Lessons from the Past: The American Record in Nation-Building

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Foreign Policy, United States Of America Views: 9493

The record shows that democratic nation-building is among the most ambitious and difficult of foreign policy undertakings for the United States. Of the 16 over the past century, democracy was sustained in only 4 countries ten years after the departure of American forces. Two of these followed total defeat and surrender (in World War II) and two were in tiny countries (Grenada and Panama). The record also reveals that unilateral nation-building by the United States has an even lower success rate perhaps because unilateralism has led to the creation of surrogate regimes and direct American administration during the interim post-conflict period. The use of interim surrogate regimes has produced a record of complete failure. No American-supported surrogate regime made the transition to democracy and only one case of direct American administration (in Japan) succeeded in ushering in democracy. To heed the lessons of experience, the Bush administration should support a multilateral reconstruction strategy centered on bolstering political legitimacy and economic burden-sharing under the auspices of the United Nations.


The real test for the success of President George W. Bush's preemptive strike against the regime of Saddam Hussein is whether or not he can rebuild Iraq after the war. Few national undertakings are as complex, costly, and time-consuming as reconstructing the governing institutions of foreign societies. Even the combination of unsurpassed military power and abundant wealth does not guarantee success, let alone quick results. Historically, nation-building attempts by outside powers are notable mainly for their bitter disappointments, not their triumphs.

Among great powers, the United States is perhaps the most active nation-builder. Since the founding of the republic, the United States has used its armed forces abroad on more than 200 occasions. To be sure, the majority of American military interventions abroad consisted of major wars (as in the two world wars), peace-keeping missions (as in Bosnia today), proxy wars (as in Nicaragua and Angola in the 1980s), covert operations (such as the coup in Chile in 1973), humanitarian interventions (as in the Balkans in the 1990s), rescue of American citizens, defense of allies under attack (as in Korea in 1950), and one-off retaliatory strikes (as the bombing raid against Libya in 1986). To separate ordinary military interventions from nation-building efforts, we apply three strict criteria. First, the practical effect, if not the declared goal, of American intervention must be a regime change or the survival of a regime which would otherwise collapse. Regime change or survivability is the core objective of nation-building because an outside power, such as the United States, must overthrow a hostile regime and/or maintain a friendly indigenous regime to implement its plans. Without such indigenous regimes, nation-building by outside powers is merely colonial rule by another name. It is worth noting that, at the outset, the primary goal of the United States was, in most cases, strategic. Washington decided to replace or support a regime in a foreign land to defend its core security and economic interests, not to build democracy. Later, America's own political ideals and the need to sustain domestic support for nation-building made it imperative that the United States establish democratic rule in target nations.

The deployment of large numbers of American ground troops is the second indispensable element of nation-building. As the case of Guatemala in 1954 demonstrates, regime-change may occasionally be accomplished without the deployment of American ground forces. But nation-building generally requires the lengthy commitment of ground forces which are used to depose the regime targeted by the United States or maintain a regime the United States it favors. In many cases, American ground troops are needed not only to fight hostile forces in target countries, but to perform essential administrative functions, such as establishing law and order.

Finally, the use of American military and civilian personnel in the political administration of the target countries is the quintessential feature of nation-building. As a result of deep American involvement in the political process of target countries, the United States exercises decisive influence in the selection of political leaders to head the new regimes. Washington also restructures the key political institutions of the target countries (such as rewriting the constitution and other important laws) and participates in the routine administrative activities (such as public finance and delivery of social services) of target countries.

Based on these criteria, we characterize 16 of more than 200 American military interventions since 1900, roughly 8 percent, as attempts at nation-building through the promotion or imposition of democratic institutions desired by American policy-makers. (See Table 1 on Page 3).

The American Record in Nation-Building

The most striking aspect of the American record in nation-building is its mixed legacy in establishing democratic regimes. Table 1 (on page 3) shows the sobering results. The United States had two unambiguous success stories, Japan and West Germany, both defeated Axis powers in WWII. (Unconditional surrender by the old regimes in these two cases appeared to have created a more favorable psychological environment for the rebuilding efforts in the post-conflict phase.) Grenada and Panama may also be considered successes. However, Grenada is a tiny island nation with 100,000 inhabitants; Panama's population is less than 3 million. Nation-building generally is less challenging in small societies. On the other hand, American nation-building efforts failed to establish and sustain democracies in the other 11 (excluding Afghanistan) cases. Three years following the withdrawal of American forces, democracy was considered functioning only in 5 of the 15 cases (excluding Afghanistan); ten years after the departure of American forces, democracy was sustained in only four cases. We judge whether a regime is democratic or authoritarian on the basis of a widely used index provided by Polity. In that ranking, a fully democratic regime gets a score of 10 while a fully authoritarian regime is assigned minus 10. In our study, regimes scoring 3 or less (for example, today's Iran receives 3) are considered non-democratic. If we apply this yardstick, the United States' overall success rate of democratic nation-building is about 26 percent (4 out of 15 cases).

