The Era of Nation Cultivation

The Era of Nation Cultivation

The concept of nation building has brought nothing but trouble. It's time for a paradigm shift.


Nation building has cost the United States trillions of dollars in the last decade. Beyond the well-known cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has continued dispatching funds to a number of places around the world that aren’t in the headlines every day. A dysfunctional Bosnian state is propped up by the largesse of the Euro-Atlantic powers, while in Somalia, Western funds pay the bills for the ineffectual transitional government and the African Union troops sent to protect it in Mogadishu.

A few weeks ago, at a session of the Asan Plenum held in Seoul on “Leadership and the Legacies of the Arab Spring,” political-science professor Michael Hudson made the argument for reconsidering the whole idea of nation building. Perhaps it is time to recognize that outside intervening powers cannot “build” a state or nation, certainly not in a matter of weeks or months.


As someone who himself has often used the term “nation building,” Hudson’s critique is compelling. When we speak of nation building, we fall into an engineering mindset. After all, one successfully constructs a building by following steps in sequence (pouring a foundation, raising a superstructure, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, putting in the roofs and floors, and so on)—as each step is marked complete on the checklist, one moves on to the next one. Significantly, one can even lay out a schedule for when the project will be completed—and one can accelerate that schedule to meet the demands of the calendar.

We have seen this engineering template transferred into how policy is conducted. The checklist and accompanying calendar were features of the mission in Iraq, with its emphasis on setting proper foundations (e.g., a new constitution) and moving ahead to fill out the skeleton of the building (the training of security forces, the holding of elections and so on). As each step was (in theory) accomplished, Iraq should have been closer to enjoying fully functioning institutions that would permit an American handover. We have seen a similar approach in Afghanistan—the creation of a timetable for a handover of responsibilities guided by a checklist of steps that represent "progress" toward a successful outcome. This is the basis for strategies like "clear-hold-build-transfer."

President Barack Obama's recent address from Afghanistan reflects this type of thinking. In keeping with a nation-building paradigm, the president's speechwriters followed the template of seeing nation building as a linear process. Obama noted that Americans and other coalition partners "will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward. . . . We’re building an enduring partnership. . . . It establishes the basis for our cooperation over the next decade, including shared commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions." To some extent, it echoes George W. Bush's assertions that as Iraqis "stood up," the United States could "stand down."

There are, of course, a plenitude of assumptions in this strategy, beginning with the belief that Afghans are prepared to step forward to embrace a shared vision with the United States of combatting terrorism and building Western-style democracy. And this is the problem: thinking about nation building as an architectural exercise creates false expectations of success. After all, a building arises if sufficient funds and equipment have been assigned to the project. Likewise, any signs of failure in a nation-building mission are usually explained in terms of insufficient budgets or a lack of personnel. This creates the impetus for “surges”—sending in increased numbers of people and/or money to get the project back on schedule.

A Paradigm Shift

But what would happen if we changed terminology and no longer spoke of “nation building” but of “nation cultivating”? Cultivation fosters a different mindset. One can do everything "right" in cultivation and still the seedling can perish; there is no expectation that following the planned checklist guarantees success. Despite the best intentions of the cultivator, bad weather or poor soil can lead to catastrophic failure.

Nation building is an inherently revolutionary proposition that believes it is both possible and desirable to sweep away the past and install new institutions by fiat. Nation cultivation, in contrast, rests on the observations of Edmund Burke that sustainable, evolutionary change is possible only by working within the existing frameworks bequeathed by tradition and experience.

Nation cultivation must start with an assessment of the raw material at hand. Many nation-building failures of the last two decades—Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan—resulted from the hasty and rapid importation of institutions that had no way to take root in the local society. Western liberal-democratic norms, for instance, depend on things such as the concept of loyal opposition, the peaceful transfer of power (with those handing over power in turn free from persecution or harassment), and the existence of a neutral state that transcends local, linguistic, tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties. In retrospect, a nation cultivator might have supported the restoration of the monarchy in Afghanistan as a first step toward recreating a central authority capable of providing some degree of national unity and identity, rather than settling on elections as the source of sovereignty. After all, to have a democracy, one must have a “demos”—a people. As in Iraq, as in Bosnia and Afghanistan—voters cast their ballots not for national politicians but for ethno-sectarian representatives. In contrast, it has been the autocratic but modernizing monarchies, places like Jordan, Morocco and Qatar, which have been able to provide a sense of national unity and introduce gradual but sustainable political reforms. Similarly, quasi-monarchial leaders—in places like Taiwan and Singapore—have helped lay the groundwork for positive change.

Hudson noted it is indeed very difficult for countries to engage in nation building. What they can do, however, is offer assistance in growing and nurturing institutions that must be organically rooted in the target society if they are to have any chance of success.

Seeing this process as cultivation rather than building also changes the expected timeline. In agriculture, one may need to wait years before a first crop can be expected. This, of course, runs up against the famous “three-year” rule expressed in The National Interest several years ago by Steven Metz—that Americans are not willing to support counterinsurgency/nation-building campaigns that threaten to stretch out beyond a thirty-six-month horizon. But nation cultivation might force a new and more honest dialogue with the American people, asking them to commit to longer-term time horizons when it can be shown that nation cultivation is truly in the country’s interests, as it certainly proved to be the case in East Asia.

In the past, nations were successfully cultivated—in places like South Korea and Taiwan—where no modern nation-state had previously existed; once institutions were in place, successful transitions to democracy were managed. In other places, despite the best of intentions, these efforts failed. But these processes took decades—they were of necessity multi-administration projects, passed from one president’s team to the next—and were undergirded by American security guarantees that gave the emerging “green shoots” the protection they needed to grow and thrive.

In contrast, the “getting-in/getting-out” dynamic is at play today—overly ambitious goals are announced at the beginning, and as the mission drags on, the effort shifts to finding an exit strategy that allows for a dignified exit. The nation-building paradigm creates a mindset that it is “easy” to achieve success with limited cost and within a short period of time, making such missions irresistible to launch, until they run up against the hard realities on the ground. A shift to talking about nation cultivating may help to ensure the problems of the recent past are not so easily forgotten the next time the call goes out for reconstructing failed and failing societies around the world.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.