Nation-building is constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state.[1][2] Nation-building aims at the unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run. According to Harris Mylonas, "Legitimate authority in modern national states is connected to popular rule, to majorities. Nation-building is the process through which these majorities are constructed."[3] In Harris Mylonas's framework, "state elites employ three nation-building policies: accommodation, assimilation, and exclusion."[4]

Nation builders are those members of a state who take the initiative to develop the national community through government programs, including military conscription and national content mass schooling.[5][6][7] Nation-building can involve the use of propaganda or major infrastructure development to foster social harmony and economic growth. According to Columbia University sociologist Andreas Wimmer, three factors tend to determine the success of nation-building over the long-run: "the early development of civil-society organisations, the rise of a state capable of providing public goods evenly across a territory, and the emergence of a shared medium of communication."[8][9][10]

A postcard from 1916 showing national personifications of some of the Allies of World War I, each holding a national flag


See also: Cultural nationalism

In the modern era, nation-building referred to the efforts of newly independent nations, to establish trusted institutions of national government, education, military defence, elections, land registry, import customs, foreign trade, foreign diplomacy, banking, finance, taxation, company registration, police, law, courts, healthcare, citizenship, citizen rights and liberties, marriage registry, birth registry, immigration, transport infrastructure and/or municipal governance charters. Nation-building can also include attempts to redefine the populace of territories that had been carved out by colonial powers or empires without regard to ethnic, religious, or other boundaries, as in Africa and the Balkans.[11] [12] These reformed states could then become viable and coherent national entities.[13]

Nation-building also includes the creation of national paraphernalia such as flags, coats of arms, anthems, national days, national stadiums, national airlines, national languages, and national myths.[14][15] At a deeper level, national identity may be deliberately constructed by molding different ethnic groups into a nation, especially since in many newly established states colonial practices of divide and rule had resulted in ethnically heterogeneous populations.[16]

In a functional understanding of nation-building, both economic and social factors are seen as influential.[10] The development of nation-states in different times and places is influenced by differing conditions. It has been suggested that elites and masses in Great Britain, France, and the United States slowly grew to identify with each other as those states were established and that nationalism developed as more people were able to participate politically and to receive public goods in exchange for taxes. The more recent development of nation-states in geographically diverse, postcolonial areas may not be comparable due to differences in underlying conditions.[10]

Many new states were plagued by cronyism (the exclusion of all but friends); corruption which erodes trust; and tribalism (rivalry between ethnic groups within the nation). This sometimes resulted in their near-disintegration, such as the attempt by Biafra to secede from Nigeria in 1970, or the continuing demand of the Somali people in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia for complete independence. The Rwandan genocide, as well as the recurrent problems experienced by the Sudan, can also be related to a lack of ethnic, religious, or racial cohesion within the nation. It has often proved difficult to unite states with similar ethnic but different colonial backgrounds.[17]

Differences in language may be particularly hard to overcome in the process of nation-building.[10] Whereas some consider Cameroon to be an example of success, fractures are emerging in the form of the Anglophone problem.[17] Failures like Senegambia Confederation demonstrate the problems of uniting Francophone and Anglophone territories.[18][19]

Terminology: nation-building versus state-building

Traditionally, there has been some confusion between the use of the term nation-building and that of state-building (the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in North America). Both have fairly narrow and different definitions in political science, the former referring to national identity, the latter to infrastructure, and the institutions of the state. The debate has been clouded further by the existence of two very different schools of thought on state-building. The first (prevalent in the media) portrays state-building as an interventionist action by foreign countries. The second (more academic in origin and increasingly accepted by international institutions) sees state-building as an indigenous process. For a discussion of the definitional issues, see state-building, Carolyn Stephenson's essay,[20] and the papers by Whaites, CPC/IPA or ODI cited below.

The confusion over terminology has meant that more recently, nation-building has come to be used in a completely different context, with reference to what has been succinctly described by its proponents as "the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy".[21] In this sense nation-building, better referred to as state-building, describes deliberate efforts by a foreign power to construct or install the institutions of a national government, according to a model that may be more familiar to the foreign power but is often considered foreign and even destabilizing.[22] In this sense, state-building is typically characterized by massive investment, military occupation, transitional government, and the use of propaganda to communicate governmental policy.[23][24]

