Falling between the Cracks: Host Nation Responsibility in Post-Conflict Reconstruction




Dr. Rebecca J. Johnson

Visiting Assistant Professor

Georgetown Public Policy Institute

Georgetown University

3520 Prospect Street, NW

Suite 400

Washington, DC 20007





As the international community becomes increasingly committed to participating in the post-conflict reconstruction of states following wars, questions arise concerning the appropriate ‘division of labor’ between the war-torn state and the external powers contributing to its restoration.  Many states emerging from conflicts lack the capacity to fulfill their basic functions and rely on various representatives from the international community to provide these tasks. In post-conflict situations marked by a violent struggle for political and economic control, the war-torn state’s dependence on external support is even greater.

While often necessary, this relationship breeds certain pathologies – international actors often fail to understand or pursue the host nation’s interests during this transitional period, and may insert themselves into often-present internal power struggles. The host nation tends to grow dependent on the international community for providing the basic functions of state that constitute its raison d’être and may try to use the international community to settle domestic grievances. Reflection on the proper roles and responsibilities of post-conflict governments and those states and organizations that assist in their reconstruction is needed to remedy these pathologies and facilitate a smoother transition from war to peace.  The focus tends to rest on identifying the responsibility international agents possess in assisting foreign populations who have been harmed by state collapse or abuse (Deng, Imaro et al. 1996; Evans and Sahnoun 2002; Feldman 2004; Chandrasekaran 2006). More explicit analysis is needed that lays out the responsibility of the post-conflict itself to rebuild itself following conflict. There exist multiple motivations to remain weak and dysfunctional following war. What obligation does the state have to its own post-conflict reconstruction?

This paper provides that reflection. At its core, it seeks to answer three basic questions: What are a state’s role and responsibilities in its own post-conflict reconstruction? How does its responsibility interact with those of external actors like the UN, regional organizations, or other third parties? How do these responsibilities change over time? This paper will demonstrate that states possess a primary obligation to provide for the basic needs of the population. When the state looses its ability to so this following war, it assumes the dual obligations of (1) locating an external proxy to provide the means of state in its absence, and (2) focusing all of its energies of reacquiring the means of state.  The post-conflict state possesses the secondary obligations to (a) support the proxy-sovereign in its efforts to provide for the population’s basic needs while serving as a check on its actions, and (b) fighting the inevitable dependency that arises when one state must rely on another to provide its basic functions.

This paper proceeds in three steps. The next section articulates two main approaches to sovereignty and defends the ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ approach as the most compelling in the contemporary period. This section also lays out the minimum security, political, and economic functions a state must provide in order to be viewed as legitimate by the population.  The following section analyzes how these obligations evolve in the post-conflict period over the three stages of protectorship, partnership, and ownership. The conclusion offers suggestions for how to reframe contemporary post-conflict efforts to better facilitate host nation responsibility.


Sovereign Obligation

To understand a state’s obligation to rebuild itself following war, it is important to understand the state’s sovereign obligations generally. At its root, sovereignty is about holding supreme authority over a given territory.  The question becomes identifying that which confers supreme authority over a particular agent in a defined territory.  There are two main, competing answers to this question – the Hobbesian/Westphalian conception and the Rousseauian/populist conception.

According to the Hobbesian conception, the agreement of the population to submit to the sovereign – through either sovereignty by institution (the people submit in exchange for the sovereign’s coordinating their communal life together) or sovereignty by acquisition (they submit in exchange for the sovereign’s protection against some external threat) – constitutes a social contract. Once entered into, the social contract remains inviolate. The sovereign possesses absolute authority over its territory and no other agent, domestic or foreign, possesses any authority to exercise sovereign power. This possession of absolute sovereignty serves as the foundation for the inviolability of borders recognized and codified in the UN Charter, Article 2(7).

