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

This presents any administration with a conundrum. Our democracy increasingly lives in a short-term world. Candor with the public-about aims, time frame and cost-is critical to sustaining long-term support. Yet it seems that such candor makes it very difficult to get efforts underway. In the wake of Iraq, frankly, it seems hard to imagine broad public support for nation-building for some time to come. Yet unfinished business in Afghanistan, the limbo of Kosovo, the unending urgency of Darfur and a decade-neglected catastrophe in the Congo are only some of the crises that weigh on our conscience and our national interest. What will we do?

The answer-like the problems-is complex and frustrating. We will need to change our habits of partnership, or lack thereof, in responding to collapsed states. We will need to change our way of preparing and funding certain foreign activities. Perhaps most difficult, we will need to change our habits of rhetoric.

The Way Forward

WE CAN begin-though perhaps not in a presidential election campaign-by noting a few things that most boosters of nation-building have been unwilling to say. We have to tell the public-and start to think ourselves-that state-building is best conceived as a long-term commitment, more like fighting aids and buying back ex-Soviet nuclear technology than fighting a war or overseeing a single election campaign. Similarly, we should break ourselves of the habit of asserting that the United States, or any other country, can turn failed states into stable entities, let alone functioning democracies in a matter of a few years. That will test any administration.

The more candor at the beginning, the less need for prevarication later. Instead, as intellectual dishonesty has seeped into the process, the public has taken note of the discrepancy between claims and results. It is increasingly skeptical about generalized claims for the effectiveness of many of the tools of international affairs-military action and threats, support for democratization, economic development assistance. (A November 2006 PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll, for example, found large majorities of Americans saying that fear of the U.S. military would make other nations more hostile, not less; Americans are also not convinced, by large majorities, that democracies make the world safer or that the United States is an ideal democracy for export.)

Having said that, in many areas the United States does have the expertise from lessons learned to do a better job than has been done up to now. A bipartisan cottage industry of practitioners and think tankers has sprung up to save nation-building from the Bush Administration. Preparing better here at home-and helping friends and allies-to carry on for the long term means some organizational changes and more funding for better post-conflict support on the civilian side of the house. These ideas have been well-documented and, among national-security thinkers at least, enjoy bipartisan consensus, as former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger showed in this magazine two years ago.

What is less well-documented but just as vital is the need for a mind-shift that lets us view collapsed states in their own context and offer patient help. Too often we miss the practical realization staring us in the face: No single democracy, including ours, has the focus, resources and depth of understanding to take on a unilateral nation-building responsibility in good faith, except perhaps for very small countries. Beyond the easing of rhetoric described above, it will also require from a new administration a slow, frustrating courting of congressional and public opinion that has been so easy to mobilize for military measures and so hard for preventive, diplomatic and economic ones.

More nation-building resources and expertise, therefore, must rest in international organizations than in the United States or in any other national government. If the costs-financial and political-of state-building are shared, they will be easier for all to maintain. With numerous sponsors, international control is likely to be the most durable and supported mechanism in the United States. Finally, the United States needs a framework to lend support in cases where there is no strategic case to be made for our leadership, just the general moral case against catastrophe; and we need a framework within which others will be willing to assist when our deepest interests are engaged.

It is past time to acknowledge this, and judgments on American involvement in nation-building must be made with this principle in mind. While we say this with no great confidence in the UN system's ability to make hard judgments, in New York or in the field, it is the most practical way forward.

The United States will still need the ability to act-effectively and legitimately-with partners when the UN cannot. Writers on the Right and Left have seized on the idea of augmenting-more honestly, superseding-the UN with a "Community of Democracies" that would, in theory, be able to act together on humanitarian and other crises in a way that the full UN cannot. We applaud this concept as a vehicle for the global spread of democratic practices. But if democratic government were the only precondition for an effective communal response to collapsing nations, Haiti would have long been managed by the Organization of American States, and NATO and the EU could have stepped in far earlier in Bosnia and Kosovo-and perhaps by now resolved a few additional problems in the post-Soviet space to boot. Legitimacy for nation-building must be global, because the scope of the problem is global. Some of the actors most urgently needed in global efforts-China in Sudan and North Korea, Russia in Iran, and Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan-can only be found at the UN, and that is where, like it or not, we will have to work with them.

Making the UN reasonably effective will mean expanding UN capabilities, which inevitably comes down to personnel, training and money. We will also need to support a permanent, replenishable UN nation-building fund, so that money for rapid or extended response is available and important moments are grasped, not missed. This by itself would be no mean accomplishment.

Working more seriously with the UN will also force a necessary lowering of expectations about what can be accomplished both in-country and by the nation-builders themselves. There will be waste, fraud and backing of the wrong horses-problems that have bedeviled new and transitional governments since at least the time of George Washington. But it seems unlikely, to say the least, that a UN operation will ever exceed the mark of wasted and fraudulent spending established by the United States in Iraq.

Finally, we can think straight about the hardest cases-and recognize that it may not be possible in the 21st century to resurrect a few of the twentieth century's weaker states. It is not "on", in this day and age, any Western power-let alone the United States-to say explicitly that any other authority should supersede the sovereignty of a poorer, weaker state-but in some cases that is just what needs to happen, like the international trusteeships of a century ago. Somalia comes quickly to mind. Sometimes this may involve transitioning away from peacekeeping but leaving some aspects of sovereignty in the hands of the international community-as has been the case with Bosnia and the EU. As with much else that we have discussed, the United States does not now enjoy the moral high ground to broach this difficult issue, reminiscent to some of the colonial period. But visible U.S. efforts to tone down the rhetoric, tune up our practical capabilities and strengthen the UN's role would go some way toward restoring our ability to lead others toward the same goals.

As the United States learns to accept step-by-step, pragmatic and limited help from others, we will find that our moral interests are better served. We may even look back and discover that, in accordance with our loftiest goals, more nations are in fact getting built better. But we will be assisting, as this president once wisely advised long ago, humbly and, we might add, more effectively.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Heather Hurlburt is the senior advisor to the New American Foundation's U.S. in the World project and blogs on national security at

Essay Types: Essay