Role of education

The expansion of primary school provision is often believed to be a key driver in the process of nation-building.[5] European rulers during the 19th century relied on state-controlled primary schooling to teach their subjects a common language, a shared identity, and a sense of duty and loyalty to the regime. In Prussia, mass primary education was introduced to foster "loyalty, obedience and devotion to the King".[25][26] These beliefs about the power of education in forming loyalty to the sovereign were adopted by states in other parts of the world as well, in both non-democratic and democratic contexts. Reports on schools in the Soviet Union illustrate the fact that government-sponsored education programs emphasized not just academic content and skills but also taught "a love of country and mercilessness to the enemy, stubbornness in the overcoming of difficulties, an iron discipline, and love of oppressed peoples, the spirit of adventure and constant striving".[27][26]

Foreign policy operations

Germany and Japan after World War II

After World War II, the Allied victors engaged in large-scale nation-building with considerable success in Germany. The United States, Britain, and France operated sectors that became West Germany. The Soviet Union operated a sector that became East Germany. In Japan, the victors were nominally in charge but in practice, the United States was in full control, again with considerable political, social, and economic impact.[28]


After the collapse of communism in Yugoslavia in 1989, a series of civil wars broke out. Following the Dayton Agreement, also referred to as the Dayton Accords, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and also the European Union, engaged in stopping the civil wars, punishing more criminals, and operating nation-building programs especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina,[29] as well as in Kosovo.[30]


Soviet efforts

Main article: History of Afghanistan (1978–1992)

Afghanistan was the target for Soviet-style nation-building during the Soviet–Afghan War.[dubious ] However, Soviet efforts bogged down due to Afghan resistance, in which foreign nations (primarily the United States) supported the mujahideen due to the geopolitics of the Cold War. The Soviet Union ultimately withdrew in 1988, ending the conflict.[31]

NATO efforts

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Further information: War in Afghanistan (2001–2021), Taliban insurgency, and Reconstruction in Afghanistan

After the Soviets left, the Taliban established de facto control of much of Afghanistan. It tolerated the Al Qaeda forces that carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. NATO responded under US leadership.[32] In December 2001, after the Taliban government was overthrown, the Afghan Interim Administration under Hamid Karzai was formed. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the UN Security Council to help assist the Karzai administration and provide basic security. By 2001, after two decades of civil war and famine[which?], it had the lowest life expectancy,[citation needed]and much of the population were hungry.[citation needed] Many foreign donors[which?]—51 in all—started providing aid and assistance to rebuild the war-torn country[when?]. For example, Norway's had charge of the province of Faryab. The Norwegian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team had the mission of effecting security, good governance, and economic development, 2005–2012.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan, intended to disrupt Al Qaeda's networks ballooned into a 20 year long nation building project. Frank McKenzie described it as "an attempt to impose a form of government, a state, that would be a state the way that we recognize a state." According to McKenzie, the US "lost track of why we were there". Afghanistan was not "ungovernable", according to the former Marine Corps general, but it was "ungovernable with the Western model that will be imposed on it". He says the gradual shift to nation building put the US "far beyond the scope" of their original mission to disrupt Al Qaeda.[33]


