So, you want to build a nation

by | Jun 6, 2022 | 0 comments

By Fernando Lanzer


The recipe for nation-building is easy: just follow the same core process that you might use to change an organization, or to change an individual. Simply describe the current situation, describe the desired situation, and make a detailed plan of how you intend to go from the former to the latter. Anyone (or any group of powerful and influential people) should be capable of carrying out the recipe, as long as they have the discipline to address these three aspects with enough depth of analysis and broad vision. The difficulty begins with being aware of your own bias as a potential nation-builder. Sadly, most politicians and public policy designers involved in nation-building are completely clueless about culture, its impact, and their own biases. Using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images (1) as a reference can prove to be very helpful to understand the key issues involved.

João (a song written by Arnaldo Antunes) (2)

São tantos e tão poucos tem noção

De como se inaugura uma nação

Não é bem com monumentos

Ou com balas de canhão 

É quando uma brisa bate na respiração

E entra no juízo de um João

Que dedica todo empenho

E amor ao seu engenho 

Para arejar os cantos da canção

E dar sentido a nossa sensação

They are so many, but so few have the notion

Of how you can inaugurate a nation

It’s not exactly with monuments

Or with cannon balls and ammunition

It’s when a breeze hits your respiration

And gets inside the judgment of a Joe

Who dedicates all his efforts

And love his endeavor

To breathe air into the corners of a song

And give some sense to our sensation

Key Words: Culture, Contest Cultures, Democratic Institutions, Social Change, Social Pyramid, Individualism, Power Distance.


Let me try and manage your expectations a bit. Nation-building is not easy at all. Some people would argue that it is simply impossible… and perhaps you should just give up altogether.

Let’s assume that it is possible, at least in theory; and let’s also accept, at least for the sake of argumentation, that we might even find one or two cases in history when it actually happened (Singapore comes to mind).

Let’s review your thinking process by going over my favorite analytical tool, my very own “Eternal Triangle of Change” (3). Using the triangle, let’s examine the three basic questions it proposes as a way of structuring our analysis and discussion:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How do we get there?

In terms of nation-building, this means looking at:

  1. Which nation are you trying to build? What is the current situation there? How did they get where they are? And, most importantly: why do you want to change that? Do they, the citizens, want to change the current situation? Who else wants to change it, and why? Who opposes the change, and why do they favor keeping things the way they are?
  2. What kind of nation are you trying to build? What does success look like? What are your criteria for concluding that “we have reached our objectives; the nation has been built and now looks the way it should?” How will you measure success?
  3. What is your change plan? How will you get from A to B? What is your estimated time frame for building the nation you want? What are the foreseen obstacles to doing that, and how do you intend to overcome them? What are the allies and resources that will support the implementation of your plan?

Answering these questions should keep you busy for a while. In the meantime, let’s look at the main factor behind the many failed attempts at nation-building: culture.

Starting at the beginning: where are we?

The core values of each culture influence the behavior of everyone in that culture, so naturally, they also influence government officials, policymakers, intellectuals, and media professionals.

When we discuss nation-building, who are we typically talking about? The US (supported by its “parent culture” UK) decides that some nation in the developing world needs building. Rather than “live and let live,” the underlying notion is that there is something wrong with the target nation; and it is the responsibility of the US/UK to fix it. There are a set of values that underpin that mindset.

Wursten (1) has described “Contest cultures” as characterized by high Individualism (IDV), low Power Distance (PDI), high Masculinity (MAS), and low Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI). I would like to add that they also score low on Long Term Orientation (LTO). Both the US and UK are Contest cultures, and they are also characterized by a mindset that sees life as a constant clash between opposing forces. Out of that clash, a positive outcome is expected. In such cultures, conflict is not avoided, but rather it should be embraced and managed to obtain the expected positive outcome. Confrontation and standing your ground are accepted as part of daily life and also a necessary component of geopolitics.

When it comes to nation-building, the mindset of “we have to save them, whether they want it or not,” is supported by high Individualism and high Masculinity. The combination of these values, together with low UAI and low LTO, creates a feeling of righteousness and a bias for action.

“We have to do it, not anybody else” is a mindset supported by high Individualism, a value dimension that is linked to taking responsibility, rather than “passing the buck” to someone else.

