I’m not sure how this book landed on my shelf. Given that it was authored by a former international development professor at SAIS, perhaps this book was for one of my classes. If it was, I cannot remember which one. Regardless, given the degree to which strong institutions of governance are under attack these days, particularly from ever-increasing autocratic reach, grabbing it from the shelf for a refresher seemed timely.
Fukuyama wrote State Building in 2004, but it largely holds up. The book is an expansion of a set of lectures he gave to two different audiences over a particular window of time in the early years of the 21st century. He expanded and combined them to create this quick read that tries to quantitatively and qualitatively understand what comprises strong democratic institutions.
The book is a little bit of a mixed bag. Parts of the material involve technical language and ideas. It begins with an attempt to quantify or analyze data relevant to institutions of governance, which makes it look like a World Bank report chock full of quadrant graphs and scatterplots. Indeed, Bank wonks are the book’s target audience. This can be tricky because governance on particular metrics can be more subjective. How do you quantify squish metrics like “transparent?” That does not make the analysis wrong, it simply means take it with a slight grain of salt.
The book can be a slog for those not accustomed to working in this sector. You don’t have to be in economics or development professional to understand it, but it doesn’t hurt. Fukuyama spends the second chapter waxing theoretical about the elements of good governance and the implicit negotiation between a government and the governed in applying them. He also explores the broader implications for society with respect to how well or poorly institutions are established, nurtured, and maintained. In comparing the theory and practice of actual state building, Fukuyama gives a very polite – if not sobering - analysis of how those working in the areas of democracy and governance may be doing more harm than good.
The final two chapters are less academic and more evaluative of what was at that time the most dramatic – and failed – example of pushing democratic state building: the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Like many at that time and many since, Fukuyama concludes that that type of state building is often a fool’s errand. Strong institutions of democratic governance come from a people’s shared desire for them, not to mention a bit of luck surviving attempts to erode them for personal gain. These are not values and practices that can be foisted on a country. Therefore, in 2003, the Bush administration’s obtuse world view was as much of a factor in the continued strife as the inability of Iraq’s institutions to handle the responsibilities of newly-delivered freedom. Good intentions do not make up for bad judgement.
Despite its roots in critiquing the Bush administration, the book is still applicable, and its conciseness is of value to those who do not make their living in governance or international development. The more technical material may require the uninitiated to re-read paragraphs and pages two or three times to fully capture the ideas conveyed, but it’s worth the investment. Doing so will help the reader understand just how fragile democratic institutions, even those so strongly conceived in liberty, can easily be undermined. One need only read the book alongside the recent views expressed by highly regarded leaders and professionals (here, here, here, and here) to find applicability today.