Shadow Government

The realist case for nation building

Paleoconservative columnist George Will is on a crusade against nation building, and in particular, against nation building in Afghanistan. In June he called it a "fool’s errand," that is "staggeringly complex," and claimed it is "rash or delusional" to try it because it is a "cannot-be-done" mission. In May he called it the "civilianization of ...


Paleoconservative columnist George Will is on a crusade against nation building, and in particular, against nation building in Afghanistan. In June he called it a "fool’s errand," that is "staggeringly complex," and claimed it is "rash or delusional" to try it because it is a "cannot-be-done" mission. In May he called it the "civilianization of the military." In September 2009 he called for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, saying Afghanistan was so backwards that "nation building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try" after Somalia.

Will articulates a view that sounds increasingly plausible to opposite poles of the political spectrum. Left-wing Democrats seeking an end to the war in Afghanistan, as well as some Tea Party neo-isolationists, echo some of Will’s arguments (Angelo Codevilla’s otherwise fascinating Tea Party manifesto included an odd broadside against trying to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan). Will’s view is, basically, that it was all a mistake. The United States should not seek to transform regions because it is beyond our capabilities. We should not foster democracy overseas because it rarely grows in inhospitable places. Above all, we should never, ever attempt nation building because it is a misuse of military resources and a hubristic neo-imperial fool’s errand.

Will is wrong. I will write later about why the growing skepticism about the war in Afghanistan is unfounded, but today I want to take issue with Will’s skepticism about nation building. While I think there are valid arguments in favor of nation building on idealistic grounds, I want to highlight three reasons why I think realists should support nation building.

1) Nation building is an investment in future allies and a means of balancing against potential rivals. Part of U.S. grand strategy is (or ought to be) the effort to prevent rival powers, like Russia, China, or Iran, from amassing enough power to seriously threaten our way of life. We work to keep their power in check — to balance against them — by increasing our own power or changing how it is deployed. Forming alliances with other, well-positioned states is a common way of increasing our power relative to our competitors’. We allied with Europe against Russia. We invest in alliances with Japan and Taiwan against China.

Nation building is an effort to build up allies, or potential allies, so they can help us against our rivals in the long-run. The Marshall Plan — nation building on a continental scale — was a crucial instrument to contain Soviet power in the early days of the Cold War. NATO would have been toothless if Europe remained poor and broken after World War II. Only after the United States dedicated an enormous amount of aid — some $120 billion in today’s dollars — was Europe able to field modern armies capable of deterring the Soviets. Nation building helped win the Cold War.

2) Nation building promotes stability and order. Stability and order are good, solid, realist virtues. Realists like order. When there is order, there is an absence of war, and war is almost always bad for our interests. Order allows commerce and opens markets for the United States. Order makes it easier to chase terrorists, drug traffickers, and other non-state actors. Stability means predictability, which lessens the chance of war. Unstable or weak buffer states are unpredictable and tend to spill instability into neighboring great powers.

3) Finally, nation building builds democracy. This is, in fact, a realist argument. Realists should support the spread of democracy for one simple reason: the democratic peace theory is true. Democracies tend not to fight each other. They do tend to trade together, see the world the same way, and resolve disputes peacefully. Spreading democracy decreases war and makes America safer. We should spread democracy not because of a quasi-religious utopian conviction that "freedom is the right of all peoples" (even if it is) but because democracies are unlikely ever to seriously threaten the United States. Spreading democracy is an essentially selfish, pragmatic policy.

(Yes, the process of democratization can be risky and may temporarily increase the chances of instability. The democratic peace holds mostly among fully democratic countries that have already consolidated the habits and institutions of democracy. That does not mean we should abandon democratization as a foreign policy; it does mean we need to be careful, build institutions and not just hold elections, and be patient.)

Will is right about one thing. Nation building is maddeningly hard to do. We should not nation build at will, anywhere and everywhere the fancy strikes us. But neither is it impossible, naïve, or hopelessly utopian. Nation building is an important tool policymakers should have available for those rare occasions when U.S. interests demand it. The future of Europe was decisively altered by our successful occupation and reconstruction of West Germany. The same could have been true of Iraq and the Middle East, and may yet be true of Afghanistan and South Asia. You don’t have to be a bleeding heart idealist or an advocate for international social work to support nation building. You just have to recognize that sometimes nation building is the best, or the only, tool available to secure our interests.

There are some common criticisms of nation building that I haven’t addressed. Will and others often say that there are few examples of clear success. Liberals coming from a stance of cultural pluralism argue that nation building is actually wrong in principle: that it is an unjust attempt at cultural imperialism and westernization. These are important criticisms that will be addressed later.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. government.

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Twitter: @pauldmiller2
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