Over the past fifteen years, this Westphalian conception of sovereignty has ceded ground to a Rousseauian or populist conception that vests sovereignty in the people, not the state.  Sovereign authority is not seen as absolute, but derives from the inherent worth of the people who accept the sovereign authority of the state. Should the state show itself to be unable or unwilling to provide for the basic collective needs of its citizens, it looses its sovereign authority. This premise was first articulated in 1992 by then-UN Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali in An Agenda for Peace (Boutros-Ghali 1992), developed by Francis Deng into the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility” in 1996 (Deng, Imaro et al. 1996), and formalized in 2001 as “The Responsibility to Protect” by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS 2001, ch. 6). As stated by Deng, “…in order to be legitimate, sovereignty must demonstrate responsibility. At the very least that means providing for the basic needs of its people” (Deng, Imaro et al. 1996, xvi). It is not enough that the population ceded sovereign authority to the state at some historic moment. The state must, at each moment, demonstrate its legitimate claim to this authority by discharging its responsibilities to its citizens.

In his investigation of statebuilding, Francis Fukuyama diagnoses two aspects of statehood required for this demonstration – scope and strength. Scope, “refers to the different functions and goals taken on by governments…” and can range from minimal (providing only basic public goods), to intermediate (addressing externalities, regulating monopolies etc.) and activist (coordinating private activities and redistributing income). State strength refers “to the ability of the state to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently – what is now commonly referred to as state or institutional capacity” (Fukuyama 2004, 7).  A state with minimal scope may possess sovereign authority, provided it possesses sufficient strength to execute those duties that fall within its scope. Even the most activist state fails the sovereignty as responsibility test if it lacks sufficient strength to exercise its authority in practice.

At minimum, the state has the obligation to provide a basic level of security, political stability, and the conditions for economic wellbeing for its citizens (Kennan 1985-86, 206). According to Francis Deng, “Sovereignty, even in its traditional sense, refers not only to the inviolability of the state, but the responsibility to perform the tasks expected of an effective government. Normatively, to claim otherwise would be to lose sight of its purpose in the original context of the social contract, taking the means for the end. Sovereign authority is only the means for making harmony and solving problems when harmony does not exist on its own, and conflicts are not worked out by society” (Deng, Imaro et al. 1996, xviii).

The state then, provides the basic services needed for its population to live together in society and serves as the coordinating mechanism (with enforcement authority) in those situations when living together sparks conflicts larger than the society’s ability to resolve. Robert Jackson has defined this understanding of the state’s sovereign responsibility as ‘positive sovereignty’, which is possessed by states that have the capacity “to provide political goods for [their] citizens.” A state in possession of positive sovereignty “is also a government that can collaborate with other governments in defence alliances and similar international arrangements and reciprocate in international commerce and finance” (Jackson 1990, 29).

None of this is easy. In order to provide security, the state must possess the ability to enforce laws through effective policing and functioning judicial systems. Likewise, it must possess the capacity to keep other states out of its domestic affairs and possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (Weber 1919). If it lacks this basic capacity to enforce its own laws and control the people and groups that operate within its territory, it can hardly claim to provide basic security for its citizens.

Likewise, the state must possess the authority to impose its will on those within society who may disagree with its decisions. The capacity to impose the state’s will is not sufficient; the population must also see the state as the legitimate actor to make and enforce those decisions.  This governing authority derives from the people’s consent.  The state must possess basic political stability in order for the population to be able to consent to the rules imposed by the state. Without this consent the state’s actions on behalf of the population can only be seen as capricious, even if they are seemingly made for the citizens’ benefit. That the population would have consented but for its inability to do so is not sufficient to ground state authority. Actual consent must be conferred.

Why is this consent essential? Because without the political stability needed to express acceptance or rejection of the government in power, there exists no mechanism for the population to reject the government short of the use of force.  Political stability is a necessary condition of general security and consent is a necessary condition of political stability.

Dominik Zaum outlines the importance of consent in establishing sovereign authority.

First, the exercise of political authority has to be legitimate: it has to be justified by moral and other socially embedded beliefs. Second, authority entails the right to be obeyed within the scope of its rules. This right to obedience emphasizes voluntary submission to the commands of an authority and distinguishes authority clearly from other forms of power, such as coercion or persuasion, as the reason for compliance is different. In the case of coercion, compliance is the result of the use of force or the threat thereof, even if it is morally justified. In the case of authority, on the other hand, compliance is voluntary, based on a sense of obligation arising from the acceptance of the legitimacy of an authority’s orders. Similarly, authority is different from persuasion, since submission to an authority involves the a priori surrender of private judgment, without questioning whether a superior is correct (Zaum 2007, 30).


