The study of states over the past three or four decades calls forth a number of paradoxes. First, intensifying interest in studying states has run parallel to the intensifying forces of globalization. The more states seem to be entangled in global economic, social, cultural, and political forces, the more scholars reach for the term “state” in their analyses, even as they eschew the “Westphalian” understanding of nation-states as the only proper unit of analysis. The intellectual focus on states also has spilled over into the policy domain, as actors operating within international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank – the very agents of globalization – have become fixated on shoring up states around the globe. Although many once advocated shrinking public sectors so as to liberate markets, many policymakers now believe that building up states and improving their “quality” (e.g., governance) is vital for economic development or political stability.
A second paradox is that the drive to focus on the state as an analytic category developed powerfully within U.S. academia, despite the widespread sense of many that the United States has a governing apparatus that operates in fundamentally different ways than what the literature on states – above all in Europe – suggested. Perhaps the state has become an enduring scholarly preoccupation of United States-based scholars because they feel most keenly the disjuncture between the projection of U.S. power around the globe and antistatist political currents back home. The history of U.S. statebuilding also contains a perplexing mix of power and impotence: fragmented decision-making structures, multiple layers of government, and pervasive intertwining of public and private authority, yet also a remarkable capacity to conquer, enslave, surveil, and imprison. Because the operation of political authority in the United States fits uneasily with the ideal-typical state lurking in the scholarly imagination, there is a growing literature seeking to better understand what “the state” is and means in the U.S. context.
The third paradox lies in the fact that, even as we have seen the waning of debates between “state-centered” and “society-centered” theories of the state, its autonomy (or lack thereof), and its capacities, studies of states have increased and diversified, drawing on novel but more dispersed varieties of theorizing.