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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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?

“Nation Building” and U.S. Politics

The phrase suffers from an accumulation of negative connotations. Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Iraq and Afghanistan. American soldiers under UN control. Open-ended, messy missions. Huge costs to American taxpayers. “Nation building” – or what scholars refer to as “state building” – will not be a hot topic in Tampa or Charlotte as the Republicans and Democrats gather for their national conventions. Even with huge budgetary strains and popular resistance to discussion of nation building, the two major political parties will likely miss an opportunity to lead in the arena of foreign policy.

In contrast, Ron Paul has at least staked out a clear, oft-discussed position on nation building abroad: the U.S. should mind its own business and let other societies rise or fall through their own internal processes. This position is at least consistent with Paul’s brand of libertarianism; as with domestic issues of governance, the U.S. government should hue to a minimalist position of activity. In truth, there are cases where the U.S. and the international community would do well to “do no harm” and let foreign societies sort out their own problems without support or interference. Isolationism, though, is a dangerous philosophy in a globalized era. To be deeply engaged in the economic realm and disengaged otherwise is profoundly unwise. It is possible to pursue a more humble internationalism – as candidate George W. Bush discussed in 2000 – without retreating into isolationism.

Though it will take some hard work, Americans could forge a new national consensus on nation building. Such a consensus would not be as strong as the bipartisan cooperation during the Cold War era, but it would enable our leaders and the public to better support inevitable nation building missions.

What principles would undergird a new American consensus on nation building? First, a solid bipartisan majority will need to recognize the high costs of rejecting nation building. Security, health, and economic threats will continue to emerge from critically weak and failed states whether we want them to or not. (Yes, support for nation building must primarily be generated through an argument of American self-interest. It is fine to also recognize humanitarian and human rights benefits, but those arguments will never win the day on their own.) Second, leaders and ordinary citizens must come to accept that nation building missions require long timelines. It is just not realistic to expect state reconstruction in a few years. Bipartisan support, which can sustain continuity of missions across changes in party control, will enable nation building across a decade or more. Third, both Republicans and Democrats can find common ground in supporting novel nation building approaches that are lower cost. This is a core task in bringing about a true national consensus on nation building abroad: proponents must refute the taken-for-granted perceptions that these missions will necessarily be a massive drain on the American treasury, or be an unsustainable burden on the U.S. military. As other posts on this blog (will) discuss, more creative responses to state decay could be much cheaper. Not least, a reconsideration of the rights and responsibilities of state sovereignty (i.e. membership in the United Nations) would go a long way towards reforming ineffective nation building. The U.S. must also abandon a go-it-alone mentality and embrace key aspects of multilateralism in nation-building. Let’s hope that Republican and Democratic leaders can begin to engage with “that vision thing.”

*** 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.