In liberal models of political organization, consent is viewed as conferred through elections, though this need not be the case. Elections are an important institutional mechanism in so far as they indicate the political sentiments of the electorate at a given point in time, but they can be less a clear expression of political will than a reaction to events (as demonstrated by the electoral reversal following the Madrid bombing in 2004), an act of political opposition (as seen when one group boycotts), or a general indication of weak efficacy (as expressed in low turn out numbers) (Przeworski 1986; Elklit and Svensson 1997; Manning and Antic 2003).  According to Alexander Bickel, “Elections, even if they are referenda, do not establish consent, or do not establish it for long. They cannot mean that much. Masses of people do not make clear-cut, long-range decisions” (Bickel 1975, 16). 

Likewise, elections serve as a weak indicator of consent because the population may withdraw its consent during the period between elections. In strong democracies, alternative, legitimate avenues exist for the people to express their consent/dissent to the government. In weaker systems, these avenues are often lagging and few other mechanisms exist to allow the public to express its will, short of resorting to violence.  The state, then, must provide some sort of access for citizens to engage those making decisions within the political process for the purposes of conveying their consent (or lack thereof). Bickel identifies “institutions validated by time and familiarity” populated by individuals who are open to receiving the interests of the population as the mechanism that provides this function. These institutions need not be democratically elected; tribal councils could easily meet the criteria (provided there is some mechanism to hold their members accountable should they stop responding to the interests of the population). The key point is that the population puts their trust in them and they actually function to convey the population’s consent to or rejection of the government to the government.

The obligation to provide the basic conditions for economic wellbeing is an equally essential function of state. Without these, individuals lack the basic tools to provide for their own welfare. The state need not be so activist as to guarantee a defined standard of living for each citizen (though it should not let its citizens starve or live at below subsistence levels if it possesses the capacity to prevent this). Rather, the state should set the objective conditions within which people can provide for their own wellbeing, based on individual capacity and motivation (Temkin 1986; Nussbaum 2002; Little 2003). Providing these baseline conditions is essential for the population maintaining autonomy from the state. Should the people rely exclusively on the state for its material wellbeing it would be impossible for them to simultaneously provide their consent to the state. Any compliance would come from the coercive power the state held over its citizens’ livelihood.

Even in a non-conflict setting, the bar set here is relatively high for states – the argument holds that state legitimacy derives to an extent from state capacity. If this were true, then many impoverished countries across the globe would fail the test. The answer lies in whether a viable alternative exists that could and wants to meet the population’s basic needs. If one does, and the population demonstrates its support of this group, then the state seems to lack the authority it needs to govern. If not, because the state is so weak that it lacks the positive sovereignty required to dispense with the functions of state regardless of who runs it, then authority may be impossible to enforce, but it still resides with the government in power as the legitimate representative of the state’s sovereignty.


The Post-Conflict State

How does this responsibility change in a post-conflict environment? State function is typically weakened as a result of war, and the longer the war, the weaker that state will be when it ends. Civil wars and insurgencies are particularly corrosive of state capacity, since more of the population and state assets are caught up in the fighting.  This section will detail the obligations a state possesses to its own reconstruction following war. In a nutshell it will argue that as capacity erodes, the state develops two primary obligations. The first is to locate a proxy to provide the means of state until it has regained its capacity; the second is to reacquire the capacity it has lost.  As capacity develops, the host nation’s responsibility for discharging its duties (and the external power’s responsibility for relinquishing its control over the host nation’s state function) increases. This typically happens in a three-step process that begins with the external power controlling all aspects of governance to a middle stage of shared control to the final stage where the post-conflict state has regained control of state functions. There are several conceptions of this model, but the one by Louis Iasiello lays out the transitions well: protectorship (the external power provides security and the basic conditions needed for life); partnership (“all sides work together to rebuild the defeated society;” and ownership (the formerly defeated power provides for the population) (Iasiello 2004, 42-44).

One can conceive of these reciprocal responsibilities as displacing each other – when the state can no longer discharge them, an external power assumes them. Once the state regains the ability to discharge them, the external power looses them. The host nation and external power may negotiate arrangements for providing intermediate functions of state as the host nation develops that capacity, but these functions are discretionary and not necessary for the host nation to claim sovereign legitimacy.


