12 June 2011


Prepared by: Abdelaziz Abouelhoda

Lecturer: Dr. Rahul Rao

Tutor: Gonzalo Pozo


Throughout history, war has often been portrayed and remembered for its capability as a destructive force.  Yet looking at the beginning of many states in early modern Europe, we tend to find war as the means by which independence was acquired.  Such observations, analysed by Charles Tilly and Brian Taylor and Roxana Botea, has then led to the interpretation that war can also be a constructive force, particularly in aiding the formation of states or nations. The opposite is equally accurate, for war historically has also proven to create conditions for the demise of many states. We can then understand and assume that war is a highly ambiguous instrument requiring specific settings and conditions to promote state and nation formation or lead to state destruction.

This paper then attempts to outline the conditions that promote the constructive abilities of war. The paper will begin with a brief definition of the state and nation to clarify the difference and role they each provide. The paper will then attempt to explain “constructive war” through the three causal mechanisms ‘Capital, Coercion, and Nation building’ using Vietnam and Afghanistan to explain their applicability. The discussion will conclude by examining Syria and Lebanon as case studies to see if the causal mechanisms could also be extended to explain state and nation formation in the Middle East. Following the examination of the literature, one can suggest that war can provide conditions to assist state and nation building but only if specific foundations and materials are present.

The State and the Nation

Many explanations have been provided to explain the origins of the state. Yet consensus has mainly revolved around the theory of coercion to explain the beginning of the state (Careneiro, 1977). The theory holds that “war is the father of things”, basically implying that war created the state, not the surrender of sovereignty which is claimed in philosophical literature (Careneiro, 1977: p.6). Regardless of the theory chosen, definitions of what constitutes a state are similar. In short, the state is categorized as an entity which is able to maintain territorial control and implement its will within a given territory (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Max Weber provides a similar observation by defining the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Tilly, 1992: p.70). Only when control is fully established, should states attempt to foster solidarity between its inhabitants.

The ‘nation’ could be regarded as a complimentary tool which could be accessed by successful states. The emphasis on successful states is because we can presume that failed states are more likely not to meet the needs of their population and so people look towards their community identity to safeguard self interest rather than the state.  Hence once security of a state is ensured, a state can extend to create the sense of common identity (Berger, 2008). This is usually easier to implement with countries that contain inhabitants speaking the same language and adhering to the same religious beliefs or historical experience (Bean, 1973).  Even without the presence of these aspects, nationhood could still be fabricated through the “imposition of common language and culture in a school” (Ottaway, 2002: p.17). A perfect example is provided in Eugen Weber’s “from peasants into Frenchmen” where the French government imposed a uniform French language in all schools since the late1800’s in order to bolster French nationalism (Weber, 1976).

However, the ‘nation’, should not only be seen as tool to bridge divisions within a territory. The nation can also fulfill a practical purpose because it offers legitimacy to the existence of the state and more importantly, it makes the process of extraction and taxation easier for the government (Tilly, 1992). The process of extraction can be advanced when states highlight the possibility of threat (Tilly, 1992). The result is successfully persuading the citizen that supporting collective interests is also in the favourable to the individual. Additionally, highlighting threats could benefit a state because it presents the furtherance of government interests as national goals (Bean, 1973).

Constructive wars: what are the conditions?

War can assist state and nation building in several contexts. Traditionally, war in early Europe assisted state building and fostering community sentiments because there was a public desire for security (Berger, 2008). To achieve maximum security gains, the state was chosen as a viable entity because of its size (Berger, 2008). States are most likely easier to protect because their size was limited which facilitated the monopoly on violence (Berger, 2008). Additionally, war has been able to support state building when used by governments as an extension of policy to achieve political ends (Tilly, 1992). The same analysis could apply to communities that use war as a means to express the desire for independence (Tilly, 1992).

