Does nation-building work?

The term "nation-building" smacks of colonialism. But when war has broken a country, nation-building is a moral duty -- and the best way to build is with equal parts outside and inside effort.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Small shops sell food and snacks on a hillside in Kabul, Afghanistan, where squatters have settled.

Nation-building has a can-do ring to it. You can build a highway, a skyscraper, a Fortune 500 company. Why not a nation?

It isn’t a new idea. Throughout the 20th century – in places as different as Germany, the Philippines, Iraq, Japan, and Kosovo – world powers have worked to turn broken states into healthy ones through a combination of outside force, inside management, and the cultivation of civil society, education, rule of law, and democratic institutions. Soldiers and civil servants have sacrificed their lives. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The outcomes have been mixed, as James L. Payne noted in a 2006 study published in the Independent Review. Some nations (Somalia) reject the effort. Others make it (Austria, Germany, Japan), but we can’t be sure it was due to intervention or popular will. Nation-building works best when insiders take the lead. Some states fail and re-fail and then pull it together (Dominican Republic, Panama – and possibly Haiti, and even Somalia is improving).

It’s easy to criticize nation-building as western hubris. When he ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush argued that the United States shouldn’t be imposing its values on the rest of the world. That changed after 9/11.

Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission,” Mr. Bush wrote in his memoir. “We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” Moral obligation, especially after a war, outweighs hubris. 

A 2007 RAND Corporation guide to nation-building notes that US-led military interventions are running at about one every two years, and new United Nations peacekeeping missions occur every six months. 

In little more than a decade, nation-building efforts were launched in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Note the ascending size of the nations involved. There’s a warning for the future in that, especially at a time of war-weariness and constrained budgets. As the RAND study observed, “the effort needed to stabilize Bosnia and Kosovo has proved difficult to replicate in Afghanistan or Iraq, nations that are eight to 12 times more populous. It would be even more difficult to mount a peace enforcement mission in Iran, which is three times more populous than Iraq, and nearly impossible to do so in Pakistan, which is three times again more populous than Iran.”

In a Monitor cover story, Scott Baldauf takes us to Afghanistan to assess whether the nearly 11-year nation-building process has “taken” well enough that the South Asian country can survive as a tolerant, viable society when NATO scales back in 2014. The pitfalls are plentiful: ethnic animosity, warlords, the Taliban, corruption, opium, external meddling. Most Afghans Scott talked with want foreign troops out. Fewer Afghans want foreign aid to decrease. And almost everybody is worried about what comes next.

As Scott’s reporting and Melanie Stetson Freeman’s photography show, Afghanistan has changed markedly since 2001. If the yearning for peace and normalcy alone could determine a country’s future, Afghanistan would make it. Afghan won’t be totally on its own. NATO contingents will remain, civilian assistance will continue, and $4 billion a year is being promised to bankroll Afghan security forces. Have we left behind something better? We are about to find out.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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