Nation-Building: One Element of a Larger Strategy

My humble contribution to the nation-building discussion thread:

At the risk of stating the obvious, I think the United States should be very careful about intervening on the ground in places that are already failed states, or in places where our intervention is likely to hasten a failing state’s descent into failure. This should be the case whether the purpose is ostensibly humanitarian or not — I don’t understand why some who believe Iraq is a disaster want to intervene military in Darfur, for example.

In cases where military intervention is necessary to protect U.S. national security interests (narrowly defined), the U.S. probably needs to have a better post-conflict or reconstruction capability, both in the military itself, and when it comes to cooperation between the military and civilian agencies like State and USAID. There has been a lot of talk about a new “nation-building agency” to house military and civilian capabilities in this area. I’m instantly skeptical of almost any “solution” that involves new boxes on an org chart. It’s usually easier and cheaper to improve what we have, and to get existing agencies to work together better, than to create something new.

Which brings me to a larger point: there are no doubt areas where the United States needs entirely “new” capabilities with respect to nation-building — more people who know history, cultures and languages for example. But in general I suspect the U.S. government’s problems with nation-building, as witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan — in addition to the fact that it’s an incredibly hard thing to do during a hot war — could be better addressed by focusing not on new capabilities, but on properly coordinating the ones we have at the highest levels of government.

This is a big problem for U.S. foreign policy in general: the failure to think strategically. We need people in the National Security Council and the White House, as well as in Congress, who understand how all instruments of U.S. power can be used, and who can get them all working at once toward a common goal.

The last time we did this, perhaps, was in the last days of the Cold War under Reagan. Public diplomacy and propaganda, covert operations, economic aid and sanctions, traditional diplomacy, etc. were all used in a coordinated campaign to bring down the Soviet Union without any direct military confrontation. It is of course possible to argue whether this campaign should be wholly credited with what happened in 1991, but it’s a matter of historical fact that such a coordinated campaign existed, and it makes our efforts in the war on terrorism look like random dart-throwing by comparison. Of course, a worldwide campaign against stateless terrorists is in many ways much more difficult than one against a state, but we can do a lot better.

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