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Policy Paper

Transcending the limitations of institutionalist frameworks: Confronting the normative contradictions of external state-building


Ejaz Thawer


Contemporary scepticism surrounding the efficacy of liberal institutionalist interventionism – disputing the capacity of international actors to institute conditions for sustainable peace in post-conflict environments – has predominantly centred upon illuminating the normative contradictions deemed intrinsic to external state-building paradigms. Whether manifested in the crystallisation of substantial power imbalances between unaccountable exogenous policymakers and disenfranchised domestic constituencies, systematic encroachments upon state sovereignty, or dependent states’ embroilment in mutually constitutive crises of local and international legitimacy, these contradictions feature prominently in analyses documenting the strategic failures of numerous post- Cold War liberal peacebuilding interventions. Seeking to discern the conditions upon which such dilemmas can be resolved, this paper attributes tensions surrounding the preservation of Westphalian sovereignty, paradoxical acquisition of domestic and international legitimacy, and facilitation of local ownership to policymakers’ unidimensional focus on developing state capacity, and argues that the contradictions of external state-building are insurmountable within the prevailing, liberal institutionalist state-building paradigm. Consequently, overcoming external state-building’s inherent contradictions necessitates the transcendence of neo-Weberian, state-centric frameworks, and subsequent adoption of more relational state-building approaches, which reconceptualise the state as a product of social relations, acknowledge the significance of state-society relations in legitimisation processes, and appreciate the underlying power dynamics regulating the interplay of disparate actors in post-conflict settings. Case study analysis of the post-Taliban international state-building effort in Afghanistan serves to substantiate this claim, as an evaluation of this initiative’s documented failures highlights the obstructive nature of external state-building’s normative contradictions, explicitly situates these tensions within the established liberal institutionalist model, and illuminates the dilemma-subverting potential of alternative relational perspectives. Ultimately, a comprehensive reorientation towards the development of relational state-building frameworks constitutes a means by which policymakers can not only resolve the normative contradictions of external state-building but also effectively reinvigorate collective confidence in this mechanism’s potential as an instrument of peace in prospective international state-building endeavours.

How to Cite: Thawer, E., 2021. Transcending the limitations of institutionalist frameworks: Confronting the normative contradictions of external state-building. The Public Sphere: Journal of Public Policy, 9(1).
Published on 08 May 2021.
Peer Reviewed


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