However, regardless of the context, Taylor and Botea assert that war will not contribute to state or nation building with the absence of one of the three causal mechanisms derived from Tilly. The first mechanism is the ability of war to develop an administrative capacity which would facilitate the extraction of resources and taxation of the population (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Second, war should lead to the establishment of a coercive force or military within the given territory to enforce the process of taxation and extraction (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The last mechanism is the ability of war to construct a national identity to ensure the persistence of taxation and more importantly decrease internal threats (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

Furthermore, Taylor and Botea have added their own conditions for the success of war in creating states and nations. Beginning with the presence of a core ethnic community, Taylor and Botea argue that the existence of an ethnic majority provides a basis for nationalism (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The second condition, revolution, contributes to the aspirations of independence and nationalism particularly when the ideology tends to address public concerns and outlines similar viewpoints (Taylor and Botea, 2008).   So from these additional conditions, we can identify that some degree of political and national coherence needs to be present to strength the state and nation building capacity of war (Taylor and Botea, 2008).  How long a war should last to allow state or nation building is not addressed by most of the literature, but the assumption could be that the amount of years is irrelevant as long as the prior conditions have been met.

So what occurs in states that have internationally recognized sovereignty but are deprived of these conditions? Tilly would argue that the state is likely to fail, particularly if the three main conditions are not met. Hence, judicial sovereignty alone is not enough to create a strong state (Tilly, 1992). It is then important that differentiate between negative and positive sovereignty and which one is essential to achieve a state. Negative sovereignty simply implies legal recognition from the international community, but does not guarantee internal recognition of the state (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Positive sovereignty on the other hand, implies the effective control of a government body in extracting, taxing, and repressing rivals within a territorial area (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

However, many negative factors often hinder a state’s ability in ascertaining power. The most obvious factor is the military might of neighbouring entities and the geographic location of the state (Centeno, 2002). Quite often, failed states also tend to be at a disadvantage geographically because there are no natural defense borders to prevent invasions. But difficultly in establishing control could also be applied to states with hostile geographic conditions. Taylor and Botea in addition add ‘regime type’ as a negative factor; however the nature of the regime seems irrelevant if the state is still able to maintain effective control (Taylor and Botea, 2008). This assumption is probable considering that the strong Europeans states we have today are the byproduct of “primitive accumulation of power” (Taylor and Botea, 2008: p.31). But does that mean that wars today are the continuation of a natural and constructive process?

There is no doubt that the present political context has changed considerably since early modern Europe (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Wars still play a crucial role in determining the fate of states, but do wars still provide conditions to establish states or nations? Critics like Lustick argue that war today has its limits because the international community supports the maintenance of established borders (Lustick, 1997). So despite the outcomes of any war, the international community would not allow the expansion of one state to cause an existential threat to another (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

Nevertheless, Tilly’s logic still seems to apply in explaining the conditions created by war in the developing world regardless of its Eurocentric focus (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The three causal mechanisms of Capital, Coercion, and Nation building shall now be examined with reference to Vietnam and Afghanistan.


Similar to the drastic change in political context, the international economic setting has also been through severe changes (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Yet as Tilly articulated, capital was and still remains “the artery of war” because capital finances its continuance (Tilly, 1992: p.33). In order to gain capital, states had to successfully tap into their natural resources and labour for manufacturing power (Tilly, 1992). Capital acquisition also included using any coercive means to extract taxes successfully from the entire population as well as the positioning of forces along strategic roads and borders to ensure monopoly on taxation (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

Additionally, successful wars could be fought if the political rulers of a state are successful at accumulating credit from businessmen or other states (Tilly, 1992). Since war can be a prolonged process, states often suffer the financial burden of funding enough money (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Taxation and extraction could only reach to a certain point until the state is in need of more to gain a strategic advantage. Borrowing can allow states to separate the costs of militarization from national income and so allow a state to pay faster for mobilization (Tilly, 1992). Hence, successful states will be able to call upon credit at anytime, but that would then depend on the state’s reputation in paying its debts to its creditors (Tilly, 1992).

