to rid the nation-building concept of its essence and use it merely as a collective category for all non-military political instruments or as a synonym for peace-keeping, which is what frequently happens. The process of integration or fragmentation of societies and states is too important a matter in foreign, development and peace policy terms for it to be lost sight of through schematic usages of the term. As presently used, nation-building can be a euphemism for imperial control, an empty entreaty formula to conceal one’s own helplessness or a key concept of development policy and crisis prevention. In the latter case, it is however necessary to give the term meaning, be aware of its limitations and traps, sound out its chances and shape it into a concept that can be applied. It is for these purposes that the authors of this book would like to throw light on a number of background factors and outline associated problems and suggestions. The first section focuses on important general conditions and issues, while the second part looks at current case examples of nation-building. The third and final section discusses questions of possible political approaches.



  • Atwood, J. Brian, 1994: Nation Building and Crisis Prevention in the Post-Cold War World, in: Brown Journal of World Affairs, year 2/1 (Winter), p. 11-17.
  • Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, 1993: A Future-Oriented, Non-Ethnic Nationalism? – Mauritius as an Exemplary Case, in: Ethnos, year 58, p. 197-221.
  • FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), 1994: Mit und bald ohne Aristide taumelt Haiti wieder ins Ungewisse, in: FAZ, 16. December 1994, p.  8.
  • Greenfeld, Liah, 1992: Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge 1992.
  • Hippler, Jochen, 2001: Kultur und Wissen: Trends und Interdependenzen, in: Peace and Development Foundation, Global Trends 2002 – Fakten, Analysen, Prognosen, edited by Ingomar Hauchler, Dirk Messner, Franz Nuscheler. Frankfurt/M. 2001, p. 135-155.
  • Hippler, Jochen, 2002: Ethnicity, State, and Nation-Building – Experiences, Policies and Conceptualization, Manuscript.
  • Lenhart, Lioba, 1992: Indonesien: Die Konzeption einer nationalen Kultur im Kontext des nation building, in: Orientierungen – Zeitschrift zur Kultur Asiens, Sonderheft Indonesien, p. 83-103
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin, 1963: The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. London 1963.
  • Newsweek, 1994: Can Haiti be Saved? – Nation-Building: Clinton is Avoiding the Term, but That’s the Job He’s in, in: Newsweek, 3. October 1994, p. 16f.
  • Rivkin, Arnold, 1969: Nation-Building in Africa: Problems and Prospects. New Brunswick 1969.
  • UN Chronicle, 1994, published by the United Nations Organization. New York June.

Jochen Hippler (Ed.); Nation-Building - A Key Concept of Peaceful Conflict Transformation,
London (Pluto Press) 2005, p. 3-14


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