Appetite for Construction

Appetite for Construction

Mini Teaser: Nation-building always looks so easy on paper. Time to let reality be a harsh teacher.

by Author(s): Morton AbramowitzHeather Hurlburt

WHAT IF George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice were right the first time? Remember when he said in the second debate with Al Gore back in 2000,

I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building. . . . I mean, we're going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.

You don't hear that rhetoric from the mainstream on either side this time, as candidates from Giuliani to Obama have rushed to pick up nation-building's fallen standard.

You also don't hear a more critical question. Not whether Western democracies should interfere in the affairs of collapsed states-it seems we will often have no choice-but whether in fact we can accomplish anything like what the phrase "nation-building", with all its can-do Americanism, implies.

Nation-building is not for wimps. It's time we ask ourselves whether it is for modern democracies.

It demands attributes that states like ours are increasingly likely to lack. Chief among these are pragmatism and political staying power, which combine to produce the ability to spend lots of public money freely, over a long period of time, on sometimes unsavory means towards modest ends. We also need a particular kind of in-depth political and cultural knowledge-not just familiarity with language and culture, history and players (though those are crucial), but the ability to see another culture in its own context, as it is, not as we imagine it could be if its citizens watched American Idol. That kind of pragmatism, national humility and long-term vision are not American strong points.

Yet commonly held beliefs make us persist in engaging in nation-building. States with functioning government and civic institutions are less likely to serve as way stations for terrorists, drugs, guns and germs; countries with settled identities are less likely to become exporters of conflict and radicalism. Nor is it moral to ignore humanitarian emergencies or true to our ideals to forget our attachment to democracy-thus the temptation to set about building or strengthening institutions where they are weak or nonexistent.

Since we are that "City upon a Hill", we also like the romance of nation-building: creating new states or restoring states broken by wars or terrible leadership.

But reality is a far cry from romance. This administration mounted not one but two massive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq they did so largely alone. They deployed even grander nation-building rhetoric in support of a more audacious goal-reshaping the nations of the Middle East in our imagined democratic image.

With what results? We now face intense violence, ill-functioning governments, and pillaged and unrepaired infrastructure. Regional publics are intensely skeptical of any American stamp, and our public is increasingly dubious that we can or should reshape the inner workings of other nations.

Some Delusions of Nation-Building

THE CORE our addiction to nation-building is constructed on a bipartisan set of romantic misconceptions. Indeed, we have often confused nation-building with a variety of enterprises-from preventing starvation to fighting terrorism-that do touch our deepest interests and values and call us to find ways of stopping massive violence and state collapse. That can entail a range of activities, from short-term humanitarian assistance, to long-term help in rebuilding institutions, as well as military support and peacekeeping.

But we will not get much of that right unless we stop believing that what we are doing is "building nations", and instead recognize some hard truths.

The first is our addiction to short-term fixes. They may be unavoidable where conflict rages, but they often lead to unintended consequences and are unlikely to produce long-term results. We consistently underestimate-sometimes purposely-the challenges of nation-building. From the Caribbean to the Balkans to Africa we have tried-and failed-to produce self-sustaining, reasonably stable states in any short-term time frame. Yet U.S. administrations across political lines have found it politically necessary to convey the notion that nation-building can proceed on a fast track with simplistic and soothing notions: We can pay for Iraq's reconstruction with oil revenues plus a few billion dollars; just 8,000 African Union peacekeepers will pacify Darfur; we need allied forces in Bosnia for only one year.

Short-term results are more than just disappointing; they often set the stage for the next humanitarian or strategic catastrophe. Serial interventions have not solved Haiti's dilemmas, for example; and small-scale West African interventions left the heart of the problem, Liberia's Charles Taylor, untouched for years too long. Contrast that to the intense, decade-long diplomatic engagement it took to stave off another genocide and produce a civilian transition in Burundi. Solo acts by one intervening power-though they have their own romance-too often have all the same drawbacks; attractive in the short term but not sustainable in the much longer time required to show meaningful results.

Secondly, creating a 21st-century state that does not have a strong twentieth-century foundation is pushing the boulder up the mountain. The great twentieth-century successes in nation-building-postwar Germany, Japan, Korea-all had a history and tradition of nationhood on which to build. They also had decades of relative peace and steady income flows, through trade or aid, from the outside. Countries with little or no past precedent can certainly produce stable, democratic governments-Mali, Mozambique and most recently Mauritania in Africa are current contenders. Their efforts deserve support. But creating something from nothing is a long-term affair with progress measured in years, not months.

By now, we ought to have learned that elections are not a solution, and an assembly of "stakeholders" does not necessarily birth a nation. The politically correct answers to nation-building are either to hold an election to establish democratic legitimacy or, alternatively, to bring the principal stakeholders together to negotiate a stable solution. Or both. Yet those steps are the first, not the last, of a process that can over time build trust, restore basic government functions and eventually create durable power relations and institutions. Neither is likely to create systems that can govern in the short term. The elections in Bosnia one year after the Dayton Peace Accords only solidified the hardliners for many years thereafter.

Even reasonably honest elections don't by themselves resolve distrust, ensure equitable division of resources or create effective governance. In East Timor, the world moved quickly to a referendum, then allowed the place to be torn apart-requiring that the world come in to restore security and rebuild. Iraqi citizens' eagerness to express themselves at the polls has hardly translated into the government's ability to function. Similarly, bringing the main stakeholders together may start a useful process. But stakeholders in states like the Congo or Afghanistan are not paragons of cooperation. They are all too aware of existing power relationships, or perhaps nostalgic for previous ones. Some have their own militias. Progress requires time, and often sustained international supervision, as remains the case in East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Finally, to build a nation one must understand it, and too often we fail even that test. The Iraq and Afghan examples are only the most recent and the most damning, despite the fact that they have been states for most of the past century. The statistics about the lack of language experts and cultural background in our military and diplomatic establishments are well-rehearsed. Knowledge and experience are essential, but the deeper challenge is understanding.

Understanding requires long experience, but even more necessary is the ability to set aside our own frames and values and expectations in order to perceive a place as its own inhabitants do, and thus to understand how they will react. This failure to perceive the other's perspective was never our strong suit, and our series of unipolar moments has weakened our understanding muscles more and more. Why did the Bush Administration have such faith in Ahmed Chalabi? Or forget that Afghanistan loved poppies? Why did the Clinton Administration believe that Milosevic would yield immediately to NATO bombing in 1999? What did two administrations think we were building in Somalia in the early 1990s?

We are not the only ones so afflicted. Germany and then the European Union rushed to recognize the states breaking away from Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992. UN planners, Portugal and others did not anticipate the post-referendum mass violence in East Timor in 1999.

Long acquaintance is usually needed to build enough institutional understanding for outsiders to be effective in helping nation-building. But countries get tired of foreigners hanging around-and the foreigners get tired of it too.

Caught in our Rhetoric

THESE LESSONS have been apparent for the better part of a decade now. Our political system, however, has difficulty processing them. Our political classes are fixated on soaring rhetoric, and many take it very seriously. As a result the public-and their representatives in Congress-have grown accustomed to the idea that policies "worthy of America" will be presented in the most lofty and ambitious terms.

This worked best in the days of the Soviet Union. Today, short of claimed links to terrorism, we quickly resort to flights of democratic rhetoric to justify nation-building. The problem is, as we have said, this rhetoric and even the term itself are far out of proportion to what any initiative can hope to achieve in one or two budget cycles.

Essay Types: Essay