The Host-Nation-External Power Relationship

If the host nation finds itself unable to fulfill this responsibility directly, it acquires the responsibility of finding another actor to do so on its behalf. This is a logical extension of the social contract that grounds the state’s right to rule.  The foundation of the social contract stipulates that the state will provide basic coordinating services in exchange for the population’s consent to be constrained by the state in certain ways. When the state looses the capacity to hold up its end of the contract it faces a choice, either find a surrogate to fulfill these functions in its absence or cede authority to govern so another group may rise up and take over the role of sovereign permanently. Either choice results in the post-war state loosing the ability to govern; the difference is that the first choice holds the possibility for the state to regain that ability while the second choice forfeits this right permanently. Either way, the value at bottom of the choice is the population. It is an illegitimate choice for the post-war state to refuse to cede governing authority while simultaneously failing to discharge it governing obligations.

That the state has the responsibility to locate an alternate governor is not enough. Some external actor must accept this responsibility as its own in this initial ‘protectorship’ phase. Francis Deng argues that the international community possesses the responsibility to step up in these situations:

To the extent that the international community is the ultimate guarantor of the universal standards that safeguard the rights of all human beings, it has a corresponding responsibility to provide innocent victims of internal conflicts and gross violations of human rights with essential protections and assistances…. From a pragmatic point of view, human dignity is conceived not as a utopian vision, but in its minimum content, as a political demand for which people are often prepared to risk their lives. The quest for human dignity is usually translated into a struggle for recognition, respect, and equitable participation in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the country (Deng, Imaro et al. 1996, xiii).


The role of the external power is to provide for the basic needs of the post-conflict state’s citizens while creating the conditions for the post-conflict state to assume this responsibility itself. Locating an external agent to govern on its behalf is not the end of the state’s obligation. Should the post-conflict state find another actor to serve as the sovereign proxy in its place, it must support the external power’s efforts while ensuring this external power discharges its obligation to the population.  Doing so provides evidence that the state retains its fidelity to the population; it simply lacks the capacity to govern. 

What does it mean to support the external power? If the state is so weak that it cannot provide even the most minimal functions of state, how could it possibly support the external power that has stepped into the break on its behalf? The state supports the external power in two important ways – first, it lends whatever credibility it has to the external power. As the legitimate sovereign authority, its active consent to the external power’s governing lends the external power credibility and legitimacy. International relations literature is host to a robust debate concerning what legitimizes interventions. The majority of the voices in this conversation come down that the international community’s consent determines the legitimacy of intervention – either the UN as a global body, the relevant regional body, or the state itself (ICISS 2001; Coady 2002; Teson 2006). Few, if any, discuss the role the population plays in consenting to an external intervention, but if we accept an understanding of sovereignty that is vested in the individual citizen and not the state, then it is the consent of the individual citizen that is a key. The state supports the external power by lending it legitimacy on behalf of the population. It is not inevitable that the population will accept the external power as the proxy state, but the chances are greater when the state actively and consistently backs the external power’s efforts.

Still, supporting the external power can be a challenging task.  By throwing its lot in with a ‘foreign power’ the state risks alienating its own population. Even when reliant on an external power for basic services, populations tend to resist outsiders holding power over them.  This is a natural and positive indication that the population understands (or at least intuits) its own popular sovereignty, but the state must work to develop popular support for the external power, even when this support is hard to earn. This is first of all an act of respect – if the post-conflict state invites an external power in to discharge its responsibility to the population while it is unable to do so itself, it only seems fair that the post-conflict state would do what it can to ensure that the external power is actually able to provide the means of state.

Likewise, supporting the external power sets up the conditions for the state to reassume power. Should the population resent the external power’s presence, it will resent the state by extension as it comes to equate the two over time. This growing hostility frustrates the state’s ability to police its territory, establish and enforce the rule of law, and conduct any state function that requires popular consent and compliance. In this scenario, rather than the proxy sovereign enabling the state to reacquire the means of state, the proxy sovereign undermines the state’s ability to retake the reigns of governance. To avoid this, the state must work to ensure the population remains tacitly accepting of the external power-as-sovereign-proxy during the post-war reconstruction period.

