The Era of Nation Cultivation

The concept of nation building has brought nothing but trouble. It's time for a paradigm shift.

Nation building has cost the United States trillions of dollars in the last decade. Beyond the well-known cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has continued dispatching funds to a number of places around the world that aren’t in the headlines every day. A dysfunctional Bosnian state is propped up by the largesse of the Euro-Atlantic powers, while in Somalia, Western funds pay the bills for the ineffectual transitional government and the African Union troops sent to protect it in Mogadishu.

A few weeks ago, at a session of the Asan Plenum held in Seoul on “Leadership and the Legacies of the Arab Spring,” political-science professor Michael Hudson made the argument for reconsidering the whole idea of nation building. Perhaps it is time to recognize that outside intervening powers cannot “build” a state or nation, certainly not in a matter of weeks or months.

As someone who himself has often used the term “nation building,” Hudson’s critique is compelling. When we speak of nation building, we fall into an engineering mindset. After all, one successfully constructs a building by following steps in sequence (pouring a foundation, raising a superstructure, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, putting in the roofs and floors, and so on)—as each step is marked complete on the checklist, one moves on to the next one. Significantly, one can even lay out a schedule for when the project will be completed—and one can accelerate that schedule to meet the demands of the calendar.

We have seen this engineering template transferred into how policy is conducted. The checklist and accompanying calendar were features of the mission in Iraq, with its emphasis on setting proper foundations (e.g., a new constitution) and moving ahead to fill out the skeleton of the building (the training of security forces, the holding of elections and so on). As each step was (in theory) accomplished, Iraq should have been closer to enjoying fully functioning institutions that would permit an American handover. We have seen a similar approach in Afghanistan—the creation of a timetable for a handover of responsibilities guided by a checklist of steps that represent "progress" toward a successful outcome. This is the basis for strategies like "clear-hold-build-transfer."

President Barack Obama's recent address from Afghanistan reflects this type of thinking. In keeping with a nation-building paradigm, the president's speechwriters followed the template of seeing nation building as a linear process. Obama noted that Americans and other coalition partners "will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward. . . . We’re building an enduring partnership. . . . It establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions." To some extent, it echoes George W. Bush's assertions that as Iraqis "stood up," the United States could "stand down."

There are, of course, a plenitude of assumptions in this strategy, beginning with the belief that Afghans are prepared to step forward to embrace a shared vision with the United States of combatting terrorism and building Western-style democracy. And this is the problem: thinking about nation building as an architectural exercise creates false expectations of success. After all, a building arises if sufficient funds and equipment have been assigned to the project. Likewise, any signs of failure in a nation-building mission are usually explained in terms of insufficient budgets or a lack of personnel. This creates the impetus for “surges”—sending in increased numbers of people and/or money to get the project back on schedule.

A Paradigm Shift

But what would happen if we changed terminology and no longer spoke of “nation building” but of “nation cultivating”? Cultivation fosters a different mindset. One can do everything "right" in cultivation and still the seedling can perish; there is no expectation that following the planned checklist guarantees success. Despite the best intentions of the cultivator, bad weather or poor soil can lead to catastrophic failure.

Nation building is an inherently revolutionary proposition that believes it is both possible and desirable to sweep away the past and install new institutions by fiat. Nation cultivation, in contrast, rests on the observations of Edmund Burke that sustainable, evolutionary change is possible only by working within the existing frameworks bequeathed by tradition and experience.