The ability of a state to borrow capital to finance wars is also highly effected by the condition of its national economy (Deutsch and Foltz, 1966). For states with a significant barter system, borrowing is less likely and so we are more likely to find the physical extraction of resources and active surveillance of the territory (Tilly, 1992). The positive aspect to this condition is that it allows states to become self sufficient and hence less reliant on foreign credit (Tilly, 1992). As for economies that were based on cash flows, states could station forces on roads and borders in order to collect customs tax (Tilly, 1992). However, regardless of the economic condition, no government would be successful in accumulating capital if it did not use war to mutually build the state apparatus needed to fulfill important transactions (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

Analyzing Vietnam, it is easy to explain the endurance of the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) in the face of South Vietnam. The Viet Cong were clearly able to be self sufficient when it came to extracting resources and enforcing taxation (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The Viet Cong presided physically over the direct taxation of their population and maintained the use of the old financial structures placed by the French (Tonnesson, 2010). Those who did resist payment were either jailed or killed for failing to pay (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Yet forced taxation was not always applied by the Viet Cong because they were equally efficient in justifying taxation as a method to continue the Vietnamese resistance against foreign occupiers (Tonnesson, 2010). Additionally, at times of need, the Viet Cong were also successful in borrowing money from the USSR and China (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

South Vietnam on the other hand maintained the same taxing system throughout its existence from 1950 till 1975 (Taylor and Botea, 2008). This was essentially due the heavy reliance of the government on receiving foreign assistance, particularly from the U.S (Tonnesson, 2010). When attempts at taxation were later made, the government proved to be useless at convincing the population after taxation had been neglected for so long (Tonnesson, 2010). After the unification, the Viet Cong immediately took over remaining government functions and nationalized the majority of land and industries (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The coercive means of extraction continued to take place and served to fulfill payments for security tasks throughout the country (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

The same problems experienced in South Vietnam could also be observed in the case of Afghanistan. In fact one could argue that no efficient state exists in Afghanistan because no group attempted to monopolize taxation (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Even prior to the USSR invasion, resources and taxation were not consistently collected by the government (Shahrani, 2002). The result was growing doubt amongst the population over the legitimacy and durability of their state (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Throughout the Cold War, the government continued to rely heavily on funding from the USSR while the Islamists (Mujahedeen) looked towards the U.S and Pakistan for support (Shahrani, 2002).

Once the Taliban was in control of government, they failed to apply what the Viet Cong had directly managed to achieve. The Taliban continued their reliance on foreign aid while taxation was carried out on a voluntary basis because the government lacked any economic infrastructure to keep track of taxation (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The same shortage of government infrastructure also extended to other necessary government facilities concerning health and education (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The result was the alienation and isolation of different communities in Afghanistan who then with time established control of their region through building militias (Shahrani, 2002).

Flickr / Yan Boechat. Photo from Afghanistan


The use of coercion by states is often understood as the use of legal armed forces to disarm the population within a given territory (Tilly, 1992). Historically, coercion has been carried by the confiscation of weapons and introducing measures to limit the ability of civilians to bear arms (Li, 2002). Achieving disarmament also occurred through imposing licenses or generally banning the use and production of weapons through the constitution (Tilly, 1992). Once this monopoly on the use of force is realized, the state then attempts to develop its military capabilities to counter possible external threats (Tilly, 1992).

Like Capital, coercion also assisted in constructing governmental institutions to carry out state functions (Taylor and Botea, 2008). As capital required an economic institution, the military establishment required institutions to govern conscription, services, and money supply to ensure that the armed forces continued to function with no delay. However, Tilly warns that coercion has a twofold effect. This is because states fear the ambiguous reaction of another state when responding to threat (Tilly, 1992). As weapons become more elaborate and deadly, states are equally worried about war as they are about developing military capabilities (Tilly, 1992).

In Vietnam, fear of an ambiguous reaction was constantly a problem for the Viet Cong. It was one thing to recruit a significant amount of the population; it was another thing to supply them as well (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The U.S had the ability and the money to supply the South with weaponry, but the Northern forces were fortunate that the South lacked volunteers and admiration from the masses (Tonnesson, 2010). Hence internally, the Viet Cong were able to organize a stronger civil army which took on the role of the military upon achieving independence.

