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May 24, 2012

Does Nation Building Have a Future?
Posted by The Editors

This post by Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Scholar-in-Residence at the American University, School of International Service, and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The opinions expressed in this note are those of the author and not of her organizations.

With the signing of the Afghanistan Strategic Partnership in April 2012 our government has started the process of hand-off in what has been a difficult and often unsustainable project in nation-building.  In spite of massive inputs of civilian and military aid, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are capable states that can provide for security and economic well-being of their citizens.  Whether U.S. investments will pay off in the long-run is still unclear.  Metrics for success are not very informative.  They tend to measure what we have contributed to a specific country.  They do not take in what citizens on the ground actually expend in terms of their own local needs.

While knowledge about how we do nation-building abounds, a decade after two wars we are still learning about what it takes to create sustainable security on the ground.  No matter what the level of investment, nation-building imposed from the outside is unlikely to create the social capital on the ground to sustain stable institutions.  Time and again what we find is that local leadership, coupled with citizen engagement is the only way to ensure that our investments are catalytic in jump-starting good governance.  Even though we know that providing citizens with adequate security is essential, it is also clear that training security forces does not guarantee that such training will be used appropriately.  Just note the recent attacks on U.S. outposts by soldiers from the Afghan Security Forces who we had trained. 

A recent review of some of the post-conflict frameworks that were created to help ensure that our “whole of government” programs worked revealed that in spite of our deep knowledge about what it takes to rebuild war-torn societies, we have not yet succeeded in actually putting all the pieces in place.   We have all the pieces to do the job: government programs, a better inter-agency process, and a larger generation of trained professionals, civilian and military.  What we lack is an assembly manual for state building.  It is still a work in progress.  We have come to recognize, however, that prevention of violence is an important part of our work with fragile states.   We have come full circle in appreciating the value of diplomacy, conflict mediation, and the use of tools other than force to achieve what we need short of war.

Another fact about nation-building after a decade of U.S. investment is that the American people are still unclear about we actually do when we say we are stabilizing and rebuilding a state.  We send troops to foreign lands to run city councils, to rebuild infrastructure, and to support elections.  We have yet to get the American public to fully understand how foreign aid is used to promote our national interest.  Congress remains unconvinced about the value of reconstruction work, despite having appropriated billions of dollars toward helping states create professional police, hold democratic elections, rebuild infrastructure, or jump-start businesses.  And the appetite to do more after ten years of war is waning.  With budget deficits growing and no bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy it is unlikely that any new champions of nation-building will emerge in the years to come.

We often speak of burden sharing as an important component of stabilization and reconstruction efforts. Many European states are struggling through the worst economic crisis since the post-War period.  Relying on them to help us when the next crisis arises is somewhat risky.  And you can be sure that there will be another crisis of state failure that requires some form of intervention in the next five years.  Whether new actors from emerging global powers can be counted on to help is still untested.  Turkey, Brazil, China and India are still developing their own mechanisms to assist weak states and prevent conflict.

And what about the role of the United Nations will play in the future?   Peacekeeping operations are already strapped for funds, even though the number of peacekeepers has grown to over 100,000 soldiers in the last decade.  While the U.S. was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN remained operational in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Sudan, Liberia and Somalia.  The UN became the default, the “go-to” institution for those cases of state failure in places that are not as high a priority to our national interests, it is impossible to think that the international community will be capable of sustaining this level of support for the long term.    

What does this mean for U.S. policy in the future?  If nation-building on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan were anomalies in terms of size and duration, these types of civilian-military operations will not end any time soon.  In this time of reflection about nation-building in a more resource constrained world, we cannot ignore the risks we still face from the threats posed by weak and fragile states.  U.S. leadership will be required time and again in the years to come, hopefully with friends and allies, and with new emerging donor countries, to help maintain the peace.  What will best help to rationalize scarce resources will be a larger investment in conflict prevention, and even more crucial, creation of new tools that allow our diplomats, our aid workers, and our military to work together to protect our nation in the future.


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