Failure to sustain democratic regimes in target nations can produce disastrous consequences for the local populations. In Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua, for example, brutal dictatorships, albeit friendly to Washington, emerged in the wreckage of botched nation-building efforts. These societies remained mired in misrule and wide-spread poverty. In Cambodia, a genocidal regime gained power after the departure of American troops and perpetrated one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. American defeat in Vietnam ushered in a communist regime which forced millions to flee their native land.

Among these 16 cases, 12 were undertaken unilaterally. Two (Afghanistan and Haiti) were authorized by the United Nations. U.N. resolutions not only provided the United States with helpful allies in these two difficult undertakings, but also international legitimacy. One case, the rebuilding of West Germany, was undertaken following the Allied victory in World War II, while the American occupation of Japan was multilateral in form but unilateral on the ground. American unilateralism in nation-building has been made possible by the preponderance of American power. Except in taking on powerful states such as Japan and Germany, the United States faced few external constraints in imposing its will on other societies. For example, in Latin America, the strategic backyard of the United States where Washington attempted nation-building on 11 occasions, the United States has intervened in the internal politics of the countries in the region with little regard for opposition from other states.

However, since the end of the Cold War, the United States seems to be more willing to assemble multilateral support in humanitarian interventions and the rebuilding if failed states. In the case of forced regime change in Haiti in 1994, President Bill Clinton obtained authorization from the United Nations Security Council. The ensuing nation-building efforts in Haiti, although ultimately unsuccessful, were supervised by the United Nations. Another case is the on-going nation-building project in Afghanistan. Even though American military intervention was decisive in toppling the Taliban, the Bush administration ceded to the United Nations the primary responsibility for rebuilding Afghanistan. In Bosnia and Kosovo, two cases of multilateral humanitarian intervention (not regime change), post-conflict nation-building is also being carried out under the auspices of the United Nations.

There is a clear connection between unilateralism and the way targeted nations were governed in the period immediately following American military intervention. Of the 16 cases of nation-building by the United States, 7 can be classified as instances of interim rule by American-supported surrogate regimes. Surrogate regimes are characterized by their near-total dependency on Washington. They are headed by individuals picked by or acceptable to the United States. American military support is crucial to their survival. These virtual American protectorates included the regimes in Cuba (1917-22), Haiti (1915-34), the Dominican Republic (1965-66), Nicaragua (1909-33), Panama (1903-36), South Vietnam (1964-73), and Cambodia (1970-73). What is notable about the use of interim surrogate regimes in nation-building is that this strategy has produced a record of complete failures - none of the target countries ruled by surrogate regimes made the transition to democracy ten years after the withdrawal of American forces. One possible explanation was that, in building these interim regimes, the United States facilitated the rise of the military, a key state institution, as a potent political power. Strongmen seized control of the military later on to advance their personal ambitions. Another likely explanation is that these surrogate regimes lacked indigenous legitimacy and, after American withdrawal, had to resort to repression to maintain their power.

In the other 9 cases, the United States adopted a variety of approaches to interim administration. In Cuba (1898-1902 and 1906-09), the Dominican Republic (1916-24), and Japan (1945-52), Washington imposed direct American rule. In West Germany (1945-49), the United States opted for multilateral administration, sharing the power with France and England. In Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Haiti (1994), Washington quickly turned power to democratically elected local leaders. In Panama and Haiti, the United States was able to do so mainly because of the availability of legitimate leaders who actually had won contested elections prior to the U.S.-led regime change. The only instance of an interim administration under the mandate of the United Nations is Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The record of these different approaches to interim administration is uneven. Direct American administration worked only in Japan, but not in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Handing power to legitimately elected local leaders proved successful in Panama and Grenada, but not in Haiti. Multilateral administration enabled West Germany to regain its self-rule quickly, but remains a work in progress in Afghanistan.  More >>

