Foreign Policy

Weighing the Hubris of Nation-Building

May 12, 2016

On Tuesday, May 10, the Institute of World Politics hosted a debate between Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, and Paul Miller, associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. The debate, which centered on the question of nation-building, was moderated by Paul Coyer, a research professor at the Institute of World Politics.

Miller spoke in favor of nation-building and based his argument on three points. First, according to Miller, nation-building is possible and has been done in the past. He cited several examples to support this point, such as the well-known cases of Japan and Germany after World War II, as well as smaller cases such as Haiti, Cambodia, and Namibia. Afghanistan is where the United States has most recently pursued a policy of nation-building, and Miller argued that it contained “pockets of success,” or places where nation-building operations succeeded in restoring order and stability because the proper level of resources were utilized. He considers these pockets proof that nation-building could work in Afghanistan.

Miller’s second argument was that sometimes nation-building can be cost-effective compared to the costs of not intervening. Failing to intervene, Miller argued, can lead to failed states becoming much more problematic in the future if they begin to harbor international crime, drug-smuggling rings, and transnational terrorists.

Miller’s final argument was that sometimes it is strategically necessary for the United States to intervene. Miller demonstrated this by contrasting U.S. actions in the aftermaths of World War I and WWII. After WWI, the United States did not engage in rebuilding the defeated Central Powers and instead allowed the other Allied Powers to impose harsh reparations on them. The United States also failed to join the League of Nations. This failure to engage, Miller argued, contributed to WWII.

In contrast, the United States was very active in what Miller considers to be nation-building following the end of WWII. The United States occupied parts of the former Axis powers and utilized the Marshall Plan to rebuild the defeated nations. Conflict on the scale of a world war has not broken out since.

Preble then contested each of Miller’s three points. Examples of successful nation-building, such as Japan and Germany, were not truly nation-building, he argued, since they already had existing and functioning societies that did not need to be totally restructured.

Furthermore, Preble argued that the idea that “pockets of success” in Afghanistan can be scaled to a national level at an enormous cost betrays the immense level of hubris that undergirds nation-building efforts.

Preble also challenged Miller’s argument that failed states must be dealt with immediately, since all failed states do not necessarily serve as terrorist lairs. Terrorists can come from stable states such as France and Belgium.

Finally, Preble argued that thanks to the very favorable geostrategic position of the United States, there are very few true threats to American security. According to Preble, nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Syria does nothing to enhance U.S. security, and therefore it is not in America’s interest to get involved.

Preble’s main argument against nation-building rests on the claim that advocates of nation-building overestimate human capability and power. Societies are very complex, and it is difficult for foreigners to come in and re-engineer how a society operates.

To drive home just how complicated nation-building is, Preble presented a graphic entitled “Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security.” This complicated chart from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff demonstrates all of the various interconnected parts that make up counterinsurgency doctrine. Preble reminded the audience that this complicated procedure would need to be carried out and coordinated hundreds and thousands of times simultaneously at every level of government all over the country.

In the end, Preble argued, the problem with nation-building is that states are not competent enough to re-engineer entire societies. Nations aren’t built by foreign governments; they are built by their citizens.

Debates about important issues such as nation-building are critical, as the healthy exchange of ideas leads to better outcomes. Preble will be participating in a similar exchange of ideas about these important issues at the Charles Koch Institute’s upcoming Advancing American Security Summit: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy conference on Wednesday, May 18 in Washington, DC.