One way the post-conflict state can do this is through its responsibility to ensure the external power actually governs on behalf of the population. According to Noah Feldman, “Put simply, the occupying force owes the same ethical duties to the people being governed that an ordinary, elected democratic government would owe them. It must govern in their interests; and it must not put its own narrow interests ahead of the interests of the people being governed” (Feldman 2004, 64).  If an external power is going to accept the sovereign responsibilities of a state, it has the obligation to actually discharge those responsibilities, which means governing on behalf of the population. If it cannot or will not do this, it must decline the role of proxy sovereign.

While this position is logical, it is unreasonable to assume that external actors will lay down their own strategic interests to govern on behalf of another state’s population.  They may intend to, they may even try to, but it is more than challenging to discern the popular will of another country’s people, especially in the highly fluid, fractured context of the post-war state. In the chaos that often follows war it is equally unreasonable to assume that the population itself will possess the resources to stand up to a better-funded, better-armed external actor in defense of its interests.

Any check of the external power must come from the post-conflict state itself. This is understandably difficult, especially since the post-conflict state is relying on the external power to provide for its citizens’ basic needs, but it must provide this check all the same. It can do through this through advising the external power about important cultural parameters within which the external powers must operate (for instance, the need to maintain existing local tribal courts within any new legal system). Likewise, it should inform the external power concerning the population’s needs and voice disagreement to projects that fail to meet those needs (building schools when water treatment centers are needed). In an argument on development that is equally true of post-conflict reconstruction, Andrew Natsios writes, “It is essential that the country’s people view development as belonging to them and not to the donor community; development initiatives must meet the country’s needs and its people’s problems as they perceive them, not as distant policymakers imagine them” (Natsios 2005, 7).  While it is understandable that the external power would lack this culturally specific knowledge, the post-war state presumably does possess this insight. It is then responsible for communicating it to the external power to enable it to be more responsive to the needs of the population.

The relationship is often reciprocal. Societies are fractured by war, and it is entirely possible that no consensus exists concerning the needs of the population. In this instance the external power can foster the process of public will formation by creating an environment in which the different groups in society can come together to negotiate how their divergent interests will aggregate at the national level (Feldman 2004, 83).  The external power provides safe and stable parameters within which social groups debate, and the post-war state helps translate that debate into meaningful action for the external power.


Regaining State Functions

While supporting the external power is a critical element in post-conflict reconstruction, the state must also work toward reacquiring the means of state as quickly as possible so the external power can leave. Assuming the post-conflict state has secured an external actor to provide for its population’s basic needs during the transition period (UN or regional peacekeepers, humanitarian relief organizations, etc.) its task shifts immediately to reacquiring the means of state. At the most basic level, it must regain the ability to provide those minimal state functions outlined by Fukuyama – defense, law and order, property rights, macroeconomic management, public health, disaster relief, antipoverty programs, and protecting the poor (Fukuyama 2004, 8).

Different experts of post-conflict reconstruction have conceived of this transition using different catchphrases, but all divide the project into three stages. The State Department’s “Essential Tasks Matrix” divides post-conflict reconstruction into (1) initial response: the United States’ immediate efforts to provide baseline security and humanitarian assistance following conflict; (2) transformation: the period where the United States assists in setting up institutions within the host nation; and (3) fostering sustainability: the period where the United States steps away and allows the host nation to manage its affairs on its own (Stabilization 2005). USIP has a similar taxonomy that breaks the post-war period into (1) imposed stability; (2) assisted stability; and (3) self-sustaining stability ((MPICE) 2008). 

Paul Collier, in his book, Breaking the Conflict, attempts to put a time frame on moving through these stages of post-conflict reconstruction. The first stage lasts roughly for the first three years, focuses on stability and is led by peacekeepers. The second stage comes during the middle of the first decade following the end of war, focuses on economic recovery, and is led by the international aid community. The final stage is realized during the second decade following war, focuses on domestic reforms, and is led by the post-conflict state itself (Collier 2003, 167-69). 

