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.

Geopolitics and American Economic Competitiveness

When I was in high school, I read the classic book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. In the early 1990s, Kennedy and others were focused on the rise of Japan and the presumed geopolitical decline of the United States. These predictions of imminent American decline were of course wrong, or at least premature.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the effects of automation on the U.S. and global economies. The key point was that contemporary technological innovations are tending to make many workers redundant. Travel agents, secretaries, legal assistants, factory workers, and many other groups of workers are being replaced by computers and robots. Rising productivity is not leading to net growth in jobs, and many economists are warning that we should get used to a “new normal” of higher unemployment (and lower economic growth rates). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that these trends do persist over the next few decades.

If these problematic economic trends persist in the United States, what will that mean for global geopolitics? Here are a few key possibilities:

  1. Military spending in the U.S. will inevitably decline, as even many influential Republicans recognize. Future American leaders will be much less likely to engage in long-term military campaigns like those in Iraq (2003-2011) and Afghanistan (2001-present). The prospects for Pentagon-led “nation building” missions will decline significantly. NATO’s capabilities will dwindle even more than they already have.
  2. Sluggish economic growth and political gridlock in Washington could lead to lack of action on the public debt. In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney aptly used the phrase “on the road to Greece” to refer to America’s fiscal ill health. Though the U.S. has key advantages over Greece, the performance of American political elites over the last 12 years does not bode well for the future. If holders of U.S. public debt demand higher returns and provoke a sovereign debt crisis, the world’s superpower could enter into a period of rapid global retreat, just as Britain did in the 20th century.
  3. Anemic, jobless growth could lead to trade protectionism and economic nationalism reminiscent of the pre-World War II period. True, the Great Recession (2007-) was remarkable for its lack of economic nationalism. But if economic conditions do not improve significantly in the next decade, the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements could become big targets, especially for the Democratic Party.

Just as Paul Kennedy’s prediction of American decline in the late 1980s was wrong, contemporary pessimists could be very wrong about imminent U.S. decline. Economists, after all, do not excel at long-term prediction, despite the grander claims of some. What are your thoughts about recent economic trends in the United States?

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism (Syria, Iraq, and Regional Contagions)

Nine months after the full withdrawal of American soldiers, Iraq is being squeezed on many fronts. Internally, a Sunni-based insurgency persists. Troubles remain in part of the northern Kurdish region, leading to Turkish military incursions. Tensions between neighboring Iran and much of the world remain high. Oh, and there is Syria. The problems in Syria are a potent reminder of just how unstable sectarian politics can be, particularly given the cultural geography of the Middle East.

Though Iraq’s leaders profess to be democrats, they seem to be moving in a direction of greater support for the decidedly un-democratic Assad government in Syria. Planes delivering weapons to Assad have been transiting Iraqi air space from Iran, despite the efforts of U.S. and other diplomats to halt the flow. Established democracies (in the West) also support authoritarian governments at times, out of geopolitical realism. Given his recent tactics, though, Bashar al-Assad is no longer a run-of-the-mill dictator.

The bigger picture is about much more than the fate of a political dynasty in Syria. As others have noted over the last year, the Syrian uprising – unlike those in North Africa – has the potential to instigate a catastrophic regional contagion. Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority is the core of the anti-Assad forces. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni minority remains uneasy after the upheaval that began in 2003. Elsewhere – in places like Bahrain and Yemen – Sunni-Shiite tensions are palpable.

It is easy for outsiders and Westerners to recognize the flaws of sectarian politics in the Middle East. For many Muslims, though, the sectarian contest is the fundamental dimension of domestic political life. And, if one does not accept some level of separation between mosque and state, there is little space for democratic compromise.

The rest of the world will soon find out whether the Syrian conflict can be contained. Even if it is, the specter of sectarianism will persist in the region.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

Condoleezza Rice at #GOP2012

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice packed a punch in her 15 minutes in the spotlight. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the veteran national security advisor and academic urged her party and the country not to shrink back from global leadership. And, while her presentation touched on domestic issues like education, Rice’s speech was one of the few this week to focus on foreign affairs. Like the Romney campaign, the convention has been light on international themes.

Rice’s speech revisited familiar internationalist and neo-conservative themes: the U.S. must maintain its preeminent global position; America should spread liberal democracy and free markets abroad; a strong military is essential to U.S. leadership in world affairs; the United States is an exceptional country; and so forth. Though she never mentioned Ron Paul by name, Rice was clearly speaking to the leader of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party and his enthusiastic followers. There was no indication that Condi Rice has shifted in her fundamentally realist worldview.

It was the silences of the speech – what was missing – that stuck out the most. In a brief timeline sketch of the last decade, the former George W. Bush confidant jumped from the September 11, 2001 attacks to the global financial crisis that reached a crescendo in 2008. There was no mention of Afghanistan or Iraq in this narrative. It was as if the Iraq war (2003-2011) had never happened, or as if the Afghanistan war were a footnote in U.S. foreign affairs. Rice did mention Iraq in passing, but only in reference to the Arab Spring. (The Democrats will have their silences next week, and I’ll reflect on those silences, too.)

Beyond the Condi Rice convention speech, it is remarkable how little attention Afghanistan has garnered in this U.S. presidential campaign. So often, Americans of various stations ask the question, “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” To a great extent, the Obama administration – and particularly the president himself – has mostly ignored this question from the American people. Rather than compose a coherent case for state building abroad, American politicians are informally agreeing to downplay this broader foreign policy issue. This strategy is probably smart electoral politics, but it does little to enhance our civic engagement with a tough global question.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.