State failure has become an increasingly important policy concern since 9/11. Strengthening or reconstructing failed states has even become an explicit goal of American foreign policy. Yet many Americans across the political spectrum regard states with deep suspicion and abiding hostility, as instruments of oppression. In truth, states are more likely to protect human rights than any other form of political organization. Acknowledging that potential is today a moral and political imperative.
The evil that states do is well known. There are abundant examples: from the brutality of the Thirty Years War to the Stalinist purges, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and the Rwandan genocide. Because its repressive capacities are so clear, political theorists seek to protect us from the state (Locke), to divide and limit its power (Madison), to liberate us from it (Marx), or to dissolve it entirely (Foucault). Yet Hobbes’s picture of life without the state-poor, nasty, brutish, and short-still resonates. States can only be called oppressive if there is an alternative available, a more promising political order.
States dominate our minds as much as they dominate the globe. The conceptual hegemony of the state is so great that there has been little serious thinking about alternative arrangements. Anarchist visions may sound liberating, but only because they assume that life under anarchy would be much like it is now-only better. In fact, anarchists depend on the very order they seek to abolish, assuming that people will be treated as free and equal, able to make uncoerced choices outside the protection of the state. Their utopian visions set the parameters of critiques of the state, but they seldom recognize that the necessary substructure of their utopia doesn’t exist “nowhere”-it exists only where states have established law and order.
In real life, the alternatives to the state are more violent, more coercive social and political orders dominated by warlords and gangs. Not quite the Hobbesian war of all against all, they are rather wars of group against group, dividing society and destroying the possibility of a peaceful public sphere, of civil society, rights, and social justice. The corollary to the oppressiveness of non-state politics is that, contrary to our commonsense understanding, states are relatively liberating and egalitarian. Compared to actually existing alternatives, states have more potential for protecting human rights, human security, and international peace than any other political order. That’s why state building is so important.
Modern states are distinctive in two respects: they claim and mostly wield a monopoly of the use of violence and they are bureaucratically organized. The monopoly of legitimate force eliminates the widely dispersed violence typical in other kinds of polities. In medieval Europe, for ...
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