The post-conflict state transits each stage in different aspects of statehood, broadly: security, governance, economic development, humanitarian assistance, and rule of law. A post-conflict state could be in the second, partnership stage, when it comes to economic reconstruction, but still entirely reliant on an external power for security.  As its reliance on external actors to provide the means of states diminishes as its own capacity develops, its responsibilities evolve. During the first phase, the post-conflict state is responsible for those actions outlined above: securing an external actor to provide for the population, lending its support to that actor, and serving as a check to ensure external power actions actually benefit the population. The fundamental purpose of this first stage is to ensure that the population has its basic needs met but a competent authority. For this reason, host nation responsibility centers on promoting the external power’s competence in governing in its specific context.

During the second stage, the post-conflict state’s responsibilities shift. The post-conflict state must retain its watchdog role vis-à-vis the external power; flag programs that can be seen to be divisive or unsustainable locally; reward and protect public servants who operate in the best interest of the population as a whole, not a sub-group; and begin to take a leadership role in crafting and planning an agenda for state action. If the purpose of this middle stage is for the external power to partner with the host nation to allow it to begin to take ownership of the state again on behalf of its population while developing the capacity needed to actually take over the reigns of government, then this stage of post-conflict reconstruction should center on the host nation taking control of governing decisions in the five areas of statehood, even if the external power is still needed for help with implementation.

This second stage is the trickiest of the transition. First, it is here that all actors can expect the largest conflicts to erupt. The host nation is beginning to express its own vision for the state at the same time the external power is in the middle of its own agenda for rebuilding state institutions. The host nation still needs the external power for the state to run and the external power requires host nation assistance in crafting programs that will last past the point when external actors leave. Disagreements are the natural result of these shifting agendas, power dynamics, and mutual dependencies. For the host nation, the key is to remain sufficiently connected to the population to be able to serve as its voice to the external power and sufficiently committed to the pursuit of positive sovereignty to weather the changes that are required during capacity building.

Second, while the post-conflict state must necessarily rely on the external power for providing those basic services it cannot, it must also work to ensure that it does not become dependent on the external actor for these services indefinitely. Michael Walzer is clear (and persuasive) on this point when he writes, “a government that receives economic and technical aid, military supply, strategic and tactical advice, and is still unable to reduce its subjects to obedience, is clearly an illegitimate government. Whether legitimacy is defined sociologically or morally, such a government fails to meet the most minimal standards. One wonders how it survives at all. It must be the case that it survives because of the outside help it receives and for no other, local reasons” (Walzer 2006, 99). 

One can accept that the post-conflict states may need support for an extended period of time following the conflict – state capacity is not something that springs up fully formed over a long weekend – but indefinite support is untenable. It prevents both the population from expressing their right to popular sovereignty (presumably they would not consent to an external power making their decisions and governing their lives) and hinders whatever group within the state that would otherwise rise up possessing the will and capacity to govern.

States that fail to take concrete, consistent efforts to rebuild the capacity to govern demonstrate themselves to lack the will to govern.  As Collier notes, this second stage of post-conflict reconstruction can last the better part of a decade in some areas of statehood, but there is a difference between pursuing a lengthy, often-backsliding transition and growing dependent on the external power (Collier 2003, chapter 5). Battling this dependency can be challenging. As outlined by Dominik Zaum:

… the statebuilding policies that aim to establish legitimate institutions and empirical statehood undermine or even deny these institutions their agency, as the international community continues to intervene and to prescribe them the ends they are supposed to work towards. Furthermore, the international community considers its conception of legitimate and legitimizing institutions to be universally applicable, while the notion of autonomy inherent in the concept of sovereignty suggests the opposite: that there can be different sources of legitimate authority in different societies (Zaum 2007, 4-5).


Stated more succinctly, Zaum argues, “international administrations compromise a fundamental aspect of a political community’s sovereignty by violating its right to self-governance, but do so with the aim of making it sovereign with regard to the relations between state and society” (Zaum 2007, 27). The reliance on the external actor that is developed during the first and second stage impedes the transition to host nation ownership of state functions. The greater the external power’s control over domestic decisions during these two stages, the greater the likelihood of breeding pathological dependence (Knaus and Martin 2003).