Within Afghanistan, the traditional tribes and communities greatly hindered any formation of a coercive force in the country (Shahrani, 2002). Conscription was widely avoided even prior to the coup d’état and Soviet invasion because certain tribes received exemption from performing military services (Taylor and Botea, 2008). The government responded to this situation by relying on private militias to continue security functions (Shahrani, 2002). Even after the accession of the Taliban, little or no effort was taken at conscripting Afghans to retake control of the country (Taylor and Botea, 2008). By then, all the years of war seemed to have cemented Afghani decentralization and autonomy which led the Taliban to rely on volunteers from Pakistan to carry out coercive functions (Taylor and Botea, 2008).

Nation building

As mentioned previously, nation building tends to be a complementary aspect available to the use of successfully established states. However, varying degrees of nationalism exist and sometimes, despite war, nationalism is never fostered (Taylor and Botea, 2008). A sense of nationalism can even precede the existence of a state (Ottaway, 2002). Such nationalism tends to rely heavily on negative historical experiences which then create the desires for independence. Nevertheless, a strong sense of belonging can be fostered by a state which houses a population with a similar language, ethnicity, religious and historical experiences (Ottaway, 2002). On the other hand, nationalism could also be fabricated, which is true in case of Europe which developed its national narrative after independence (Tilly, 1992).

But why should successful states fabricate or promote nationalism if the state already has the monopoly on the use of force? The reason is that nationalism creates psychological support for the state and more importantly it defends the existence and legitimacy of the nation should any invasion of the state be successful (Ottaway, 2002). Nationalism is also equally crucial in establishing a strong military because it affects the moral of soldiers and even citizens (Tilly, 1992).

Vietnamese nationalism began long before the existence of the state and was maintained by the successful expulsion or absorption of various neighbouring groups (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Tilly argues that such ethnic homogenous states are likely to be more successful for multiethnic states and clearly, the assumption applies to Vietnam (Tilly, 1992). Furthermore, Tilly assumes that states which forgo a revolution are also more likely to create strong states based on coercion which was the case with the Viet Cong and their ruthless enforcement of taxation and conscription (Tilly, 1992).The Viet Cong was also aided because it promoted a political ideology that appealed to the majority of the unprivileged masses.

Unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan has been free for much of its existence (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Arguably, no exposure to war never created a context for the numerous tribes and clans to come together and develop a partnership or understanding (Taylor and Botea, 2008). Even after the USSR invasion in 1979, no development in the sense of community occurred because the previous Afghani government failed to represent the various ethnicities and provide a strong platform for dialogue (Shahrani, 2002). When Taliban came to power, they attempted to advocate Islam as a unifying ideology but failed to bolster nationalism because Islam was seen as a broad category which promoted no exclusivity which is the essential function of nationalism (Shahrani, 2002).

Case Study 1: Syria

Like many countries in the Middle East, Syria is the product of British and French imposition of arbitrary borders in the Levant prior to the mandate period (1920-1946). After independence in 1946, the political and financial elites of Syria failed to fulfill the socioeconomic needs of the country which led to regular uprisings and changes in parliament until the Ba’ath coup d’état in 1963 (Devlin, 1983). Following the coup, the country has been ruled under a regime which imposed secular ideology (Choueiri, 1993). Arguably, this has greatly contributed in encouraging the assimilation and mobilization the population which gained the government legitimacy and popularity (Choueiri, 1993).

Syria Map


Massive changes in the Syrian economy followed the coup of 1963 (Choueiri, 1993). Yet the Syrian regime was fortunate since the country already had some credit readily available for use by the military establishment (Devlin, 1985). The regime was also successful in borrowing finances throughout the 70’s and 80’s from the USSR, the U.S, the World Bank, and Arab countries (Devlin, 1983). Additionally, the new government’s socialist aspect allowed them to limit privatization of land and take over industries which increased state assets (Choueiri, 1993). Also, Syria’s manufacturing and agricultural industries were booming and bringing in the population to learn different skills other than farming which had been the predominant occupation (Hinnebusch, 1979).

