The Presidential Candidates on Nation-Building

As part of the discussion on nation-building, we thought it might be useful to compare and contrast what the presidential candidates have proposed so far. Similar to what Marc Lynch noted in a post on “public diplomacy” and the “war of ideas”, both John McCain and Barack Obama have offered direct proposals for nation-building, in contrast to Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy outline in Foreign Affairs mentioned the need for diplomacy as part of broader American policy, but nothing concrete in the way of how to shore up failing states. We’ll try to get some comment from the Clinton campaign, and will follow up if we come up with anything interesting.


All of the below quotes are from McCain’s Foreign Affairs article, but the same proposals are also covered in this speech to the Hudson Institute and in other statements.

— He wants to increase “civil affairs” personnel in the military.

— He says we “need a nonmilitary deployable police force to train foreign forces and help maintain law and order in places threatened by state collapse.

— He wants more civilian and military experts across government trained in “critical languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, and Pashto.” He emphasizes the utility of this for intelligence capabilities, but has also mentioned it in the context of nation-building type work.

— He wants a “modern-day OSS,” an organization that is more “nimble” than CIA or DOD, to “fight terrorist subversion around the world and in cyberspace.” In addition to covert ops, spying and other tasks, he envisions this organization playing “a key role in frontline effforts to rebuild failed states.”

— “As president, I will energize and expand our postconflict reconstruction capabilities so that any military campaign would be complemented by a civilian ‘surge’ that would build the political and economic foundations of peace.”

— He wants a follow-on to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which was aimed at promoting joint operations among the military services. This new Goldwater-Nichols-style legislation would be aimed at cooperation among military and civilian foreign affairs agencies, creating “a framework for civil servants and military forces to train and work together in order to facilitate cooperation in postconflict reconstruction.”


From Obama’s Foreign Affairs article:

— Here’s what Obama says specifically about a military role in nation-building: “We must . . . consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense in order to provide for the common security that undermines global stability — to support friends, participate in stability or reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities.”

— Elsewhere in his plan to “revitalize” the military, he talks about improving language and other skills that would have nation-building application, although in general he’s not as specific about a military role here as McCain.

— Obama mainly talks about nation-building in terms of foreign aid. For example, “we need to invest with our allies in strengthening weak states and helping to rebuild failed ones.”

— Consistent with this emphasis on foreign aid, he talks about nation-building in more prophylactic terms — shoring up institutions before states fail rather than afterwards: ” . . . since extremely poor societies and weak states provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict, the United States has a direct national security interest in dramatically reducing global poverty and joining with our allies in sharing more of our riches to help those most in need.”

Several times in his August Wilson Center speech on counterterrorism, he emphasized reconstruction and development assistance as a defense against the spread and growth of terrorism:

— “The solution in Afghanistan is not just military — it is political and economic. As President, I would increase our non-military aid by $1 billion. These resources should fund projects at the local level to impact ordinary Afghans, including the development of alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.”

— On Pakistan: “Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increase America’s commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists’ program of hate is met with one of hope.”

To sum up:

McCain and Obama both clearly think nation-building is important. McCain’s emphasis is on nation-building in the context of military deployments, and he has specific proposals for how to adapt the national security bureaucracy to this need. Obama’s emphasis is on foreign aid as a way to shore up failing states, and he is less specific about any proposals for new bureaucracies or “nation-building forces.”

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