In contrast to Europe, the modern history of Latin America is characterised by the absence of international conflict (i.e. wars between states). What impact has this development had on the process of state building in Latin America?

Weber’s definition of the state as a “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber, cited by Gerth & Wright Mills, 1970:79), is one of the most commonly used definitions of the state, and broadly suggests the link between conflict and state building advocated by Charles Tilly. Tilly takes this link further with his adage that ‘states make war and war makes states’ (Tilly, 1985; 1990), a proposition which is widely supported in political sociology (Centeno, 2002;102), and has led to the belief that international conflict is a vital component of state building.

This essay will argue that the absence of international conflict in Latin American states has not prevented state building, as many of the structural benefits of conflict have been addressed through the initial conditions of the continent, such as those generated through the colonial legacy, external influences of globalising state and trade systems, and an abundance of mineral and commodity resources. These initial conditions have however failed to replicate the organic nature of state building as produced by conflict, and instead have created a limiting effect, slowing or even preventing state development.

This argument will be developed by firstly presenting Tilly's model detailing how conflict acts as a vital source of state formation; this will be followed by consideration of the role of Latin Americas initial conditions in state building and their outcomes.

Charles Tilly is most commonly associated with the proposition that international conflict is the dominant method of, and indeed necessary for, state building to take place. He argues that conflict “serves more than one of the central mechanisms of state building by extending or defending the perimeter and monopolising the means of violence” (Tilly, 1985:184-5). Tilly identifies four tasks of the state; firstly, war-making to eliminate external rivals; secondly, state-making to eliminate internal rivals; thirdly, protection of their citizens or other clients; lastly extraction, to ensure means of pursuing the first three (Tilly, 1985:181). However, the formality of this structure belies Tilly's belief that the states and state building are “merely unintended consequences of organised crime“(Tilly, 1985:170). Tilly's basis for this claim stems from the idea that controlling a region offered the opportunity to create a greatly extended protection racket, from which the controlling force could generate an income. This model was so successful that a central authority was able to control larger territories, generating more income and a need to create formal armies and ever more imaginative ways of revenue raising, producing “the extraction-coercion cycle” (Finer, 1975). Tilly's argument relies on the structures of organised crime, such as armies, administration infrastructure and systems of taxation, “outlasting the wars they fought” (Tilly, 1990:20-1) to fulfil the permanent idea of the state.

The idea of permanence is somewhat misleading as states develop through ever-changing processes, forming and reforming citizen relations, the apparatus of governance and the coordinated expansion of power (Enloe, 1978:336). Centeno (2002) reminds us that “war is then both the incentive and the means for the central power to dominate” (Centeno, 2002:86). This concept is supported by Tilly, who suggests that variations among European states arise from a state’s response to a territory’s demands (Tilly, 1985:172), including the demands of its citizens whose “popular resistance” to war and state making produces an exchange which guarantees rights, representative institutions and courts of appeal; this exchange eventually has “the effect of constraining the paths to war and state making” (Tilly, 1985:183). Tilly's reliance on war as a mechanism of state building is not universally supported and other theories make claims as to the importance of alternative institutions and devices in the process of state building (See Enloe, 1978; Hui, 2005; Thies 2005 and Vu, 2010). These arguments, however, present little evidence of being applied before a territory and central authority are established through Tilly's model.

State building in Latin America presents a more direct challenge to Tilly's view, as the states post-independence were not produced by war but were artificially and purposefully created replicas of their colonial rulers, and were not subject to the same initial conditions as Europe had been during state building. These initial conditions extend past the colonial legacy to also include the external influences of globalising state and trade systems, the inevitability of the state model, high levels of mineral and commodity wealth and the differing ideologies and realities of the continent’s elites.

The routes to state building proposed by Tilly were not predetermined; “there was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the nation state” (Lopez-Alves, 2001:157). This is supported by Tilly's proposition that states are merely unintended consequences of the coercion-extraction cycle; in contrast to the “wars of independence, this meant that the states of Latin America were the subject of purposeful creation and planning” (Lopez-Alves, 2001:170). The colonial legacy negated the needs of conflict as it presented states with predetermined territories, wealth streams and institutional structures which could have provided the Latin American states with an ability to advance without the need of conflict. Adelman (2001) suggests that the postcolonial states inherited the “wrong institutions” (Adelman, 2001:29), and that this led to states which were “more successful at breaking down the remnants of the past than building foundations of the future” (Adelman, 2001:29). Centeno (2003) supports this claim in relation to the opportunities posed through inheriting vast territories, which “left not proto-absolutist states able to impose their control over their newly territorially defined nations, but a variety of military groups able to resist any attempts to monopolise authority” (Centeno, 2003:87). This left states needing to be “built from the inside out” (Centeno, 2002:128). The advantages of pre-existing structures, prized when resulting from conflict, can therefore be understood as limiting and can become a hindrance to state building when placed out of context.