“There is something wrong with them” is supported by the normative aspect of low LTO (as opposed to the relativism that characterizes high LTO).

“We need to do something about it” is supported by high Masculinity combined with the previous two dimensions mentioned (LTO and IDV).

It is worth noting that there is a bias for action involved, as in “shoot first, ask questions later.” This is supported by the short-term perspective that characterizes low LTO, enhanced by the high Masculinity. “It is better to err by doing, than by standing idle” is a popular expression that illustrates this attitude.

To save someone who perhaps does not want to save is supported again by Individualism and the combination of the other dimensions cited. “I know what needs to be done and I will do it regardless of your opinion” is a way of summarizing this mindset.

Low Uncertainty Avoidance supports the notion of acting without necessarily a lot of planning and taking the risks inherent to that.

When you look at these values combined, it is no wonder that both the US and the UK get involved in nation-building. On the other hand, in both countries, there have been significant dissenting voices. In the US, Trumpism supported the idea that the US Government should forget about nation-building, for instance in Iraq and Afghanistan), because America should come first. And in the UK the population voted to leave the European Union, rather than stay and try to fix its problems (as perceived from the British point of view).

Division and conflict are an integral part of Contest cultures. Often the bias is not only for action, but there is also a bias for disagreeing with whatever is being proposed, simply to show that you have your own opinion and will not blindly follow others. If there were no dissenting opinions these cultures would not be Contest cultures.

Yet, when all is said and done, the prevalent notion in the US and UK cultures is that one should not stand idly watching another nation becoming a failed State. Even when this other State is not actually failing, but merely is performing in a way that is consistent with a different set of values, there is a great difficulty in allowing other nations to behave as they please. The bias toward confrontation leads people to believe that it is valid to fight against those who behave differently, and the normative aspect of low LTO supports making a strong effort towards changing other people’s way of thinking and behaving. “Everybody must follow the (social) norm!”

What kind of nation are you trying to build?

From a Contest culture perspective, the response to this question is: “We are looking at nations that do not have institutions functioning according to the standards of the Contest culture, and trying to change them to be more like us.” Therein lies the problem: when you look at the world through your own culturally biased filter, everybody else needs building.

When Americans engage in nation-building they are basically trying to make a slightly modified version of America, and that is in itself the biggest obstacle since the target country’s culture typically is dramatically different. Nation builders tend to attempt to reproduce their own culture when they engage in building another nation. This is understandable, but it is also a huge mistake. Plus, it is by far the single most important reason nation-building failed in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, and is likely to fail anywhere else where the local culture is not taken into account.

When the US invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan, the people involved in building a new nation in those countries were trying to recreate institutions that would function according to the parameters of the American culture. Basically, that included a governance structure consisting of three powers (Executive, Legislative and Judicial), with democratic elections and two opposing parties, plus a free press and freedom to worship any religion. None of this was supported neither by the culture of Iraq nor the culture of Afghanistan… and the efforts failed miserably.

If you want to build a nation, do discuss with the local people exactly what kind of a nation would they like to build. And if they say, “we want to be like America,” don’t believe them! They are saying that just to please you, or because they do not really understand what it means “to become America” in terms of cultural values. It’s OK to admire the American culture, just like many Americans admire the Danish culture, but you should not try to turn Afghanistan into America, just like you should not try to turn the United States into Denmark. These dramatic transformations will never work.

You cannot turn a Social Pyramid culture (such as Afghanistan and/or Iraq) into a Contest culture (such as the USA), just like you cannot turn America into Denmark. You can improve the way a Social Pyramid functions and you can improve how a Contest culture functions but be aware that the underlying values of culture prevail in the long term, so ignoring them will lead to failure.

Which brings us to address the third question mentioned at the beginning of this paper: how do we get there? How do you build a nation?

Building nations successfully (or, how do we get there?)

Start by discussing (with the local leadership involved) the two previous questions: (a) what is the current culture like, and what is not working; and (b) what is the desired culture (realistically) and how should institutions work effectively in this improved version of the current culture.

Continue by developing an action plan that is consistent with the desired culture, realistic, and includes the Exco Propolis approach.

This approach is an acronym for Leading by Example, Communication, Project Management, and Policy Review. These principles are the foundation of changing culture in large organizations, and they can be equally applied to building nations.

