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The Statebuilder's Dilemma: On the Limits of Foreign Intervention, David A. Lake

Reviewed by James J. Wirtz



Nation building, to borrow a phrase from a bygone era, humbles politicians, soldiers, and scholars alike. In the American experience, so the argument goes, a can-do spirit, naiveté, and a disdain for local knowledge leads headlong into the morass. The effort to rescue failed states from chaos by reconstituting a government that can exercise sovereignty over its territory consumes blood, treasure, and the best-laid plans at unsustainable rates. It always seems to end up in the same way, a variation on Rudyard Kipling's epitaph.

In this incisive and empirically rich treatise, however, David A. Lake offers strategically valuable insights into why state building, the effort to reconstitute failed states, is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. Lake notes that a strategic dilemma inherent in state building often dooms the enterprise to failure. To gain legitimacy, emerging leaders must represent local interests to some extent to create the political economy that can lead disparate groups to “buy into” the emerging government. Outsiders only engage in state building because they have a different set of interests at stake, specifically, their own. As Lake notes, it is only a happy coincidence when these two sets of interests coincide, which produces a hopeless and self-destructive dynamic. The more an outside party cares about local develop

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