To be clear, the state is not the only agent with responsibility in this area. John Stewart Mill, in his seminal article on intervention, places the onus squarely on the population, writing:

The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions, is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation. … the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent. No people ever war and remained free, but because it was determined to be so; because neither its rulers nor any other party in the nation could compel it to be otherwise. If a people – especially one who freedom has not yet become prescriptive – does not value it sufficiently to fight for it, and maintain it against any force which can be mustered within the country, even by those who have the command of the public revenue, it is only a question of how few years or months that people will be enslaved (Mill 1859).


Why? Because, “Men become attached to that which they have fought for and made sacrifices for; they learned to appreciate that on which their thoughts have been much engaged; and a contest in which many have been called on to devote themselves for their country, is a school in which they learn to value their country’s interest about their own” (Mill 1859). In this conception, the state is the collective entity that coordinates with any external actor operating within the state, but it is from the population itself that sovereignty is reasserted through a clear expression of popular will. Even if members of the post-conflict state fall prey to pathological dependency on the external power during this second stage of the transition, the population remains responsible for continuing to consent to the external power’s presence or withdrawing that consent in order to reassert domestic control over the means of state.  According to Mill (and several U.S. officials) it is this act of rejecting foreign control in favor of a less perfect domestic control that seals the state’s positive sovereignty (Mill 1859).

Once the population of a state has made this choice and the state itself has regained basic competence in the five areas of statebuilding, the relationship moves into its third stage, ownership. It is during this stage that the post-conflict state self-governs and possesses the positive sovereignty described in the first section. It may not govern well, and its capacity may be weak, but it is able to meet the minimum functions of statehood outlined by Fukuyama (Fukuyama 2004). At this point, continued external power presence becomes a hindrance to the further capacity development of the post-conflict state. Some external assistance may be needed to strengthen state function, but this assistance supports, not leads, the post-conflict state’s existing efforts.

The state’s obligations during this stage of the post-conflict transition are an extension of their previous efforts. Rather than protecting and encouraging those public servants that work in the best interests of the population, the state must enforce that all public servants operate in this manner and hold those who fail to accountable. This can be a challenging step for any government, but one that is critical when the state is seeking to regain the legitimacy of the population. Likewise, during the third stage, the state is responsible for revising and implementing its agenda for action. Rather than following the external power’s lead, the state must lead the process of agenda setting and implementation. Especially critical during this period is ensuring that dissenting voices are expressed and noted. The popular sovereignty that is generated through the process of public will formation is essential to state legitimacy. Providing a legal, non-violent mechanism for groups within society to express their consent to state programs is an essential part of this process. Overall, as the third stage of post-conflict reconstruction progresses, the post-conflict state looses its descriptive adjective and comes to be seen as a functioning state in its own right.



What does thinking about host nation responsibility across these three stages tell external powers about how to structure post-conflict reconstruction programs?  First, it is important to actually listen to host nation representatives throughout the three stages, not simply when the external power is ready to disengage. The host nation can only serve as an effective check on the external power (and maintain credibility with the population) to the extent that the external power is willing to be held accountable. It can hardly be surprised when the post-conflict state struggles with developing its own agenda for action when it lacks experience in evaluating the programs that help it transition from war to peace.

Second, the external power should take active steps to be responsive to the actual and perceived needs of the population, even if those needs fail to fit within the external power’s funding priorities. This goes a long way to build good will within the host nation and sets the post-conflict state up to succeed as it moves into the second and third stages of its post-conflict development.

Finally, the external power should be willing to remain at stage two for an extended period of time in some of the five areas of statehood. It could take over a decade before the host nation is reasonably competent at rule of law (see Bosnia fourteen years after Dayton), though it may take only six or seven years to complete security sector reform. By being open to moving at different paces in different areas, the external power allows the host nation to meet a series of challenging wins. This enables the host nation to develop competence consistently over time, without fear that the population’s basic needs will go unmet.

At the end of the day, both the host nation and the external power must meet their obligations for post-conflict reconstruction to succeed. Hopefully by disaggregating the stages and dimensions of host nation responsibility the international community will be better able to facilitate their meeting these responsibilities in their transition from war to peace.


Works Cited

(MPICE), Measuring Progress in Conflict Environments (2008). Metrics Framework for Assessing Conflict Transformation and Stabilization. Washington, DC, 2008.


Bickel, Alexander (1975). The Morality of Consent. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.


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