Leading by Example means that indeed the leaders of the new nation should behave in a way that is consistent with the desired culture. People follow the behavior (of leaders) more than they follow (they’re) speeches. Pick your leaders wisely and coach them as needed.

Communication is key and it is not just broadcasting. In order to build a nation, you need to establish communication channels that will allow people to voice their opinions and concerns in a way that they feel that they are being heard. You need to communicate the values, rules, and standards of the new nation and also allow people to voice their reactions, so that you may adjust accordingly.

Project Management will be necessary to monitor the implementation of your plans. There will be many programs and projects going on simultaneously and coordinating them will be quite a challenge.

Policy Review means overhauling the existing institutional and legal frameworks to make sure they are consistent with the new nation that is being built.

In order to ensure that the new nation develops sustainably, invest heavily in education. Focus your efforts on educating children aged 4 to 11; this is when they form their notion of right and wrong, and this sets the stage for everything they learn afterward. Nations are built by shaping the values of a new generation. Warning: that takes time.

One thing is certain: you cannot build a nation with machine guns and artillery. Whenever anybody tried to build a nation through force, using military power, they failed. Nations are built by unarmed forces. You need to understand these forces and use them. It’s not about “hard power,” but rather “soft power.”

Therefore, it requires participation and room for discussions. And all of that does require a lot of time. Participation, by the way, works as a motivator in any culture. It needs to be organized and conducted differently (more direction from the top in high PDI cultures, more structure in Well-Oiled Machine cultures, more focus on competition and results in Contest culture) but it can be a very powerful engagement tool, as long as it is done in a way that is consistent with each culture.

When Contest culture leaders engage in building a nation that is currently a Social Pyramid or a Traditional Family culture (1) (3), one of the first shocks they face is the difference in time perspective. Contest cultures value short-term results and expect things to happen rather quickly. When the Arab Spring began in early 2011 and spread across North Africa, the ensuing situation in Egypt illustrated this point. Political leaders, pundits, and the media in Contest cultures (notably the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) called for a swift change from a centuries-old autocracy directly into a democratic regime. I was frequently in Egypt at the time working with local companies. People often asked me how the transition from military rule had happened in Brazil. I told them it had taken about a decade and a half, so they should lower their expectations. They were disappointed. They wanted it all to happen in a maximum of two years.

I argued that the military should stay in power for a few years after Mubarak was ousted. They should call for electing a General Assembly with the purpose of writing a new Constitution over the next two or three years. After that, a general election should be called for one or two years later in order to form a new Parliament. That Parliament, once elected, could vote to elect a country’s President, in a so-called indirect election. At the end of a five-year mandate, direct voting by the people would elect the next President. The whole process would take seven or eight years, half the time it had taken in Brazil. This would be incredibly fast, considering that Brazil had already had periods of democracy alternating with military governments since the 1890s. By contrast, Egypt had never before had an election for President in its entire history as a nation.

As it were, elections were called for just months after Mubarak was removed from power by a military coup. That, of course, was way too soon. Society was not yet ready for that. There were no political parties prepared for such a dramatic change, so quickly. As might be expected, the two existing political forces that were already reasonably organized emerged as two opposing forces in a Contest-culture-style runoff election: the military on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

The whole process was hurried and messy. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamad Morsi won and was inaugurated with little time to form an effective and efficient governing structure. His government lasted for about a year and was a disaster. There was another coup and the military came back to power, proceeding to lead the country in an autocratic fashion. The culture had not been ready for the transition to democracy, especially to an American style of democracy.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, it was even worse. The Western occupation failed to implement sustainable changes for the better in both countries. To this day there are many people saying that the population was better off in the 1990s, before the failed democratization attempts.

Nation-building takes time. It requires engaging the people in a long-term process that will retain the core aspects of the existing culture and work on consolidating institutions that will function in a way that is coherent with the culture. It’s the only way nation-building might work.


  1. Wursten, Huib – The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347; 2019
  2. Antunes, Arnaldo: João – Album O Real Resiste, Rio de Janeiro: 2020.
  3. Lanzer, Fernando – Organizational Culture and Climate: Understanding, Maintaining and

       Changing – CreateSpace, New York: 2018.


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