Long Live Nation Building

Nation building has earned a bad reputation in the United States, and that is a shame. When done well, and in the right places, nation building returns big dividends for America and the world. On Monday night, debate moderator Bob Schieffer has a golden opportunity to press Obama and Romney on when and how the United States will be involved in nation building in the next administration. As someone who has spent much of the last decade studying state failure, I believe that this country needs a smarter debate about the risks and opportunities associated with nation building abroad.

The starting place for this debate is a recognition that the U.S. still needs to take a leadership role in rebuilding shattered societies. Yes, America has been badly bruised from our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact, and the current budget woes in Washington, should not distract us from the potential benefits of nation building. Americans benefit when other regions of the world are free, peaceful, and prosperous. Stable states are potential trade partners and allies. Dysfunctional states are potential exporters of disease, illicit activities, and insecurity. Ron Paul and other contemporary isolationists are simply wrong to argue that we can easily insulate ourselves from failed states.

Even as we continue nation building abroad, we must recognize that some countries are not good candidates for success. We should not waste resources and time on hopeless cases. Notably, Afghanistan seems to be just such a case. For part of the twentieth century, the reign of King Zahir Shah provided some impulse toward centralization. The broader theme in the country’s political history, though, is resistance to centralized governance. Most Afghans continue to be suspicious of national governments in Kabul, especially with the effort to re-establish a highly centralized state since 2001. Instead, local identities and institutions remain the key reference points for much of the country. In cases like Afghanistan, where local people are dis-inclined or unwilling to help get their own house in order, the United States and its partners should not pursue active nation building efforts. The best we can do is contain the fallout from these cases of state failure.

While the risk-reward ratio may not be favorable to nation building in all cases, the U.S. and our international partners must wisely stay the course in more favorable environments. In this regard, Obama and Romney would do the entire country a favor by shooting straight in this last debate, which will be focused on foreign policy. When Bob Schieffer asks them about nation building, the candidates should forge a united front in acknowledging that these important missions take time. Under the best circumstances, nation building realistically requires a decade or more to show lasting results. Post-conflict societies and dysfunctional states cannot be reshaped within the course of a four-year presidential term. We need leaders with more honesty and humility about time horizons for success.

While I sincerely hope that Bob Schieffer and the presidential candidates will treat us to a useful civic dialogue on nation building and other vital foreign policy issues, I am not holding my breath. Judging by other indicators of this election campaign, we are likely to get more posturing and grandstanding than substance. Regardless of who becomes president, America urgently needs a popular debate about the merits and pitfalls of nation building around the world.

Brennan Kraxberger is the author of the recently published book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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