State Capacity and The Unintended Consequences of Military Intervention

State capacity determines the power of a state to raise revenues, to enforce contracts, to support markets through regulation, and to establish a ‘monopoly of violence’.  In fact, the extent of state capacity is perhaps the fundamental difference between developed and developing countries: developed countries have significantly more of it than developing countries do.  But, because state capacity is multidimensional, the challenge for developing countries is to determine which attributes of state capacity building to prioritize.  Samuel Huntington in his influential book, “Political Order in Changing Societies”, offers a guiding principle based on Max Weber’s notion that the most important attribute of a state is the monopoly of violence (also known as the monopoly of the legitimate use of force).  Huntington suggests that establishing a monopoly of violence is a necessary precondition for being able to build the other kinds of state capacity listed above, and to do this the state must build military capacity first.  A natural conclusion of this view is that the right approach for helping a developing country to build its state capacity encompasses a top-down approach, prioritizing military capacity ahead of other attributes of the state.  In recent years, this view has been embraced by a number of international institutions such as the World Bank.  In addition, this view formed the guiding principle that underpinned the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, experience has shown that building military capacity first and leaving aside other attributes of the state can have unintended consequences.  For example, in Colombia, the reliance on a top-down approach to military capacity building in order to suppress guerrillas and paramilitaries is correlated with a deterioration in security and a weakening of the local state.  The reason is that the attributes of the state that would make powerful agents accountable were not put in place and a major consequence was a surge of the murder of civilians falsely portrayed by the army to be guerrilla combatants.   Mexico also adopted a top-down approach to military capacity building in order to combat the drug trade but this backfired and generated significant increases in violence. In Vietnam air-strikes were used in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism and to strengthen the ability of the state to monopolize violence but, as in Mexico, this backfired because it lead more Vietnamese to participate in Viet Cong (insurgent) military and political activities.

On the other hand, bottom-up approaches that help with the provision of public goods combined with military intervention have been found to deliver more positive results.   During the Vietnam War, in areas where American soldiers were embedded in communities and helped to implement development programs, local populations were reported to have more positive attitudes towards the US and all levels of the South Vietnamese government.  In Iraq the Commanders’ Emergency Reconstruction Program was found to have reduced the level of violence against US and Iraqi troops, conditional on community characteristics.  In Afghanistan, although the National Solidarity Program has not been found to have had an effect on the local security situation, it has had a positive effect on people’s perceptions of their economic well-being and their attitudes towards the Afghani government.

Even though control over the monopoly of violence is a legitimate and sometimes necessary goal, for example in the cases of  the collapse of the communist Najibullah regime in 1992 in Afghanistan, or the fall of Siad Barre in Somalia in 1991, the over-riding conclusion of recent research appears to be that it is advisable to build state capacity on a multidimensional basis from the outset.  However, research is ongoing to establish a more nuanced perspective on exactly which aspects of state capacity building are most effective at supporting economic development and how they can be encouraged to co-evolve most effectively.


Acemolgu, Daron, Leopold Fergusson, James Robinson, Dario Romero and Juan F. Vargas (2016) “The Perils of Top-down State Building: Evidence from Colombia’s False Positives“. Working Paper.

Beath, Andrew, Fotini Christia, and Ruben Enikolopov  (2012) “Winning Hearts and Minds through Development: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Afghanistan,” Working Paper

Berman, Eli, Jacob N. Shapiro and Joseph Felter (2011) “Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq.” Journal of Political Economy, 119(4): 766-819. [working paper]

Dell, Melissa (2015) “Trafficking Networks and the Mexican Drug War.” The American Economic Review, 105 (6): 1738–1779. [working paper]

Dell, Melissa and Pablo Querubin (2016) “Nation Building Through Foreign Intervention: Evidence from Discontinuities in Military Strategies.” Working Paper.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1968) Political Order in Changing Societies, Yale University Press.