The Folly of Nation Building

The Folly of Nation Building

Mini Teaser: War is costly. Nation building is costlier. And nation-building projects almost never succeed, as this analysis demonstrates.

by Author(s): Amitai Etzioni

THERE IS a growing consensus that the United States can’t afford another war, or even a major armed humanitarian intervention. But in reality, the cost of war itself is not the critical issue. It is the nation building following many wars that drives up the costs.

For every war of the kind we are waging in Afghanistan, we could afford five hundred interventions of the type America carried out in Libya in 2011. The war in Libya cost the United States roughly $1 billion, according to the Department of Defense, and the war in Afghanistan so far has cost over $500 billion, according to the National Priorities Project.

If costs are measured in blood and not just money, the disparity is even greater, both in terms of our losses and the losses of all others involved. Particularly important in this context is the fact that nation building, foreign aid, imported democratization, Marshall Plans and counterinsurgency (COIN) with a major element of nation building are not only very costly but also highly prone to failure. Thus, they are best avoided.

MICHAEL MANDELBAUM writes in The Frugal Superpower that since World War II, “in foreign affairs as in economic policy, the watchword was ‘more.’ That era has ended. The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond will be ‘less.’” Likewise, Charles Kupchan argues in Democracy that America’s economic difficulties, combined with increasing public indifference toward its international obligations, “necessitate that the country scale back its international commitments to bring them into line with diminishing means.” James Traub and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times , among many others, also have made statements to the same effect.

Before the intervention in Libya, the high costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were viewed with growing alarm as deficit battles intensified at home and among America’s allies. A comprehensive estimate of the United States’ total war costs, released by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, takes into account funds allocated to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as future obligations for veterans’ benefits and ongoing war costs. It pegs the cost of the wars at between $3.2 trillion and $4 trillion. Long before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, several leading students of international relations advanced what might be called the overextension theory, which proposes that empires expand until they collapse under their own weight due to burdensome overseas commitments. This thesis was applied most notably to the United States by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. A similar argument was advanced more recently by Niall Ferguson in Civilization: The West and the Rest .

This line of analysis fails to distinguish between the costs of nation building and those of military intervention. The 1991 U.S. intervention expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, exacted a heavy cost from Iraq for violating another nation’s sovereignty and shored up America’s credibility, which had been low since Vietnam. And it was achieved swiftly, with limited deaths—fewer than four hundred, comparable to the Spanish-American War—and at low cost ($61 billion). Almost 90 percent of this was borne by U.S. allies.

Likewise, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam’s regime were carried out swiftly, with few casualties and low costs. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for Iraq operations by the time President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003, and 172 coalition servicemen had died. But the nation-building phase that followed was a different story. After May 2003, more than four thousand Americans and at least one hundred thousand Iraqis died, and the direct U.S. cost of military operations in the country exceeded $650 billion.

Similarly, the 1999 intervention in Kosovo was completed with almost no U.S. casualties and few outlays. The great difficulties and large outlays were caused by the nation building that followed (although in this case, it was carried out more by the UN than the United States). All this shows that it is not the military intervention but the nation building that exacts most of the costs and casualties.

The 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was carried out swiftly, with minimal American casualties and costs. Only twelve U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2001. The fighting was carried out largely by locals of the Northern Alliance. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the combined costs of the war for 2002–2003 defined as related to “security” were only $535 million. Most of the ensuing casualties and costs came during the following period in which the counterterrorism (CT) approach was replaced with COIN.

One can argue that the military operation in Afghanistan was not over after the Taliban government was defeated. After all, the goal was to eradicate Al Qaeda, and it took several years before its ranks were truly thinned out. But when the war costs are divided between those that concerned security and those that involved nation building (as put forth in an April 2009 GAO report examining costs from 2002–2009), almost half the funds were used for nonsecurity goals such as education, reconstruction, democracy and governance building. Moreover, while nation building did little to improve security, the security efforts were necessary to make nation building possible. Hence, at least part of the security costs should be considered nation-building ones.

Image: Pullquote: The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam’s regime were carried out swiftly, with few casualties and low costs. But the nation-building phase that followed was a different story.Essay Types: Essay