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.

There is little doubt that if the strategy Vice President Joe Biden has advocated had been followed—dealing with the remaining terrorists from outside the country by use of drones, Special Forces and local forces—the costs of this intervention would have been much lower in loss of life and the expenditure of dollars.

LONG-DISTANCE SOCIAL engineering (LDSE)—in which one country is seeking to develop, democratize, “reconstruct” or build another nation—also is costly and prone to failure. It should be undertaken only if the conditions are favorable and the financial commitment is strong. Although the need to limit overseas LDSE drives is increasingly recognized, the United States seems profoundly ambivalent and even confused on the merits and limitations of LDSE.

The Obama administration’s 2012 military-budget projections for the next ten years assume much less LDSE. Yet the administration continues to practice it in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual considers nation building an essential part of its COIN strategy. Study after study shows that LDSE attempts tend to fail in places as disparate as Iraq, Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa and Pakistan. Yet the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton continues to treat development as one of its two core missions, and major figures call for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush mocked nation building; as president, he ordered a major nation-building drive in Iraq. Neoconservatives gained prominence with the argument that social engineering at home is difficult to accomplish but that what failed in poor parts of Washington, dc, can succeed in Sadr City. The World Bank continues to invest scores of billions in development projects while its own studies show that most of the funds are wasted and contribute to widespread, debilitating corruption.

LDSE is difficult to curb because it reflects liberal idealism—the precept that we should help other people attain what we consider the good life, especially human rights and a democratic form of government. At the same time, it also appeals to American special interests, as U.S. laws require a good part of the funds dispensed overseas to be spent on American capital and consumer goods, services (including consulting) and arms.

The following overview of the demanding conditions under which LDSE may succeed suggests that such endeavors generally should be avoided. It examines the conditions under which the original Marshall Plan, deemed a great success, was implemented; the preconditions for democratization, which is failing in many places, including the nations of the Arab Awakening; and the reason that COIN runs into difficulties, which has implications for all LDSE missions.

OVER THE past several years, and particularly since last year’s uprisings in the Arab world, it has become common for senior policy makers and public commentators to look to the Marshall Plan for guidance on today’s Middle East. As Hillary Clinton said in a June 2011 speech:

Today, as the Arab Spring unfolds across the Middle East and North Africa, some principles of the [Marshall Plan] apply again, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. As Marshall did in 1947, we must understand that the roots of the revolution and the problems that it sought to address are not just political but profoundly economic as well.

Former national-security adviser and general James Jones and former secretary of defense Robert Gates have expressed similar attitudes. Likewise, the Stimson Center’s Mona Yacoubian directly called for a “Middle East ‘Marshall Plan’” to “harness these powerful forces of change and ensure that the region embarks on a path toward peace and prosperity.”

Such advocates often point to the success of the original Marshall Plan. As General Jones explained, “We learned that lesson after World War II; we rebuilt Europe, we rebuilt Japan.” But the experiences in Germany and Japan demonstrate the conditions under which LDSE can succeed. And these conditions are largely missing in the Middle East.

The most important difference concerns security. Germany and Japan had surrendered after defeat in a war, and LDSE occurred only after hostilities had ceased and a high level of domestic security was established. There were no terrorists and no insurgencies.

Second, Germany and Japan were occupied during much of the LDSE drive. Social engineering by America and its allies was hands-on; a Marshall Plan for Libya, Yemen, Somalia or Egypt, on the other hand, would have to be long distance. The people of these nations don’t want foreign troops on their soil, and no foreign powers are inclined to send any.

Additionally, there was no danger that Japan or Germany would slip into a sectarian or ethnic civil war, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. No effort had to be expended on building national unity, which was already strong and allowed change to be introduced with relative ease. Competent government personnel and a low level of corruption also contributed to success. Robert A. Packenham has written that “technical and financial expertise, relatively highly institutionalized political parties, skillful and visionary politicians, well-educated populations, [and] strong national identifications” all made LDSE possible. There also was a pronounced culture of self-restraint in both countries.

None of this is surprising. Germany and Japan were strong nation-states before WWII. Citizens closely identified with each nation and were willing to sacrifice for it. By contrast, the first loyalty of many citizens of Middle Eastern nations is to their ethnic or confessional group. Germany and Japan also had strong industrial bases, established infrastructures, educated populations, and vigorous support for science and technology, corporations, business and commerce. In contrast, many Middle Eastern states lack most of these assets, institutions and traditions. They cannot be reconstructed because they were never constructed in the first place.

Social science teaches that cultural values play an important role in determining how a population fares—and that these values are very resistant to change. Max Weber, for example, contended that Protestants were more imbued than Catholics with the values that lead to hard work and high levels of saving, both essential for the rise of modern capitalism. For decades, Catholic countries lagged behind the Protestant Anglo-Saxon nations in development. Weber also pointed to the difference between Confucian and Muslim values, thus predicting, in effect, the striking difference between the very high rates of development in the Asian “tigers”—China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea—and the low rates in most Muslim states. True, Weber’s thesis has been contested over the decades. Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmann note that Catholics and Protestants do equally well when one controls for the level of education. But the level of education one seeks is itself affected by one’s values.

