Human Rights Salon Finale: The Future of Nation Building

The final discussion prompt in our week long salon on human rights challenges facing the next administration comes from Cato scholar and On Day One user Justin Logan, who says that the United States should swear off nation building.

Eric Schwartz and Suzanne Nossel respond. Eric Schwartz

Justin Logan is over-learning the lesson of Iraq. Heck, if Iraq were the litmus test for the wisdom of efforts to promote post-conflict reconstruction and development — what Justin refers to as “nation-building” — then I’d reject such efforts as well. But Iraq is a poor example, as U.S. engagement failed to meet several prerequisites for success. First, if you want to lay the groundwork for an effective post-conflict effort at development, your engagement should be widely perceived as legitimate by stakeholders within and outside the country. Second, if you are a superpower, you probably ought to be joined by a genuine critical mass of other governments and/or international organizations, operating with meaningful roles and authority — not only for the purposes of legitimacy, but also for the expertise that others bring to the table. Third, well before you go to war, you might want to plan smartly and carefully for the post-conflict period. And, finally, your ambitions should be realistic — societies are not transformed over night. On each of those counts, the United States post-war intervention in Iraq was flawed, to put it mildly. Don’t get me wrong: even better managed post-conflict operations are not elegant, by any means. But often, both our national security and/or our humanitarian interests demand engagement. Take Bosnia, for example. The post-conflict international engagement has hardly resulted in models of good governance throughout the Balkans, but it has helped to prevent a return to war, and to the terrible suffering that occurred after break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Suzanne Nosse:l

Forswearing nation-building is not a realistic policy option for three basic reasons.

First, the United States has a series of often overlapping interests in stabilizing post-conflict situations. While maintaining peace among the great powers and other “traditional” challenges of statecraft will remain key elements in U.S. foreign policy, the Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy of the United States of 2002 and its successor of 2006 correctly highlight that a host of transnational threats – including terrorism, international crime, trafficking in drugs and persons – are equally important. These threats can destabilize regions as well as directly affect U.S. national security. They often originate in, or exploit, failed states and “ungoverned space” that can emerge after conflict. Al Qaida’s use of pre-9/11 Afghanistan as a training and operational hub is the exemplar. Effective nation-building helps check such “negative externalities” from spreading. Evidence also suggests that countries receiving effective post-conflict assistance are less likely to slide back into violence than those that do not. This carries humanitarian implications (e.g., preventing genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc.), as well as geostrategic ones (e.g., eliminating a vacuum that regional actors may try to exploit).

The United States also has an interest in the character of states emerging from conflict. Ideally, from Washington’s perspective, such states would align with Western interests and values. In some cases, U.S. interest in a post-conflict mission may be to check another country in the region from expanding its power and influence over an unstable neighbor. In other cases, international credibility and moral obligation may be critical. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” is alive and well. Where the United States plays a role in disrupting a society, it will be called upon to help put it back together again. In the face of such interests, sitting on the sidelines – or leaving the work entirely to others – carries risks to U.S. security and its stature internationally.

Second, the challenge of nation-building will not disappear from the international stage any time soon. There are many “fragile” states around the world. Consider possible contingencies in the Caribbean, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia. Reflecting this harsh reality since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has launched a new peacekeeping operation roughly every six months, while the United States has undertaken a major nation-building operation every two years.

Third, the Unites States cannot realistically rely upon others to do all the heavy lifting. It bears repeating that the United States is still and will for the foreseeable future the most powerful country in the world – economically, politically, and militarily. The likelihood that American interests in preventing state failure and its externalities will be adequately protected in the future without some U.S. involvement are small. With few exceptions – perhaps Great Britain, France, and Australia – other countries lack the resources and motivation to intervene independently in situations where we do not.

Taken together, these premises lead to the conclusion that the United States should prepare for nation-building, even if we’d prefer to avoid it.