Capital also began to flow into government hands after oil discoveries were made in the north in the early 1970’s (Devlin, 1983). Also, with an effective army and governmental institutions in place, the Ba’ath regime was able to begin immediate enforcement of taxation throughout the country and to collect customs tax on borders (Choueiri, 1993). Successful taxation was enabled because the government focused on building roads in the provinces and linking them to cities with the most economic activity (Devlin, 1985). This helped spur economic activity and made it easier for the government to be everywhere to implement proper taxation and projects.


Coercion in Syria right after independence was no voluntary matter. In 1948, the Syrian government joined its neighbouring Arab states in invading the newly created state of Israel. The decision to enter the war meant that an army had to be founded immediately and set to patrol borders. The establishment of an army was relatively easy in Syria considering that the majority of citizens are ethnically Arab and saw the war as their religious duty (Devlin, 1985). At the time, Syria still had a low population rate which assisted in the quick and easy patrolling of the state (Hinnebusch, 1979).

Since the coup in 1963, the Ba’ath has also been able to wield power from the provinces because its main members came from there. Specifically, 12 out of 14 founders of the regime had rural backgrounds which gained them popularity amongst the majority of the population (Devlin, 1983). Yet despite rural popularity, the Ba’ath also established a secret service in the 1970’s to locate people who were dissatisfied with the system (Devlin, 1983). The power of the secret police and army was portrayed in 1982 during the Hama massacre which led to the killing of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 civilians and almost wiping out the entire city (Choueiri, 1993). As for police forces, the regime was able to recruit 12,000 to 25,000 men from the Alawites region which the President Hafez Al-Assad came from (Choueiri, 1993).

Nation building

Like Vietnam, Syria is ethnically homogeneous with a predominant population of ethnic Arabs who follow the Sunni Muslim tradition (Devlin, 1983). Yet the regime still had to be careful of what identity they were promoting to make sure that no internal group would be alienated.  Hence, Syria chose Arabism as its narrative to define its existence. The category of

‘Arab’ was a broad enough to include most people considering it’s mainly a linguistic identity (Hourani, 1946). The Christians in Syria did not seem to resist Syria’s promotion of Arab identity because they were assured of the regime’s commitment to secularism which countered religious movements (Hourani, 1946). In fact, Christians played a huge role in the formation of Pan-Arab ideology. The founders of the Ba’ath party itself, Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar, were of the Christian faith.

Ba’athism was also a successful ideology to promote because its aims touched upon concerns and aspirations of the population. The most immediate concern was the war against Israel which was seen as an extension of Western colonialism (Devlin, 1983). Syrians jointly saw Israel as the obstacle to establishing a single Arab entity which Syrians regarded as their natural right (Hinnebusch, 1979). Arabism was also able to draw massive support from the youth since the regime promoted slogans of ‘Arab resurrection, freedom, Unity, and Socialism’ in schools (Devlin 1983: p.46). The socialist aspect of Ba’athism was extremely popular with the majority of rural Syrians who resented the traditional domination of wealth by certain families. Hence, the Ba’ath also administered land reforms to provide labourers with better conditions (Devlin, 1985).

Case Study 2: Lebanon

The State of Lebanon which was formed in 1920 is also a byproduct of European divisions in the Levant. But unlike its Syrian neighbour, the imposition of arbitrary Lebanese borders had profound political consequences because it entrapped numerous minorities. The Lebanese government attempted to resolve the dilemma of minorities by establishing confessionalism as a mode of governance.  Under the National Pact of 1943, confessionalism was defined as a system that divides political and institutional control proportionately among religious communities (Zamir, 1985). Yet ethnic and religious tensions remained exacerbated by internal and external influences. There was still major disagreement amongst the Lebanese over the identity of the state and more importantly its role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Firro, 2003).  With time, these unresolved debates caught momentum leading to the civil war (1975-1990).