The fact that LDSE succeeds only in some nations and often fails in others is highlighted by studies of foreign aid, which has been considered “intervention lite.” It does not entail occupation, sanctions or imposition but seeks strictly to help the recipients. In truth, it is often granted for mixed motives, seldom generates appreciation from recipients and rarely helps much.

In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly observes that despite spending trillions of dollars on foreign aid over fifty years, the West has had little success alleviating poverty. Likewise, a 2008 meta-analysis conducted by Raghuram G. Rajan and Arvind Subramanian evaluated the relationship between aid and growth across a variety of variables, including different “time horizons” (medium and long run), years (1960s through 1990s), sources of aid (multilateral and bilateral), and types of aid (economic, social, food, etc.). “It is difficult to discern any systematic effect of aid on growth,” the authors concluded, noting that this held across all examined variables. Finally, a 2009 analysis conducted by Hristos Doucouliagos and Martin Paldam examined ninety-seven studies spanning forty years to determine the effect of aid on investment and savings, on economic growth and on the quality of a country’s economic policy. In all three instances, they “failed to find evidence of a significantly positive effect of aid.” The great economic success of the Asian “tigers” demonstrates that aid is not necessary for growth; these countries experienced unusually high economic growth while receiving little foreign aid.

The U.S. commitment to reconstruction after World War II was significantly higher than its current commitment to foreign aid. In 1948, the first year of the Marshall Plan, aid to the sixteen European countries under the plan totaled 13 percent of the federal budget. The United States today spends less than 1 percent of its budget on foreign aid, and not all of it is focused on economic development.

In short, LDSE can succeed only if the conditions are favorable, and most favorable conditions are missing in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Somalia and Libya. They also are in short supply in Egypt. Some conditions may be found in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan—but even these nations compare poorly to post-WWII Germany and Japan. If Marshall Plans were initiated for these nations, they likely would fail. The same does not hold for limited and sharply focused LDSE attempts—for example, fixing the oil refineries of Libya, which could be made to work. But these are exceptions to the rule.

BEFORE THE recent democratization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were similar attempts in scores of other nations. Most failed. Although there is little agreement on conditions for success, there is a consensus that certain facilitating and constituting factors can play a positive role. Generally, the more widespread these variables are, the better the prospects for democracy. As the variables support one another, democracy building is more likely to succeed if at least some elements from each of the broad categories are present.

Facilitating factors—conditions that ease the formation of democracy—include: (a) law and order and basic security; (b) literacy, general education and civic education; (c) economic development, separation of economic power from political power and leveling of economic differences; (d) a sizable, developed middle class; (e) the rule of law, independent judges and respect for law-enforcement authorities; and (f) civil society, voluntary associations and communities.

Constituting factors—building blocks of democracy—include: (a) the unencumbered ability of parties to compete for support and votes; (b) set eligibility criteria for public office; (c) assurance of free and fair elections; (d) formulation of a constitutional order and process that ensures power sharing as well as separation of powers, which is essential for checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches; (e) a low level of corruption and high level of transparency; (f) protection of minority rights; (g) freedom of association; (h) freedom of the press; and (i) enumeration of individual rights vis-à-vis the government.

Note that fair and open elections are not of themselves a sufficient foundation for democracy building. Without the presence of a significant number of the above factors, the result is likely to be similar to what prevailed in Russia in 2012. There, one party prevented others from competing, controlled large parts of the media, and was complicit in the killing of critical journalists and human-rights activists—although elections were regularly conducted. The corruption of the elections adds to the failure of democracy but is not the only or main factor.

When Arabs in several nations took to the streets in 2011 to protest the authoritarian regimes under which they were living, it generated widespread optimism. Many assumed that democratic regimes would follow and that the West would help with the transformation. Behind this optimism is the assumption that all peoples freed to follow their own preferences will inevitably favor the same type of regime: a free-market democracy. Hence, social engineers could limit themselves to removing the vestiges of the outgoing regime. For example, in the case of communist regimes, the numerous forms of state control and regulation were abolished, and collective properties such as state farms, nationalized industries and state-owned housing were privatized. It was assumed that such freeing of the people could be done in short order—a year or two—leading Western economists (notably Jeffrey Sachs) to predict that former communist nations would “jump” into capitalism. Actually, the transition was much slower and took place largely in nations with favorable preconditions (the Czech Republic and Poland) and much less so in those without (Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria).

In the Arab world, such slashing of state controls and regulation did not take place. The unsteady progression there makes it clear that democratization requires much more, along the lines of the conditions listed above. Developing these conditions, in turn, takes abundant time and investment. It cannot be rushed by foreign powers, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even a cursory examination of these conditions shows that developing them is a slow, arduous process that is nearly impossible for outsiders to direct. It is overwhelmingly difficult to cultivate respect for the rule of law where little has existed, build a sizable middle class from scratch or reduce corruption where it has run rampant. It took Britain centuries and America generations to develop solidly liberal-democratic regimes, and throughout this time conditions were fundamentally much more favorable than those in the Middle East today.

