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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

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).

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