  1. ^ Karl Wolfgang Deutsch, William J. Folt, eds, Nation Building in Comparative Contexts, New York, Atherton, 1966.
  2. ^ Mylonas, Harris (2017), "Nation-building", Oxford Bibliographies in International Relations. Ed. Patrick James. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Mylonas, Harris (2012). The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1107661998.
  4. ^ Mylonas, Harris (2012). The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. xx. ISBN 978-1107661998.
  5. ^ a b Darden, Keith; Mylonas, Harris (July 9, 2016). "Threats to Territorial Integrity, National Mass Schooling, and Linguistic Commonality". Comparative Political Studies. 49 (11): 1446–1479. doi:10.1177/0010414015606735.
  6. ^ Keith Darden and Anna Grzymala-Busse. 2006. "The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse". World Politics, Volume 59 (October): 83-115.
  7. ^ Barry Posen. 1993. "Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power", International Security, 18(2): 80-124.
  8. ^ Wimmer, Andreas (2018). "Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart". Survival. 60 (4): 151–164. doi:10.1080/00396338.2018.1495442. ISSN 0039-6338. S2CID 158766905.
  9. ^ Wimmer, Andreas (2018). Nation Building. Princeton University Press. doi:10.1515/9781400888894. ISBN 978-1-4008-8889-4. S2CID 240305736.
  10. ^ a b c d Mylonas, Harris; Tudor, Maya (11 May 2021). "Nationalism: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know". Annual Review of Political Science. 24 (1): 109–132. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-041719-101841.
  11. ^ Mylonas, Harris (2012). The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. xx. ISBN 9781107020450. Retrieved 2013-12-02. Many journalists, academics, and policy commentators have recently used the term 'nation-building' in place of what the U.S. Department of Defense calls 'stability operations.' [...] In other words. by 'nation-building' they mean 'third-party state-building.' They use the term to describe efforts to build roads and railways, enforce the rule of law, and improve the infrastructure of a state. [...] I part ways with this recent usage and I use the term 'nation-building' as it has been used in the political science literature for the past five decades. [...] Nation-building, sometimes used interchangeably with national integration, is the process through which governing elites make the boundaries of the state and the nation coincide. [...]
  12. ^ Deutsch, Karl W. (2010). Foltz, William J. (ed.). Nation building in comparative contexts (New paperback print. ed.). New Brunswick [N.J.]: AldineTransaction. ISBN 9780202363561.
  13. ^ Connor, Walker (18 July 2011). "Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying?". World Politics. 24 (3): 319–355. doi:10.2307/2009753. JSTOR 2009753. S2CID 154407042.
  14. ^ Hippler, Jochen, ed. (2005). Nation-building: a key concept for peaceful conflict transformation?. translated by Barry Stone. London: Pluto. ISBN 978-0745323367.
  15. ^ Smith, Anthony. 1986. "State-Making and Nation-Building" in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263.
  16. ^ Harris Mylonas. 2010. "Assimilation and its Alternatives: Caveats in the Study of Nation-Building Policies", In Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, eds. Adria Lawrence and Erica Chenoweth. BCSIA Studies in International Security, MIT Press.
  17. ^ a b Achankeng, Fonkem (2014). "The Foumban "Constitutional" Talks and Prior Intentions of Negotiating: A Historico-Theoretical Analysis of a False Negotiation and the Ramications for Political Developments in Cameroon". Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective. 9: 149.
  18. ^ Richmond, Edmun B. (1993). "Senegambia and the Confederation: History, Expectations, and Disillusions". Journal of Third World Studies. 10 (2): 172–194. JSTOR 45193442. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  19. ^ Awasom, Nicodemus Fru (2003–2004). "Anglo-Saxonism and Gallicism in Nation Building in Africa: The Case of Bilingual Cameroon and the Senegambia Confederation in Historical and Contemporary Perspective". Afrika Zamani. 11–12.
  20. ^ Stephenson, Carolyn (January 2005). "Nation Building". Beyond Intractability. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  21. ^ Dobbins, James, Seth G. Jones, Keith Crane, and Beth Cole DeGrasse. 2007. The Beginner's Guide to Nation-Building. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation.
  22. ^ Darden, Keith; Mylonas, Harris (1 March 2012). "The Promethean Dilemma: Third-party State-building in Occupied Territories". Ethnopolitics. 11 (1): 85–93. doi:10.1080/17449057.2011.596127. S2CID 145382064.
  23. ^ Fukuyama, Francis. January/February 2004. "State of the Union: Nation-Building 101", Atlantic Monthly.
  24. ^ Fukuyama, Francis, ed. (2006). Nation-building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq ([Online-Ausg.] ed.). Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0801883347.
  25. ^ Felbiger, cited in Melton 2002, 186 (in Paglayan 2021)
  26. ^ a b Paglayan, Agustina S. (February 2021). "The Non-Democratic Roots of Mass Education: Evidence from 200 Years". American Political Science Review. 115 (1): 179–198. doi:10.1017/S0003055420000647. ISSN 0003-0554.
  27. ^ cited in US Dept of State 1954, 134 (in Paglayan 2021)
  28. ^ James Dobbins, America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (RAND, 2005, pp 1-54).
  29. ^ Eric Martin, "Nation building in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Cooperation, coordination and collaboration." South East European Journal of Economics and Business 2.2 (2007): 7-22 online.
  30. ^ Ignatieff, Michael. Empire lite: nation building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan. Random House, 2003.
  31. ^ Paul Dibb, "The Soviet experience in Afghanistan: lessons to be learned?" Australian Journal of International Affairs 64.5 (2010): 495-509.
  32. ^ Murray, Donette Murray, "The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name? George Warn. Bush: State and Nation Building in Afghanistan, 2001–2" Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding (2013) vol 7 DOI: 10.1080/17502977.2012.734562
  33. ^ "The U.S. lost track of why it was in Afghanistan, former commander says". NPR. August 10, 2022. Retrieved 28 August 2022.

Further reading