In a 2003 study, Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper examined U.S. attempts at forced democratization, identifying sixteen U.S. nation-building drives since 1900. They defined nation building as operations that result in regime change or the shoring up of regimes that otherwise would collapse; deploy large numbers of U.S. troops; and utilize American military and civilian personnel to assist the political administration. By their calculation, only two of the sixteen interventions were “unambiguous successes” (Japan and West Germany). They labeled two others successful (Grenada and Panama) but noted that the small populations in these cases made nation building a much easier task. The remaining eleven cases (excluding Afghanistan, which was too recent for a sound determination) were labeled failures, giving the United States a 26 percent success rate. Pei and Kasper observed, “Historically, nation-building attempts by outside powers are notable mainly for their bitter disappointments, not their triumphs.”

A study by a team from the RAND Corporation, also published in 2003, finds a similar record of American nation-building efforts. Of the seven nation-building drives identified by this study (West Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan), two were very successful, two were not successful, and the remaining three had mixed or modest success (or, as in the case of Afghanistan, were too recent to tell). The authors also note a trend of increasingly far-reaching interventions. “Each successive post–Cold War U.S.-led intervention,” the authors wrote, “has generally been wider in scope and more ambitious in intent than its predecessor.”

More generally, as Thomas Carothers, author of Aiding Democracy Abroad, puts it, “The idea that there’s a small democracy inside every society waiting to be released just isn’t true.” And F. Gregory Gause III observes that the “confidence that Washington has in its ability to predict, and even direct, the course of politics in other countries” is both “unjustified” and “problematic.”

Initially, the term Arab Spring (capturing the high level of optimism) was almost universally employed to refer to the 2011 revolutions. By 2012, the term Arab Awakening was more in vogue, reflecting more ambivalence about the kinds of regimes these uprisings would yield. Once again, it became clear that nations have little power to influence the course of events in other countries.

COUNTERINSURGENCY IS in effect a combination of CT and nation building. Its advocates hold that it has been applied successfully in Iraq, especially during the surge and the Sunni Awakening, as well as in Afghanistan. They generally accept that there are distinctions between fighting terrorists and insurgents but argue that these differences do not affect the fundamental issues involved. Although COIN involves on-the-ground troops in occupied nations, it still has many of the attributes and difficulties of LDSE. That’s because the ultimate decision makers are in the United States, the resources committed come largely from Washington and the cultural biases shaping the program are American.

Hence, COIN faces many, if not all, of the difficulties of other LDSE drives. But there is another problem as well: goal confusion. The goals attributed to COIN range from rather limited to very lofty. Often it is unclear which aim is being pursued, as the characterization of the goals fluctuates along with the means of implementation and the metrics for evaluating success.

Limited goals include gaining the goodwill of the people by paying courtesy calls to the local chiefs and handing out soccer balls or candy to children. Then there are “reconstruction” drives that seek to repair houses or villages damaged by our war efforts. Their aims range from restoring broken doors to repairing irrigation systems.

A more ambitious goal seeks to gain local support in order to collect intelligence about insurgents as well as to encourage locals to refuse safe havens and services to the opposition and—possibly—to join the American and allied forces fighting the insurgents. This goal of collaboration implies inducements, including payoffs in the form of in-kind goods, direct monetary payments (as America provided to the Sunni fighters during the Sunni Awakening) or limited projects (e.g., digging a well for a cooperating village).

Much more ambitious goals are based on the thesis that an American campaign against insurgents cannot be won unless the United States helps local people develop a stable, responsive government with a considerable level of integrity that can ensure security and economic well-being. This thesis, in turn, is supported by the argument that one cannot win the cooperation of the population until the foreign forces are withdrawn from the country, or at least the main population centers, and replaced by native forces that the population will consider legitimate and effective rather than corrupt and hapless. Such a strategy effectively combines military means with nation building.

The failure of the COIN strategy in Afghanistan was highlighted by a 2010 report published by the Afghanistan Study Group, comprised of more than fifty foreign-policy experts from across the political spectrum. The report notes:

Instead of toppling terrorists, America’s Afghan war has become an ambitious and fruitless effort at ‘nation-building.’ We are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized.

Writing in the Nation, Michael Cohen observes that a successful COIN strategy requires an effective and legitimate local government, but “corruption is so bad that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that ‘drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators.’”

Writing in Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis says a year’s worth of extensive interviews with military personnel at all levels as well as Afghan civilians and security officials reveals an “absence of success on virtually every level.” Similarly, a report by Lieutenant Colonel Hugh D. Bair for the U.S. Army War College’s Strategy Research Project argues that COIN strategy “is unlikely to prevail in Afghanistan.” Furthermore, it is “straining the Armed Forces and the American coffers, and has yet to show enough progress to justify the costs, as measured in dollars and lives.”

Some keen observers urge the United States to put its own house in order, pay down its existing and growing debt, and reduce dependency on other nations for energy and financing. They conclude that America needs to do less overseas. Probably. But this is not because we cannot afford humanitarian armed intervention of the kind we saw in Kosovo and Libya or the kind that restored order in Kuwait. Only futile nation building will need to be avoided, under most circumstances, even when the United States is rolling in clover once again.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His newest book, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World, will be published by Transaction in October 2012.

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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