What Makes Nation-Building Work

In all likelihood, the low overall success rate understates the difficulty of nation-building in underdeveloped societies. Of the 14 cases of American nation-building in such countries, only two (Panama in 1989 and Grenada) were successful, a success rate of just 14 percent. In retrospect, success or failure in nation-building depends on three critical variables:

1. The internal characteristics of the target nation:

Nation-building is political engineering on a grand scale. Some nations, such as Haiti, may have social and political attributes (such as deep ethnic fissures, religious animosities, and high levels of inequality) which made them inherently resistant to political engineering by outsiders. Societies that have a relatively strong national identity (such as Japan and Germany), high ethnic homogeneity, and relative socioeconomic equality are more suitable targets for nation-building. In such societies with a high level of internal cohesion, occupying foreign forces are less likely to be dragged into domestic power struggles or manipulated by dueling groups to settle long-standing grievances. By contrast, ethnically fragmented countries, such as Iraq, pose extraordinary challenges to nation-builders because, lacking a common national identity, different ethnic groups, particularly those long-oppressed, tend to seize the rare opportunity of outsiders' intervention to seek complete independence or gain more power. This can trigger national disintegration or a backlash from other ethnic groups, with the outside powers caught in the middle.

Equally important is the state capacity of the target nation. This capacity includes the organizational effectiveness and discipline of the military, bureaucracy, and judiciary. Stronger state capacity in target countries obviates the need for the intervening states to perform the most rudimentary functions of government, usually thankless tasks for outsiders with scant knowledge of complex local conditions. In Cuba, the United States drafted laws of local governments and the judiciary, pacified labor strife, settled election disputes, and managed the nation's public finance. In Haiti, American forces oversaw public health, controlled the treasury, supervised routine government affairs, and suppressed local rebellions. In the Dominican Republic, the United States built roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects. Such deep and extensive involvement reduced nation-builders to quasi-colonial rulers and helped generate local resentment.

In contrast, the United States relied primarily on the indigenous bureaucracies in Japan and West Germany to perform these routine governmental functions. This had obvious advantages but required a deep compromise on regime change. In both Germany and Japan, the United States curtailed the purge of the loyalists of the old regime and left the majority of civil servants and business elites untouched. In Japan, for example, out of 2.5 million cases investigated, only 40,000-fewer than 2 percent-of the politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen with ties to the militaristic regime were purged from power. After the occupation, many of these disgraced elements of the old regime regained their political rights; in the first post-occupation Diet election, they accounted for 42 percent of the winning candidates. In West Germany, many former Nazi elements officially ousted from power during "de-Nazification" were also brought back into the government as the Cold War got underway.

It is worth noting that while strong state capacity is almost a requirement for success, building indigenous state capacity may be a challenge beyond even the most well-intentioned and determined outsiders. Effective state institutions historically evolve organically out of the social structure, cultural norms, and distribution of political power of a given society. Political engineering by outsiders seldom succeeds in radically altering the underlying conditions responsible for the ineffectiveness of the state. Even lengthy commitment does not guarantee success. For example, the United States was engaged in nation-building in Panama for 33 years (1903-36), in Haiti for 20 years (1915-34), in Nicaragua for 18 years (1909-27), in Cuba for, cumulatively, 11 years, and in the Dominican Republic for 8 years (1916-24).

Finally, previous experience with constitutional rule is a crucial variable. Nation-building in target countries that have had periods of constitutional rule - characterized by a practice of the rule of law and binding limits on the power of the government- is more likely to succeed. The importance of such experience of constitutionalism, however brief, is that political behavior in these societies is more subject to the most fundamental rules of governing. Political conflicts get settled through established institutional procedures. Both Japan and Germany had had brief histories of constitutional rule. In contrast, none of the states where American efforts failed did.

2. Convergence of geopolitical interests of the outside power and the target nation:

Outside powers have greater probability of success if their broad geopolitical interests dovetail with those of both the elites and the people in the target nation. Three conditions must be met. First, the commitment of the outside power must be sustained by a compelling strategic interest. In the case of Japan and West Germany, American resolve was bolstered by the need to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In addition, this strategic interest should be broadly aligned with the national interests of the target country. Third, there should also be a consensus on such shared strategic interests within the society of the target nation. In Japan and West Germany, the public in both countries agreed with their leaders' policy of allying with the United States to resist the spread of communism. Popular acceptance of nation-building by outsiders becomes unsustainable if the local population perceives the occupying foreign power as advancing its own interests or the interests of domestic ruling elites. The United States' disappointing record in nation-building is due, in large part, to ill-considered decisions to ally with unsavory local elites in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Such alliances of political expediency were ultimately rejected by the people in the target nations as illegitimate.

