Another Perspective

Nation Building 101

An awful idea whose time has come.

By 8.11.08

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A younger, humbler George W. Bush once said, "I don't think our troops should be used for what's called nation building."

How times change. A strategy document released recently by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, with the tacit approval of the president, might as well have been titled "Three cheers for nation building." The authors avoided using the precise phrase but its carefully worded substitutes are hard to miss.

"Our commitment to democratic values must be matched by our deeds," the document exhorts. Extremist groups thrive in "ungoverned, under-governed and mis-governed areas," it warns. Thus America must "help foster security and aid local authorities in building effective systems of representational government."

(Goooooo nation building!)

According to James Dobbins, author of the RAND Corporation's nation building studies, U.S. intervention had increased from roughly one country every ten years during the Cold War to one every two years during the Clinton administration. Bush invaded three countries in his first three years in office. That's a pretty steep trend line.

This desire to forcibly "fix" failed states is hardly unique to the U.S. Nation building statistics are on the rise. Europe and the United Nations have led nation building efforts. Crikey, even Australia has had a go at it.

The strategy document includes such pseudo pragmatic language as "military success alone is insufficient to achieve victory," when referring to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We must not forget our hard-learned lessons." But what are those lessons?

According to a 2003 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of 16 attempted US nation-building missions over the past century only four have been successful.

Political scientist James L. Payne maintains that American and British-led nation building initiatives have been successful in building democracy 14 times out of 51 attempts.

NO MATTER WHOSE data set one examines, the odds are not in our favor. They get worse upon closer examination

Payne explains that in cases where nation-building was successful it has been due not to the superior planning of foreign powers but to a society's pre-existing propensity toward non-violence. Violent societies tend to return to violence while those countries that already have a politically non-violent culture can thrive on democracy.

It's difficult for any foreign nation to come in and "build" anything if there isn't a solid foundation in the first place. The things that DoD recommends -- more "economic development, institution building, and the rule of law" -- are all to the good but they won't take root in hostile soil.

America used to understand this and in fact proved resistant to most calls for nation building. Humanitarian activists use the U.S.'s refusal to pacify and build up Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur, and other nations to allege racism. America is said to be just fine with little black babies dying, but moved to action by the suffering of little European tots.

But America is not callously racist, simply prudent and self-interested. Our state apparatus was constructed to care about national security -- American babies and none other. The new American policy in favor of nation building was not a flowering of humanitarianism but, rather, grew out of serious national security concerns.

So many U.S. troops are in the Middle East because we deem failed states in that region a national security threat. Al-Qaeda, to a certain extent, has justified those fears.

Many American hawks have come to believe that bringing democracy and liberalism to these nations is the only way to keep Americans safe from future 9/11 style attacks.

BUT ARE THESE new nation building efforts really fostering increased American security?

Probably not. The odds of successful nation building are stacked heavily against us, and the effort has unintentionally cultivated a new and improved hatred for America abroad. The results are not exactly what President Bush was hoping for when he promised to change "hearts and minds."

Between 2002 and 2007, public opinion of America declined in 26 of the 33 countries polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. According to the pollsters, "The U.S. image remains abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia."

As a country with a vast set of tools available to mitigate major threats to our national security, it is puzzling that the U.S. would embrace nation building now. It's expensive, it darkens our already black image with other peoples, and it usually ends in bitter, bloody failure.

Maybe our leaders should embrace strategies that leave more room for error.

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About the Author

Erin Wildermuth is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.