Systems of revenue generation such as taxation, customs and duties were also formed through the colonial structure, again appearing to circumvent the needs of conflict, yet these components of the colonial legacy also produced a limiting effect on state building as there were few tasks that had historically been managed by these colonial bureaucracies, and those which had been managed in this way became extraneous at independence (Lopez-Alves, 2001:170). Lopez-Alves (2001) further suggests that these problems were compounded by states which spent money buying the loyalties of caudillios: this also had the effect of appeasing local agitations and left the traditional caudillios as strong influencers on state policy; in many cases this extended to allowing the caudillios to tax their own rural populations and pocket the revenues (Lopez-Alves, 2001:169). This exchange also prohibited the formation of citizen identities in the rural communities, as they paid their caudillios tax for protection and “therefore did not associate the payment with being a citizen of the state” (Lopez-Alves, 2001:169). This placed Latin American states in an advantageous position, because there was less of a need to maintain state revenues through taxation.

Through foreign loans and custom duties, Latin American states had an easier time accessing sources of revenue other than relying on taxation, which created a more relaxed coercion in Latin America than that which existed in Europe (Lopez-Alves, 2001:161). This created a different need for the military, as it was not needed to enforce tax collection. The power of the central government remained weak as taxation was not used as a means of strengthening central authority or bureaucracy. “(O)n the whole taxes on land were expensive to collect as compared to those associated with trade, especially large flows of trade past easily controlled checkpoints” (Tilly, 1985:182). This suggests that, if European powers had had access to those same mineral and commodity resources, or the same command of global trade in certain spheres, they might not have engaged in extraction through taxation.

Initial conditions for trade in Latin America meant that capitalists, particularly rural producers, did not invest in strengthening the state because they perceived it to be too risky an enterprise in the context of continual warfare, or because they already had a local or private militia. The state was too weak to impose law and order or essential property rights (Adelman, 2001:42); It remained weak because the elite did not consider it effective, meaning their money was not then forthcoming (Lopez-Alves, 2001:159). Liberalism and federalism, which later became dominant ideologies in the last third of the 19th century, were not conducive to building structures of state; rulers and dominant elites had little interest in state building because they perceived themselves to be in a low-threat environment, and because of the availability of foreign loans (Vu, 2101:254)

Due to the abundance of commodities and mineral resources, Latin American states never became dependent on income from taxation, and therefore never felt compelled to build such economic structures, unlike their European counterparts. This has created an environment where social contract between the state and the citizen is not perceived as necessary. Karl (1997) claims that this dependence on specific export commodities shapes not only political regimes, but also the very institutions of state. Commodity-led growth induces changes in the prevailing notions of property rights; this replaces the idea that only the social contract of war can reform policy and interaction. This is related to the relative power of interest groups and the relationships between the state, the citizen and the market. These institutional changes define the revenue basis of the state, especially in relation to its tax structure (Karl, 1997:7)

A vital initial condition of postcolonial state building was the importance of the development of the international state system. This created a significantly different environment from that which was taking place in Europe, as states became the recognised and dominant mode of societal organisation. Tilly argues that “mercantile capitalism and state making reinforce each other” (Tilly, 1985:170); this provides evidence as to why the big European powers were keen to reinforce and reproduce models of themselves in Latin America. The creation of state-certified organisations such as the League of Nations further empowered the European model (Tilly, 1985:185) As Oszlak (1981) asserts, the great majority of Latin American countries acquired, as the first attribute of their condition as an independent state, formal recognition of their sovereignty. This recognition preceded the institutionalization of a state power, acknowledged within the territory itself; this peculiar pattern, which in some cases lasted for several decades, contributed to the creation of the ambiguous image of a nation state established in a society that failed to acknowledge its institutional presence (Oszlak, 1981:8)

In conclusion, Latin America’s obviously advantageous initial conditions, such as those relating to the colonial legacy and external influences, address many of the structural and formal requirements of state building normally credited to international conflict. These same initial conditions however, have produced an equally limiting effect in the states of Latin America as they attempt to maintain the artificially created postcolonial states and expectations of the international system despite the very different realities and ideologies of those now leading these states. These limitations of the initial conditions demonstrate the inherit advantage of conflict as a mechanism of organic state building.


  • Adelman, J (2001) ‘Institutions, Property and Economic Development in Latin America’, The Other Mirror: Grand Theory through the Lens of Latin America, Centeno, M.A & Lopez-Alves, F (eds), Chapter 1 p27-54, Princeton University Press, Woodstock.
  • Centeno, M. A (2002) Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America, Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania.
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  • Oszlak, O (1981) ‘The Historical Formation of the State in Latin America: Some Theoretical and Methodological Guidelines for its Study’, Latin American Research Review, Vol 16:2 p3-32.
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  • Vu, T (2010) ‘Studying the State through State Formation’, World Politics, Vol 62:1 p148-175

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