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Deconstructing Nation Building

The results are in and the record isn’t good.

When plunging into war, hope generally triumphs over experience. The past—the quiet statistical tabulation of what happened when this was tried before—tends to be ignored in the heat of angry oratory and the thump of military boots. At the outset, it is easy to believe that force will be successful in upholding virtue and that history has no relevance.

Lately, this confidence in the force of arms has centered on nation building, that is, the idea of invading and occupying a land afflicted by dictatorship or civil war and turning it into a democracy. Alas, in their enthusiasm for nation building by force of arms, neither the theorists nor the practitioners have seriously looked at the historical experience with this kind of policy. If, after the troops leave, another dictatorship or another civil war ensues, then one has ploughed the sea. One has suffered the costs of the invasion—Americans killed, local inhabitants killed, destruction of property, tax money squandered, loss of international support, and so on—to no lasting purpose.

To see how nation building in general works out, I have compiled a list of all the cases since 1850 in which the United States and Great Britain employed military forces in a foreign land to cultivate democracy. I included only those cases where ground troops were deployed and clearly intervened in local politics. I have left aside the cases involving lesser types of involvement such as sending aid or military advisors or limited peacekeeping efforts or simply having military bases in the country.

In order to constitute a complete case of attempted nation building, troops have to have left the country (or be uninvolved politically if based in the country) so that we may see whether, in the absence of military support, a stable democracy continued to exist. For this reason we cannot use ongoing involvements such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghan-istan, and Iraq. The application of this definition identifies 51 instances of attempted nation building by Britain and the United States. The question is, how often did they succeed?

The meaning of success involves more than holding an election and setting up a government. Nation building implies building, that is, constructing a lasting edifice. The nation builders concur in this notion of durability. Their idea isn’t just to hold elections, get out, and have the country revert to anarchy or dictatorship. As President Bush has said, the aim in Iraq is to create lasting institutions of freedom. To call a nation building effort a success, therefore, we need to see that the military occupation of the target country was followed by the establishment of an enduring democracy.

To identify results in these terms, I inspected the political history of each country after the troop withdrawal. I looked for events betokening the collapse of democratic rule, including the suppression of opposition leaders or parties, major infringements of freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, violent transfers of power, murder of political leaders by other leaders, and significant civil war. I required large and multiple failures along these lines as evidence of democratic failure. A few arrests of opposition leaders were not be enough to disqualify the country as a democracy nor a few assassinations of ambiguous meaning nor a simple military coup nor the resignation of an executive in the face of massive street demonstrations. If numerous free and fair elections were held, this was taken as strong evidence that democracy survived. Elections that were one-sided and to some degree rigged by the incumbents were taken as a negative sign, but they did not, in themselves, disqualify the country as democratic.

The results of applying these principles to the political outcomes in the 51 cases of intervention are shown in the following table. Overall, the results indicate that military intervention succeeded in leaving behind democracies in 14 cases—27 percent of the time. The conclusion, then, is that nation building by force is generally unsuccessful. A president who went around the world invading countries to make them democratic would fail most of the time. One group of countries that seem especially resistant to democracy-building efforts are the Arab lands. There have been are nine interventions in Arab countries in the past century. In no case did stable democracy follow the military occupation.

In assessing the effectiveness of nation-building efforts, we should be careful not to confuse conjunction with cause. Just because some military interventions have been followed by democracy, this does not mean that the interventions caused the democracy. There is a worldwide movement against the use of force, and this trend promotes democratic development. Rulers are becoming less disposed to use violence to repress oppositions, and oppositions are less inclined to use force against incumbents. As a result, countries are becoming democracies on their own, without any outside help.

For example, we might be tempted to praise the British occupation of Malaysia as bringing democracy. But in the same period, the neighboring Asian country of Thailand, not occupied, also joined the camp of democratic nations. In fact, in Freedom House’s survey of political rights and civil liberties, Thailand ranks ahead of Malaysia. It is quite possible, then, that Malaysia would have become a democracy without British intervention.

