Magazine article Newsweek International

The Promise, the Peril

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Promise, the Peril

Article excerpt

How do you build a nation? Leaders have asked that question for literally thousands of years. From Shaka Zulu to Bismarck, military rulers did it by uniting disparate clans through the conquest of land and the cultivation of "national" pride. In colonial times the European and American powers did it through subjugation and might. But since the end of the cold war--and the diplomatic paralysis that it produced--the job of creating nations from failed states has fallen increasingly to the nebulous "international community" through the United Nations.

To the United Nations' chagrin, nation-building is still more of an art than a science. The international community failed miserably in Somalia, choosing to cut and run with disastrous results. It succeeded in Mozambique, thanks to the end of the superpower rivalry that had fed the country's civil war--but also to the war weariness of the local people and their leaders' determination to win the peace. Despite the United Nations' mixed record in a decade of nation-building--indeed, because of it--there are lessons that can be applied as the effort to build a new Afghanistan gets underway. If only the United Nations will heed them. These are just five case studies that show what the international community can do, what it must do and what only the Afghans themselves can accomplish.


Lesson No. 1: Be there. "The best thing we can do for this place is have lunch!" So said some members of the United Nations mission in Kosovo. It sounds like a cynic's joke about the work ethic of international civil servants. But in fact it's true. After two years of fighting, not to mention the forced expulsion of nearly half of its 2 million people, the best thing the international community could do for Kosovo in June 1999 was to simply be there. And they came: a 10,000-odd army of nation builders, NGO volunteers and globalist do-gooders. So that they could go to lunch, Kosovars opened cafes and restaurants. So that they could buy toilet paper and TVs, entrepreneurs opened shops and businesses. That in turn generated incomes and helped people rebuild their houses, two thirds of which had been destroyed in the war. A majority of Kosovars got a fresh start on life.

Call it context. The United Nations arrived in chaos and brought with it an all-important semblance (which is not to say the reality) of order. A 40,000-strong contingent of NATO troops provided security-- halting most of the revenge killing among Serbs and Albanians, and, no less important, reining in the former warlords of the Kosovo Liberation Army who otherwise would have hijacked the territory for their own reward. U.N. internationals took over the administration of municipal governments, schools and public works. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mounted an ambitious program of democratization, culminating in last month's elections that created a quasinational Parliament, presidency and Constitution. The UNHCR, World Food Program and International Red Cross brought in food and tents to tide the homeless through their first winter. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development poured in hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, rebuilding roads, communications and infrastructure.

When it comes to humanitarian intervention, Kosovo is probably as close to a success as you can get. But it hasn't been easy, and it hasn't been pretty. Nearly two and a half years later, ethnic violence still flares. Electricity, heat and water are sometimes on, sometimes not. The United Nations talks of building the "structures" and "institutions" of civil society in Kosovo, but rarely have such efforts succeeded. There is no legal system. Corruption and crime are epidemic, not only among locals. Municipal government scarcely exists, prompting more than one international to mutter, "These people will never be capable of governing themselves." And no one agrees how to resolve the ultimate question of Kosovo's future--independence, or what? …

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