American Statebuilding in Japan and Iraq

While American-occupied Japan and Iraq have distinct differences, the success of statebuilding in Japan and failure in Iraq can be understood using the same international relations (IR) theories. Two realist theories, the security dilemma and the balance of power, alongside the liberal selectorate theory can explain why the US effort in Japan succeeded yet failed in Iraq.

By juxtaposing the theories alongside the US record in the two post-war countries, we see that successful statebuilding relies upon the provision of state institutions that can guarantee physical security, such as food, basic medical care, and public safety (Baerwald 2003). While other arguments, such as level of effort of the state builder and prior conditions in the target state are useful, they ultimately fail to capture the root cause of success or failure: the creation of a state authority that provides physical security. The reason presented here will incorporate these ideas while pointing out their shortcomings.

I will first clarify statebuilding as it is used in this paper, then explain the three theories used and how they apply. Next will be brief reviews of the US statebuilding efforts in Japan and Iraq, followed by how we fit the experience into the theories. After, I will compare the explanation with the level of effort and prior conditions arguments and show why these arguments fall short.


In this paper, I will focus on statebuilding as the United States has done it. The US has been the most active in statebuilding in recent years. Also, it is the richest, strongest state in the global system. Seeing how such a state succeeds or fails inherently carries value for all states undertaking statebuilding.

Statebuilding is not a recent concept for the United States. It had attempted to build state capacity before, in Germany, Japan, Haiti, and Somalia, among others. However, with the end of the Cold War, the US no longer required constant vigilance against the Soviet threat. It was able to turn its attention to what had previously been secondary concerns: failed, weak, and “rogue” states (Mazarr 2014). American policymakers believed, with varying degrees of accuracy, that globalization had inherently weakened state power and forced a greater degree of connectivity between states. As such, a problem in one state could possibly spread to others, meaning that state security had now become linked (Kostovicova 2009). The Asian Financial Crisis and 9/11 terror attacks drove this new vulnerability home (Wesley 2008).

The United States typically pursues state building under the assumption of a “liberal peace” (Engell 2010). The liberal peace theory argues that democracies do not fight wars with each other for various reasons. As such, the aims of American statebuilding have been to create liberal democracies and market economies following Western governance norms. In addition, the US attempts to create a state bureaucracy that is separate from the politics of the nation (Wesley 2008).

There are a number of problems with liberal statebuilding, such as inherent definitional and ideological contradictions. In this paper though, liberal statebuilding and its inherent problems will largely be ignored. Instead, we will focus simply on statebuilding which involves increasing the integrity and efficiency of state institutions and bureaucracies to have a positive effect on society (Wesley 2008). As we will see, the goals of liberal statebuilding are dependent upon this much more basic definition.


By looking at the security dilemma, balance of power, and selectorate theories, we can arrive at a better understanding of successful statebuilding. Though these are state level theories, we will see that many of the situations of international relations are applicable in a statebuilding situation. A brief discussion of each follows.

The Security Dilemma and the Balance of Power

Both of these theories fall within the realist tradition of international relations. Realism posits five key assumptions about the international system (Mearshimer 2001). First, the system is anarchic; there is no overriding authority to govern how states act. Second, states inherently possess offensive capabilities that can be used against their neighbors. Third, states can never be sure about others’ intentions. While a neighbor may profess peaceful desires, it may secretly be planning for war. Fourth, survival is the state’s primary goal. Fifth, states are rational, unitary actors. The preliminary assumptions lead to a further two: that states must provide their own security and that threats are everywhere (Waltz 1988).

Taken together, these cause the security dilemma. When a state attempts to increase its security, mainly through increasing its military power, it naturally decreases the security of other states (Jervis 1978). In response, neighboring state’s increase their own military power, which can ultimately make the original state’s action counterproductive (Glaser 1997). When a security dilemma exists, it would make sense for each state to cooperate to lessen fears and thus the risk of war. However, this may not always be possible. Remember that there is no overriding institution to enforce promises (anarchy), meaning that states may lie or “cheat” (Mearshimer 2001). Compounding this, in an anarchic system, while all states would benefit from cooperation an individual state could benefit from cheating (Jervis 1978). If State A and B agree to disarm and if both follow through, it would benefit both. Yet if both agree to disarm, but B actually does not (it “cheats”) while A does disarm, B is at a considerable advantage over A. Thus all states have an incentive to cheat. If all states do cheat, though, it will leave all states worse off (Jervis 1976).

States sometimes do recognize the inherent contradictions in their actions along with the great difficulty overcoming all neighbors would require. In response, they will seek a balance of power. States of relatively equal power realize that war would be prohibitively costly and that the chances of winning the war are mixed. (Paul 2004). As such, they agree to an uneasy truce, agreeing to maintain the balance between them with the ultimate goals of securing the independence and survival of the states involved and the continuance of the balance (Gulick 1955). It is important to note that peace is not a goal (Levy 2004). War is seen as an acceptable action if needed, for example, to restore a balance. For a balance of power to work, states need to believe that they are of similar power to others. If a state believes that it is stronger than the others, it will not agree to the quasi-truce, and will instead seek domination. Napoleonic France and Germany’s two bids at European mastery are often offered as prime examples when war was used to restore the balance (Dehio 1962). The period between these wars is offered as the high point of balance of power politics (Gulick 1955).