South Korea presents an interesting lesson in the effectiveness of nation building. Beginning in 1945, when U.S. troops landed, the United States was heavily involved in guiding political decisions in South Korea. This political involvement essentially ceased after 1961, and the South Koreans were allowed to go their own way politically. This way proved to be a military dictatorship under General Park Chung-Hee, which lasted until his murder in 1979. Thereupon followed two coups, a violent uprising in Kwangju, and many bloody street demonstrations. By 1985, however, the suppression of civil liberties had been greatly relaxed and competitive elections were held. Since that time, South Korea can be called a democracy (albeit a noisy one with plenty of corruption). So here is a case where 16 years of American tutelage brought failure in terms of democratic nation building, while the country evolved to democracy on its own 25 years after American involvement in local politics ceased.

Nations around the world are gradually becoming democratic on their own. Therefore, the 14 cases of nation-building “success” cannot be attributed to military intervention. These countries might well have become democracies without it.

The nation-building idea has a critical, generally overlooked, gap: who knows how to do it? Pundits and presidents talk about nation building as if it were a settled technology, like building bridges or removing gall bladders. Huge amounts of government and foundation money have been poured into the topic of democracy building, and academics and bureaucrats have produced reams of verbose commentary. But still there is no concrete, useable body of knowledge.

And, being a non-specialty, there cannot be any experts in it. The people who end up doing the so-called nation building are simply ordinary government employees who happen to wind up at the scene of the military occupation. Many times they are military officers with no background in politics, sociology, or social psychology—not that it would help them. For the most part, these government employees see their mission as getting themselves and the U.S. out of the country without too much egg on their faces. They have no clearer idea of how to “instill democratic culture” than the readers of this page.

A look at some specific examples of nation building illustrates the intellectual vacuum. The 1989 U. S. invasion of Panama is credited in our tabulation as a nation-building success. Was this positive outcome the result of the expert application of political science? One of the nation builders, Lt. Col. John T. Fishel, has written a book on the Panama experience that gives quite a different picture. Fishel was Chief of Policy and Strategy for U. S. forces in Panama, and it was his job to figure out how to implement the mission statement. The orders looked simple on paper: “Conduct nation building operations to ensure democracy.” But Fishel quickly discovered that the instruction was meaningless because democracy was an “undefined goal.” It seemed to him that it wasn’t the job of military officers to figure out how to implement this undefined objective, but, as he observes with a touch of irritation, “there are no U. S. civilian strategists clearly articulating strategies to achieve democracy.”

The fact that there was no clear definition of the conditions that constitute democracy meant that the Military Support Group and the other U.S. government agencies that were attempting to assist the Endara government had only the vaguest concept of what actions and programs would lead the country toward democracy …

In practice, what the goal of “ensuring democracy” boiled down to was installing Guillermo Endara, the winner of a previous election, as president, supporting him as he became increasingly high-handed and unpopular, and then stepping away after his opponent was elected in 1994. Not exactly rocket science.

Were the military planners trying to tell us something when they gave the Panama nation-building exercise the code name Blind Logic?

Austria presents an instructive example of what nation building has actually amounted to on the ground. In our tabulation, Austria is classified as a case of successful nation building, but a close look reveals that the U.S. role was irrelevant, if not harmful.

After the war, Austria was jointly occupied by Russia as well as the Western powers. The Soviets brought Karl Renner, the elderly and respected Austrian Socialist leader, to Vienna to be the head of a provisional government. Renner’s provisional government declared the establishment of the Democratic Austrian Republic on April 27, 1945. For six months, the United States refused to recognize this government (fearing that the Russians were up to no good in supporting it). Finally, when it could not be denied that the provisional government was popular and functioning, the United States recognized it.