3. Commitment to economic development in target nations:

Successful nation-building requires not only political commitment, but enormous economic resources. In West Germany, the generous aid provided under the Marshall Plan was a critical factor in re-vitalizing the country's economy. In Japan, economic recovery benefited considerably from American aid channeled through the efforts to fight the Korean War. However, in Latin America, the United States typically failed to deliver substantial economic aid following its military interventions. To the contrary, in many instances, the United States took advantage of the target countries economically through sweetheart deals for American corporations. More important than the absolute amount of American aid, however, is whether such aid could help launch a self-sustaining economic development process in the target nations. Japan and West Germany, both highly educated, developed societies before American occupation, faced no difficulty in utilizing the aid to re-build their economies. On the other hand, countries such as Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and South Vietnam, had no indigenous capacity to make productive use of American assistance.

The Challenges Ahead in Iraq

The challenge of post-war Iraq represents, without doubt, the most ambitious American nation-building project since Vietnam. The internal characteristics of Iraqi society will severely test Washington's resolve, skill, and patience in the pursuit of its declared goal of political transformation. With a population of 24 million, Iraq is larger than any of the Latin American countries where the United States has attempted nation-building. More worrisome are the deep ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq, as compared to others. The long-running ethnic and religious hostility among Iraq's three dominant ethnic groups, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, will greatly complicate the American effort. Each group has an inherent incentive to exploit the American presence to advance its own agenda. Washington will find itself perpetually tested and judged for even-handedness on a whole array of local issues, for which there is no good, or even fair, answer. For example, whether to return the Kurds to Kirkuk, Iraq's major oil production center from which they were expelled by Saddam will be an early test. Outside efforts to bridge such ethnic and religious divisions through reconciliation, as demonstrated in the former Yugoslavia, have a poor track record.

More problematic will be cleansing the new Iraqi state of the loyal elements of the Baath regime. Saddam's ruling regime resembled a Leninist party-state in which the state and the party are one and the same. In this unique political structure, the organization of the ruling party is built into the institutions of the state, such as the police, bureaucracy, and judiciary, as well as the military. Thus, a thorough de-Baathification would eviscerate the existing Iraqi state, at least in the short term. This would require the U.S.-led occupation authorities to perform nearly all critical governmental functions in Iraq. The re-building of Iraqi's state capacity, involving recruitment and training of new law enforcement officials, civil servants, and judges, would almost certainly take longer than the optimistic 1-2 year timeframe suggested by some Bush administration officials. The alternative is to retain many low and mid-level elements of the existing Baath party-state and use them to run post-war Iraq. This may relieve the occupying American forces of routine administrative tasks, but expediency creates its own problems, the most serious of which is the adverse impact of this policy on the Shiite and Kurdish population because nearly all members of the Baath regime are Sunnis.

Most challenging will be the task of aligning American strategic interests with those of the Iraqi elite and public. The Kurds' strategic interest in separation conflicts with the Bush administration's stated policy of protecting Iraq's territorial integrity. Other ethnic groups' receptivity to an American presence is at best unclear. Once the despotic Saddam regime is removed from power, the United States could find it almost impossible to persuade the Sunnis and Shiites that their long-term strategic interests overlap with those of Washington. Despite the administration's best efforts to project a vision for its long-term objective in Iraq, Washington's real agenda remains under deep suspicion in the region.

Long-term prospects for nation-building in Iraq would likely be enhanced if this project is managed by the United Nations, which has been supervising similar post-conflict reconstruction in many countries, such as East Timor, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and the Kosovo region of the former Yugoslavia. To be sure, a multilateral approach to nation-building does not guarantee success; nation-building undertaken under the U.N. framework brings with it its own set of problems and challenges. At the initial stage, coordination is likely to be poor, and lines of authority will be unclear. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Economically, this approach would spread the costs of re-building Iraq more widely. Politically, a multilateral approach will help heal the wounds caused by the acrimonious dispute between the United States and many nations before the war. In all likelihood, a U.N.-led re-building effort will be viewed as more legitimate, especially in the Middle East. Suspicions about Washington's ulterior motives in Iraq would be dispelled.