The Selectorate Theory

Designed as a method of explaining why democracies do not fight wars with each other, the selectorate theory focuses on the domestic composition of governments. In the theory, there are four important groups: the total body of citizens (denoted N); the group of citizens that take part in leadership selection (denoted S, the selectorate); the subset of S whose support is required for a leader to be chosen (denoted W, the winning coalition); and the leader or leadership (Bueno de Mesquita et. al. An Institutional Explanation of the Democratic Peace). How these groups interact helps to determine the likelihood of war or peace.

In any state, there is only a finite amount of resources that a leader can dispense. That leader can choose to provide those resources as either private or public goods (Bueno de Mesquita et. al. 1999). Naturally, a leader wants to dispense the resources in a way that will result in the preservation of his leadership role. As such, if the winning coalition (W) is small, the leader need appeal to only a tiny minority and is more likely to give private goods, such as lucrative contracts to businesses, high status stations in the government, or just outright bribes. If W is large, meaning the leader needs to appeal to a broad constituency, then the leader should pursue public goods, such as roads, education, and healthcare.

Members of the winning coalition also have a choice to make: either support the current leader or support the opposition (to defect). Every potential defector faces the possibility that his supported candidate will lose. This is most important when W is small and goods are thus dispersed privately. If a member of W defects from the current leader (the incumbent) to support the opposition, but the incumbent maintains power, in a small W government, the defector has just lost access to his share of the private goods (Bueno de Mesquita et. al. 1999a). In governments with a higher W, this risk decreases, since the leader is more likely to pursue public goods than private.

Wars provide goods in many forms and a leader must choose how to distribute these goods. A leader must also choose how many resources to dedicate to fighting the war. The net of goods won and goods spent will then be distributed to a leader’s W (Bueno de Mesquita et. al. 1999). If the leader’s W is small, there is less incentive to spend resources on the war to obtain the goods provided by victory, since it is easy for a small W leader to placate his needed supporters. Fewer resources dedicated to fighting the war translates as a less efficient war effort, a longer war, and possibly defeat. By contrast, leaders with large Ws need to spend more on the war, since they cannot easily placate their supporters. As such, policy failures (in this case, losing the war) are harder for the leader to overcome. A large W leader will dedicate more resources to the war, meaning a more efficient war effort, a shorter war, and an increased probability of victory.

Taking these theories together, we can arrive at a better understanding of why statebuilding succeeds or fails.

Applying the Theories to Statebuilding

These are system and state level theories, meant to apply to how states behave in an international system towards each other. A state undergoing statebuilding by a foreign power is of a decidedly different level than what these theories were built for, so we need to make a few clarifications before continuing.

For the realist theories, first, since the prime issue is physical security of groups and individuals, the need to solve the problem of anarchy persists. In a normal state, a person’s physical security is guaranteed by the state. In a state undergoing statebuilding, such a guarantee cannot be immediately assumed, since some part of the state’s ability to protect its citizens may be compromised by the statebuilding project, for various reasons (Posen 1993). Second, we can also carry through the idea of self-help. Since citizens can no longer rely on their state for protection, they must do so themselves. Most often, this takes the form of relying on a group for protection, such as religious, ethnic, or political organizations (Podder 2014). Third, as these groups grow in numbers, they will develop capabilities that become threatening to other groups. Individuals joined the group for the promise of protection; it follows that these groups have some sort of military power to carry out the promise, whether the capabilities be basic weapons such as machetes and clubs or more advanced weapons such as rifles and rockets. Fourth, groups that have offensive capabilities pose a threat to each other. Each will attempt to augment its own power relative to those it views as threats. Each group then responds in kind (McCauly 2008). This creates a group level security dilemma (Roe 1999).  

For the selectorate theory, groups replace states, and group leaders have similar incentives for the distribution of goods as state leaders. In the initial stages to build a democratic state, organized groups are given outsized power by their organizational capacity. If state institutions of physical security have been destroyed, then these organized groups are likely to view each other antagonistically, given the security dilemma assumptions above (Lustick 1979). Further, these groups are also likely to use sectarian rhetoric, since it solidifies the raison d’etre of the group (Mansfield and Snyder 2005; Zakaria 1997). If built on, such rhetoric can further divide the groups and its members, which serves to make conflict more likely (Kaufmann 2006). To put it in selectorate terms: The public good provided by a group leader is security, while the private good is government spoils (assuming the group captures some part of the state). Since each group has divided along sectarian lines, each groups’ S will be inherently smaller than an overall state S; since the group leaders only have power because of the group, their primary goal will be to retain group leadership, not gain state leadership. This means that they will be focused on securing the group W, not the state W. In addition, the primary purpose of the groups is to provide security. As long as a leader can secure the parts of the group that actually provide that security (the armed wing of the group), the leader will secure W, meaning that group Ws are more similar to autocrat Ws than democrat Ws. Applying state level selectorate theory to the group, a smaller W will lead to a greater likelihood of war, since the leader need only secure a small group in the face of policy failure (military defeat). . . .

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