A Path to Reconstruction: Proverbs of Nation-Building

By Montgomery, John; Rondinelli, Dennis | Harvard International Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

A Path to Reconstruction: Proverbs of Nation-Building


Montgomery, John, Rondinelli, Dennis, Harvard International Review


The latest attempt to impose Pax Americana in the Middle East and Central Asia may not last for more than a few years, but history advises us to expect recurrent visions of the US Manifest Destiny. International efforts to reconstruct failed or destroyed states have regularly occurred since the mid-20th century. External attempts at nation-building--though they are really aimed at restoring effective states, not creating new nations--by one or a coalition of governments are neither new nor unique. Lessons have been accumulating for more than 300 years as dominant powers have engaged in regime change and post-conflict reconstruction, often in ignorance of previous efforts.

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The US military occupation of Japan and Germany and the Marshall Plan for Western Europe marked the start of the modern era of post-war nation-building as an instrument of foreign policy. World War II nation-building was pursued not only by US and Western European governments, but also by international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations as the US government attempted to wrap its own policies with UN peacekeeping operations or the work of international development organizations. World Bank lending for post-conflict reconstruction increased 800 percent between 1980 and 1998 to US$6.2 billion; by 2002, it was allotting 16 percent of total lending for this purpose.

Is Nation-building Successful?

Far from being diversions from US foreign policy, recent military invasions and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq continue the United States' long history of forcibly replacing threatening regimes in other countries. US nation-building has yielded some luminous successes (Japan, Germany, Taiwan), some dismal failures (Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam, Somalia), and some bafflingly inconclusive results (Philippines, Kosovo). US interventions have prolonged indigenous conflicts by taking one side (Middle East) and by befriending both (Far East, Africa). Active interventions have left behind a dictatorship (Argentina), a democracy (Puerto Rico), an autocracy (Kuwait), and an ethnocracy (Israel).

The public is often unaware of how infrequently post-conflict nation-building has succeeded. The World Bank found in its experience that countries emerging from war had a 50 percent chance of relapsing into conflict within five years. In a study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper reviewed 16 major US-led nation-building efforts since 1900 and concluded that in only four countries--West Germany, Japan, Grenada, and Panama--did the types of democratic governance systems that the United States sought to build continue after 10 years. In only five cases were democratic regimes sustained for more than three years after the United States withdrew. In Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Vietnam, dictatorships quickly emerged after US military forces left the country. US forces were driven out of Lebanon after regime change and nation-building efforts failed in the early 1980s and a decade later from Somalia under similar circumstances.

International organizations' peacekeeping and nation-building policies have not fared much better. UN Trusteeships in Kosovo and East Timor during the 1990s have been criticized for failing to establish strong, autonomous, and sustainable states in the aftermath of wars in those territories; the dispatch of envoys to the Sudan and Colombia failed to settle long-raging internal conflicts, and after more than a decade the supervisory mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina still had not restored effective indigenous governance to that war-torn area. Even after prolonged UN supervision, the 2002 elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina merely returned to power ethnic nationalists that were involved in the original conflicts. After a decade under UN oversight, democracy in Cambodia is far from institutionalized and elections are still riddled with corruption, violence, and fraud. …

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