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Nation Building: Which Is the Side of the Angels?

January 22, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

The fourth session of the FY03 National Security Roundtable was held on January 22, 2003 to discuss whether the U.S. military should be involved in nation building. A panel of experts on the topic made short presentations. Following the presentations, Gen. Trainor moderated a discussion.

What We Know:

With the recent military campaign in Afghanistan and the possibility of conflict with Iraq looming on the horizon, the Bush administration has been faced with an issue it expressed little taste for during the campaign – nation building.

In Afghanistan, American military forces are working on infrastructure projects and attempting to restore a sense of normalcy to villages ravaged by more than a decade of conflict. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has begun to debate postwar options for reconstructing Iraq, with some commentators making comparisons to U.S. efforts in Germany and Japan following World War II.

Although there was disagreement between participants as to the value and methods of nation building, few disputed the fact that situations can arise unexpectedly that call for American intervention. Given the events of 9/11 and the clear harm caused to the United States by failed states, few argued that the United States should avoid nation building altogether.

The burden of U.S. nation building efforts often falls on members of the military, who often lack training appropriate for the situations they are faced with. There are success stories. Japan and Germany were both recipients of American nation building efforts in the decades following World War II. Some argue that the former Yugoslavia is a more recent example. Disasters occur as well, such as the American intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s.

What We Do Not Know:

Even with this multitude of case studies, there is no consensus on how nation building should occur and in which countries. These questions dominated the evening’s discussion.

The logistics of organizing a large-scale nation building effort are enormous. At times, American combat units are tasked with protecting refugees as soon as a war ends, often with little guidance from Washington. Many soldiers trained in civil affairs are members of the Reserves, leading to a paucity of planners. Coordination between a multitude of international organizations and local constituencies can be problematic as well. Finally, even once the situation on the ground has improved, recruiting qualified international police is often difficult given the lack of reserves in most Western countries.

The question of where intervention should occur is tricky as well. Some nation building efforts are the result of Western military actions, such as World War II, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf War. In recent decades, Western military forces have also stepped in to stop civil wars, such as in Bosnia and East Timor. At the same time, other disasters, such as Rwanda, have been neglected. It is clear that it is not possible for the United States to intervene in all cases.

What are the Next Steps?

The biggest problem facing those involved in nation building is often resources. Reliable international police forces can be formed using police from third world countries if they can be paid a reasonable wage. Making the long-term commitment necessary to ensure success also requires a monetary commitment. Increased funding for international development programs will likely head off some problems before outside intervention is required.

A second step would be a willingness of U.S. leaders to make the case for nation building to the American people. The supposed reluctance of the U.S. citizenry is often cited as a reason that U.S. troops cannot stay for extended periods. Shortly after casualties occurred in Somalia, President Clinton withdrew soldiers involved in the international humanitarian operation. Political leaders see extended commitment as politically risky.

Finally, the United States needs to work with its Western allies and international organizations to better coordinate nation building efforts. In some areas, such as the Balkans, numerous organizations and entities are involved, often complicating the mission of military forces and sometimes working at cross-purposes. Better UN coordination of these efforts may be a solution. At the same time, it is important to remember the interests of local stakeholders; without their agreement and support, outside efforts will come to naught.

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