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The American record on nation-building.

Posted to Poetry and Politics




Some excerpts from a policy article called "Lessons from the Past: The American record on Nation Building", found on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website (see thread 1629 below for link), written by Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper.

The real test for the preemptive war against Saddam Hussein's regime is whether or not Iraq can be rebuilt. Historically, nation-building attempts by outside powers have been notable mainly for their bitter disappointments, not their triumphs. The U.S. is perhaps the most active nation-builder. Since its founding, the US has used its armed forces abroad more than 200 times, consisting of major wars (such as the 2 world wars), peace-keeping missions (like Bosnia today), proxy wars (like Nicaragua and Angola in the '80s), covert operations (such as the coup in Chile in l973), humanitarian interventions (as in the Balkans in the '90s), the rescue of American citizens, the defense of its allies under attack (as in Korea, l950), and one-time retaliatory strikes (such as the bombing raid against Libya in l986).

"Nation-building" is distinguished from other military operations thusly: 1) the practical effect or goal of the intervention must be a regime change or the survival of a regime which otherwise would collapse, and 2) the deployment of large numbers of ground troops , and 3) the use of U.S. military and civilian personnel in the political administration of the target country. As a result of this involvement, the U.S. exerts decisive influence on the selection of leaders to head the new regimes, and Wash. DC also restructures key political institutions of a target country (such as rewriting the constitution and basic laws).

On the basis of these criteria, 16 American military interventions may be classed as "nation-building". The most striking thing about these operations is the failure of all but a four of them to establish democratic governments in the target countries, and only two can be called unambiguous successes.... Japan and W. Germany after World War II. The results of US attempts at nation-building is summarized below:

Target......Population.......Period......Democracy resulted?

Afghanistan.....27 million.....2001-present....in progress
Haiti..........7 million.......1994-96........No
Panama.........2.3 million.....1989...........Yes
Grenada........92,000..........1983...........Yes
Cambodia.......7 million.......1970-73.........No
S. Vietnam......19 million.....1964-73.........No
Dominican Repub....3.8 million...1965-66.......No
Japan............72 million.....1945-52........Yes
W. Germany.......46 million.....1945-49........Yes
Dom. Repub.......895,000........1916-24.........No
Cuba.............2.8 million....1917-22........No
Haiti............2 million......1915-34........No
Nicaragua........620,000........1909-33........No
Cuba.............2 million......1906-09........No
Panama...........450,000........1903-36........No
Cuba.............1.6 million....1898-1902......No

Thus, the U.S. success rate for building democratic nations stands at only 25%. The failure to attain or sustain democracy in a target nation can have disastrous consequences for its citizens. For example, in Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, brutal dictatorships emerged from the wreckage of botched nation-building efforts. These societies remained mired in misrule and widespread poverty. In Cambodia, the genocidal Kmer Rouge regime gained power after the departure of US troops and then perpetrated one of the worst crimes against humanity in history.

Note that most nation-building by the US has been unilateral, and that US surrogate regimes predominated as the choice of interim government. What is most notable about these unilateral interim surrogate regimes is their complete failure to bring democracy to the target states. One possible explanation is that the US facilitates the rise of the military as a key state institution and potent power in the building of these regimes, and later on, when the US withdraws, strongmen seize control of the military to advance their own personal agenda. Another likely explanation is that surrogate regimes lack indigenous legitimacy, and, after American withdrawal, they often have to resort to repression to maintain power.

The low overall success rate for U.S. nation-building underscores the difficulty of such efforts in underdeveloped societies. Of the 14 such cases, only Panama in '89 and Grenada were successful. Nation-building is political engineering on a grand scale. Some nations such as Haiti may have socio-political attributes (such as deep ethnic fissures or religious animosity or high levels of inequality) which make them inherently very resistant to such political engineering. Societies with higher national identity and ethnic homogeneity and relative socioeconomic
equality (such as Japan and Germany) are more suitable targets for nation-building. Occupying forces are far less likely to be dragged into domestic power struggles or manipulated by dueling groups.

By contast, ethnically fragmented countries such as Iraq pose extraordinary challenges. Lacking a common national identity, various ethnic groups, particularly those who have long been oppressed, tend to seize the opportunity to seek independence or to gain power. This can trigger national disintegration or a backlash from other groups with the outside powers caught in the middle. Here is a checklist of some of the key factors shown by history and experience to be critical to successful nation-building, along with assessments of how Iraq rates on these factors:

Factor:..............................Iraq's Situation:

1)Strong national identity...........ethnic fragmentation
2)Effective state capacity...........weak, minus Baath party
3)Prev. experience w/ constitutinalism.....None
4)Elite interests aligned with US........Questionable
5)Popular interests aligned with US......Questionable
6)Able to absorb econ. assistance?.......Questionable
7)International legitimacy under
multilateral interim administration?......Questionable

My notes:
Our nation-building attempt in Iraq seems dubious to me. If it meets with any degree of success, it seems likely to be only at a tremendous cost. This article doesn't even address the many questionable alliances and covert warfare engaged in by the U.S. over the past 40 years in particular (the alliance with Saddam in the '80s is an example), nor does the article speculate how our "nation-building" in Iraq is perceived by the Arab world, or how it might affect terrorism, which of course was a prime justification given for the Iraq invasion in the first place.

The authors: Minxin Pei is a senior associate and co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's China Program, and the author of "From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union". Sara Kasper is a junior fellow in the Endowment's China Program.