To be sure, some in the administration appear committed to a U.S.-led effort. They should reconsider their position in light of the sobering lessons from American nation-building in the last century. Aside from an overall low probability of success, such unilateral undertakings have led to the creation and maintenance of surrogate regimes that eventually mutated into military dictatorships and corrupt autocracies. Repeating this mistake in Iraq, especially after President Bush's declaration of American resolve to build democracy there, would be a tragedy for the Iraqi people, and a travesty of American ideals and reputation.   More >>

Table 1:

Target country

Population Years Duration (years) Multilateral or Unilateral Interim Administration Democracy after 10 years?
1. Afghanistan 26.8 million 2001-present 2+ Multilateral UN Administration ?
2. Haiti 7.0 million 1994-96 2 Multilateral Local Administration No
3. Panama 2.3 million 1989 <1 Unilateral Local Administration Yes
4. Grenada 92,000 1983 <1 Unilateral Local Administration Yes
5. Cambodia 7 million 1970-73 3 Unilateral US Surrogate Regime No
6. South Vietnam 19 million 1964-73 9 Unilateral US Surrogate Regime No
7. Dominican Republic 3.8 million 1965-66 1 Unilateral US Surrogate Regime No
8. Japan 72 million 1945-52 7 Multi-unilateral US Direct Administration Yes
9. West Germany 46 million 1945-49 4 Multilateral Multilateral Administration Yes
10. Dominican Republic 895,000 1916-24 8 Unilateral US Direct Administration No
11. Cuba 2.8 million 1917-22 5 Unilateral US Surrogate Regime No
12. Haiti 2 million 1915-34 19 Unilateral US Surrogate Regime No
13. Nicaragua 620,000 1909-27 18 Unilateral    
14. Cuba 2 million 1906-09 3 US Surrogate Regime No  
15. Panama 450,000 1903-36 33 US Direct Administration No No
16. Cuba 1.6 million 1898-02 3 Unilateral US Direct Administration No

* The U.S. won the war as part of the Allied victory over Japan, but the U.S. assumed exclusive occupation authority in Japan after the war.

Table 2: Nation-Building in Iraq: The Checklist

Favorable Factors for Nation-Building in Target Countries Conditions in Iraq
1. Strong national identity Ethnic Fragmentation
2. Effective state capacity Weak state capacity after de-Baathification
3. Previous experience with constitutionalism None
4. Elite interests aligned with the U.S. Questionable
5. Popular interests aligned with the U.S. Questionable
6. Ability to absorb economic assistance Low; few oil producers have demonstrated such ability
7. International legitimacy under multilateral interim administration Questionable legitimacy of American direct administration and likely U.S. surrogate regime


Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Foreign Policy, United States Of America
Views: 9493

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Older Comments:
The truth will set you free

Interesting analysis. The authors might have included Italy, which changed sides during WW2 and was administered for a while by the allies, the Philippines, which became independent after WW2 and South Korea, heavily influenced by the US.

The low rate of success in building democracies is probably a reflection that democratic governments are in the minority worldwide. It is much more difficult, although more rewarding, to maintain a democracy than an authoritarian government.

The odds of success in Iraq may not be promising, but after the destruction of the war, the US owes it to the Iraqi people to give it a serious try. On the optimistic side, if the US and the Iraqi people are successful, Iraq will be the first Arab democracy in history.

Very useful work! I can approve of all the premises, but I will express a doubt as to the capacity of the United Nations to make a better nation-building job than the United States. I think it needs another organism for that task, which would take over most of the activities of the U.N. within a structure built from ground on the principles of neutrality and of what I'd call "open know-how".

For the job of nation-building, you need a leading organism that is not an emanation of existing nations. It must be neutral, transnational, a-religious, and separate from the rules of politics and economics. But of course, its members must include the best specialists of these domains.

In the concerned countries, nation-building should work from bottom up, from the people up to the leading institutions. It should start with basic tasks (police forces, water supply, health, hygiene) and never try to interact with politics as an authority. It should provide solutions as problems show up, that's all.

In fact, politics should be shut down in the whole country for a couple dozen years, so as to insure that the new leaders will come from a new generation, possibly freed from the errors and hatred of the past. During that time, the necessary political decisions (internal administration, official contact with the outside world, creation of a constitution, and of laws) ought to be taken by a body of enthusiastic experts, *working for free and for the most part of them anonymously*, outside the concerned country.

That body should be entirely freely formed, i.e. positively anybody could take part in it, the sole condition being a profound (controlled) knowledge of the actual facts and figures and the acceptation of a decision-taking process based on a vision of a free state, where the final political situation (a generation later) will reflect its population's informed will.