Austria thus presents a doubly ironic lesson in how nation building unfolds. The United States—the democratic power—stood in the way of local leaders who were attempting to establish a democratic regime, and the Soviet Union—the world’s leading dictatorship—unintentionally acted as midwife for the first democratic administration. Obviously, in Austria, no democracy needed to be “built.” The democratic forces in Austria were strong enough to establish a democracy on their own, and they did it in spite of the “nation builders.”

The advocates of nation building need to go back and take a close look at what really happened in the postwar political evolution of the defeated powers. In the lore of nation building, it is supposed that American experts applied sophisticated social engineering that forced these countries to become democracies against their will. It wasn’t that way at all. These countries became democracies on their own, and the bumptious generals and paper-shuffling bureaucrats of the military occupation were generally more of a hindrance than a help.

The recent intervention in Iraq further illustrates how haphazard and unfocused nation building is in practice. While the military campaign was a success, the occupation and administration has been characterized by naïveté and improvisation. The U.S. had no policy to check looting after victory, nor the forces to do it, and the result was a ravaging of local infrastructure, the rapid formation of gangs of thugs and paramilitary fighters, and a loss of local support for the U.S. effort. The civilian administration was first put in the hands of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who was two weeks late getting to Baghdad, and who naively expected to find a functioning government in the country. After a month, the hapless Garner was fired, replaced by Paul Bremer as chief administrator. Two months after the invasion, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the V Corps commander, described the nation-building “technique” U.S. officials were applying in Iraq: “We’re making this up here as we go along.”

Nation building by military force is not a coherent, defensible policy. It is based on no theory, it has no proven technique or methodology, and there are no experts who know how to do it. The record shows that it usually fails, and even when it appears to succeed, the positive result owes more to historical evolution and local political culture than anything nation builders might have done.


Political scientist James L. Payne’s latest book is A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem. A longer version of this article will appear in The Independent Review next spring.

Nation-building Military Occupations by the United States and Great Britain, 1850-2000

U.S. Occupations

    Austria 1945-1955 success
    Cuba 1898-1902 failure
    Cuba 1906-1909 failure
    Cuba 1917-1922 failure
    Dominican Republic 1911-1924 failure
    Dominican Republic 1965-1967 success
    Grenada 1983-1985 success
    Haiti 1915-1934 failure
    Haiti 1994-1996 failure
    Honduras 1924 failure
    Italy 1943-1945 success
    Japan 1945-1952 success
    Lebanon 1958 failure
    Lebanon 1982-1984 failure
    Mexico 1914-1917 failure
    Nicaragua 1909-1910 failure
    Nicaragua 1912-1925 failure
    Nicaragua 1926-1933 failure
    Panama 1903-1933 failure
    Panama 1989-1995 success
    Philippines 1898-1946 success
    Somalia 1992-1994 failure
    South Korea 1945-1961 failure
    West Germany 1945-1952 success

    British Occupations

    Botswana 1886-1966 success
    Brunei 1888-1984 failure
    Burma (Myanmar) 1885-1948 failure
    Cyprus 1914-1960 failure
    Egypt 1882-1922 failure
    Fiji 1874-1970 success
    Ghana 1886-1957 failure
    Iraq 1917-1932 failure
    Iraq 1941-1947 failure
    Jordan 1921-1956 failure
    Kenya 1894-1963 failure
    Lesotho 1884-1966 failure
    Malawi (Nyasaland) 1891-1964 failure
    Malaysia 1909-1957 success
    Maldives 1887-1976 success
    Nigeria 1861-1960 failure
    Palestine 1917-1948 failure
    Sierra Leone 1885-1961 failure
    Solomon Islands 1893-1978 success
    South Yemen (Aden) 1934-1967 failure
    Sudan 1899-1956 failure
    Swaziland 1903-1968 failure
    Tanzania 1920-1963 failure
    Tonga 1900-1970 success
    Uganda 1894-1962 failure
    Zambia (N. Rhodesia) 1891-1964 failure
    Zimbabwe (S. Rhodesia) 1888-1980 failure



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