Lebanon map


It’s safe to say that Lebanon, up until the civil war, was neither short of credit nor prosperity (Gordon, 1980). The country attracted investment and secured because of the open banking system modeled similarly to French banks (Zamir, 1985). The gross national product of Lebanon was nearly twofold compared to most Arab countries while its population was less by half (Gordon, 1980). Additionally, Lebanon’s attractive geographic location bolstered the tourism industry which brought in 70% of the country’s national income (Gordon, 1980). Most of this money poured in by neighbouring Arab countries, particularly the Gulf which was benefitting from oil boom during the 1970’s (Choueiri, 1993).

However like South Vietnam, the Lebanese government neglected imposing a proper taxation system because it relied heavily on foreign aid and investment (Firro, 2003). Traditionally, taxation was administered by clan officials and little was done to change this situation because the government felt that imposing a centralized tax system was too difficult (Hourani, 1946). But this meant that the government spent no money to improve roads and infrastructure throughout the country to implement proper taxation. Additionally, the government failed to distribute the fruits of prosperity amongst the population (Gordon, 1980). Gordon asserts that “income was not distributed equitably between either individuals or between different religious communities” (Gordon, 1980: p. 110). This was to form one of the sources of tension throughout the 1970’s which was exacerbated by the 20-30% yearly inflation rate (Gordon, 1980).


It could be argued that the lack of coercion was always the main weakness of the Lebanese state. The government was able to form a military force, however it proved useless because members maintained religious allegiance (Zamir, 1985). In fact, the civil war in Lebanon only broke out because the armed forces failed to maintain unity as opposing factions fought. This meant that the national pact of 1943 failed to dissolve the tribal divisions and representations in Lebanon and instead helped solidify the power of the clan system (Firro, 2003). Gordon rightly proposes that the confessional system of Lebanon most likely made it more immobile and autonomous than it had been before (Gordon, 1980: p.138). This was because the National pact institutionalized and legitimized the clan system and so clans no longer had to fight or negotiate for control in their community (Gordon, 1980). The inhabitants of the region in return maintained their allegiance to clan representatives who were now cemented in power. This situation is particularly true in the case of the Shiites who had to look towards their religious community for welfare and protection because the government failed to provide security against Israeli incursions in the South (Firro, 2003).

Nation building

Studies on Lebanon suggest that a certain collective memory and culture was formed in the mountain prior to Ottoman takeover (Salibi, 1976). Maronite explanations imply that the collective memory was due to the relative isolation of Christians in Mount Lebanon following the spread of Islam (Salibi, 1976). Since then and up to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Christian isolation was maintained with very little interference in political or economic life which helped preserve a separate national and religious identity (Zamir, 1985). Such autonomy presumably fostered desires of independence which materialized with the establishment of the mandate.

Achieving independence is relatively an easy task compared to the burden of explaining the state’s existence. This proved to be a particularly difficult task in Lebanon which housed eighteen religious communities that abided by different laws and customs (Choueiri, 1993). Additionally, the Maronites desired to maintain French protection which appeared to contradict the notion of independence and imply heavy reliance of the government on the West (Choueiri, 1993). Yet, the Maronites justified Lebanese independence by claiming Phoenician ancestry. The decision ultimately alienated a significant amount of the population because it left no room to encompass the religious and cultural diversity of the country (Firro, 2003). To the remainder of the population, Lebanon and Phoenicianism were exclusively Christian projects since the Maronites put more effort into advertising Phoenicianism in Mount Lebanon (Zamir, 1985).


Before ending the discussion, it should be noted that that states and nations could sometimes exist without any prior war. This claim also applies to the developing world, for example Jordan and most if not all of the countries in the Gulf Cooperative Council.

In conclusion, state and nation building today has changed considerably from early modern Europe and we should be careful of the implications of generalizing its applicability. However, it is apparent from the Vietnamese and Syrian case that war still has conditions which allow its constructive abilities to be used. Yet war alone is not a condition for state or nation building. War alone remains an ambiguous force which can become constructive if the essentials of capital are available and the ability of coercion is seized. Only then could states focus on nation building and cementing identities using language and culture. Without these conditions, war is bound to deteriorate states and nations as it has done with Afghanistan and Lebanon.




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