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"Nation Building and American Foreign Policy"
Address by Gareth Evans to Cato Institute Policy Forum, ‘After Afghanistan: The Future of Intervention and Nation Building’, Washington DC.

When I received the invitation to speak at this forum I was told by my friends in Washington who know about these things that liberal internationalist wimps are what Ted Galen Carpenter likes to eat for breakfast, that beating up on them is the Cato Institute’s favorite spectator sport, and that if I wanted to avoid being dragged out of the coliseum feet first, I had better abandon any sympathy for basic human decency as a motivator for international action, and get down, dirty, cynical and realist. Not much I’ve heard so far this morning makes me think that advice was misconceived.

Let me say at the outset that as someone who was in politics for 21 years - and this is no less true of Labor Party politics than the Tory variety - cynicism and realism are not entirely unknown phenomena to me. One of my most famous predecessors, a 1930s character called Jack Lang whose brand of populism would have made even Huey Long embarrassed, once gave the following immortal advice which has been handed down to fledgling parliamentarians ever since: “ Always back the horse called self-interest, son. It’ll be the only one trying.”

The case for America and Americans being willing to engage in nation-building, and on occasion full-scale intervention, is not one that needs to be made on any other basis than national self-interest, and I’m happy to spell out why.

But of course it’s also a case that is much reinforced if you bring basic human decency back into the equation as well. The sheer horrifying human impact of these dirty little wars in faraway places, the pain and misery they bring to real flesh and blood human beings, is really the first reason we ought to care about them. Remote and distant as many of these conflicts may seem, they cause an unbelievable amount of raw human suffering, which should be deeply offensive to our common sense of humanity.

I don’t in fact think, when I look at your website, that even the Cato Institute is immune to some of these sentiments. “Our greatest challenge today”, I read, “is to extend the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity to those who are still denied it, in our own country and around the world”. That’s an admirable sentiment, and I don’t think the authors of it were concerned only about the opportunity to stuff Big Macs down the throat of the world’s last remaining Pashtun tribesman or Congolese villager.

What then is the national self-interest case for getting involved in nation-building, and on occasion, full scale intervention?

First we need to get clear what we mean, or should mean, by these terms? Intervention is not so difficult. It is capable of meaning all sorts of pressures and incentives to change behaviour, but its most controversial usage is military action taken against a state or its leaders, or in a failed state without the consent of anyone there, for purposes which are claimed to be humanitarian or protective – the action (or inaction) so controversial in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. (We’re not talking here about punitive or retaliatory self-protection action as in Afghanistan)

‘Nation-building’ is a term that has been much used and abused since it first came into vogue in the early days of the Clinton Administration, though the concept has been around for a long time in international debate, more often called ‘peace building’. It has become so useful as a straw man now in domestic politics that if it didn’t exist someone at Cato would have had to invent it. Variously, it has been used to mean:

- all engagement with nations that lack nuclear weapons, strategic geography or NATO membership;

- all elements of U.S. foreign policy apart from warfighting; or

- all parts of U.S. foreign policy the speaker doesn’t like.

If the Clinton Administration had been a little more disciplined and less woolly headed in using it – a consummation devoutly to be wished in a number of other areas of that Administration – we mightn’t be having today’s debate, because the essence of the idea is straightforward:

- a set of international support strategies, taking place before conflict to prevent it, or after conflict to stop its recurrence;

- designed to build stable and workable governing institutions able to deliver three basic things: internal safety and security, respect for the rule of law and economic opportunity; and - involving, variously, financial support, technical support (eg training, policy planning, engineering) and sometimes peace-keeping (for long enough to stabilise the internal security situation and enable home-grown forces or services to take their place)

Call it reconstruction, call it draining the swamp if you like. Or call it, as President Bush did this fall, “the stabilization of a future government”: that captures the idea well.

The self-interest case for nation building comes down to these basic points:

1. Whether we like to believe it or not, dirty little wars and collapsed states in faraway places have the potential to impact on us far more directly and immediately than anyone used to think possible

Until recently this argument was more theoretical than real for most people in this country, cocooned by two oceans and utterly confident about American prowess. But now things have changed.

- 911 makes the point far more graphically and horribly than any previous argument ever could about the potential for terrorism being bred, organised and protected in states like Afghanistan – and others in that region, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa and in Latin America

- And its not only terrorism that can bite us on the tail: its refugee flows, drug production and narcotics trafficking, other international crime, health pandemics like AIDS, and sometimes (although this is less likely to affect the continentally cocooned US than many others) cross-border environmental disasters as well.

I’ve always thought that the argument about a butterfly flutter in the Congo causing a cyclone in Florida was a little overdrawn, but the connection between failed states, unresolved grievances and American national interests are now too obvious for anyone to ignore.

2. There are plenty of cases where America has engaged in nation-building, where it has worked, and where the outcome has been manifestly to America’s advantage

Postwar Germany and Japan are the cases everyone cites, and properly so. Opponents also like to note that the Marshall plan cost more than $80 billion in current dollars, but nobody is asking the U.S. these days to take on alone again any similar burden. In 1946 the U.S. represented an extraordinary 70 per cent of global GDP; today the figure is about 22 per cent, and its commitment should be commensurate with that.

El Salvador is another clear case. Everyone remembers that it was, throughout the Central American wars of the 1980s, a war-riven, dysfunctional society with massive rights violations on all sides. But there is less recognition of the subsequent progress that has been made with substantial assistance from the UN and international community. The UN, with U.S. support, brokered an end to civil war with a formula that specified the shape of government from elections to the judiciary to the composition of the police force. A decade later, GDP has tripled – and emigration to the US is down by 50 percent.

In Mozambique, after the civil war ended with the 1992 peace agreement, nation-building run largely by the UN with relatively small but highly-visible US involvement (the country having been of intense interest during the Cold War). Of 1.7 million refugees, more than three-quarters returned home within two years. The election/democracy mission produced a government that, while far from perfect, has been stable – a remarkable achievement after 16 years of civil war. What was once one of the poorest countries was in 2000 one of Africa’s three fastest growing economies. Mozambique is still desperately poor but not unstable – and not on anyone ‘s list of places likely to harbour Bin Laden.

3. There are cases where America has not engaged in nation building and that has been manifestly to this country’s disadvantage

There could be no clearer example that Afghanistan itself after the Russians were driven out. The Taliban were welcomed because the level of lawlessness and banditry were so high, with no international efforts to control it notwithstanding the total US military investment in the mujahedin of some $5 billion: troops had been inserted to meet an immediate military goal without any thought for the civilian side of the equation. There was no commitment to restore an infrastructure which, even before its destruction, dated from the 1970s for a country of then 12 million and was wholly inadequate to support perhaps twice that many people. Nor were there any serious international drug interdiction efforts, which allowed a flow of funds to continue to the Taliban, keeping it in power. And the fruits of all this became all too apparent on September 11.

4. Some of the cases where nation building has allegedly failed haven’t really been nation building at all

In Somalia in the early 90s, the international intervention went off the rails in every direction it is possible to mention – misreading of the situation on the ground, misconceived mandates and misapplied mandates: culminating in the disastrous military exercise to snatch Aideed from his urban warren in Mogadishu (maybe a sobering foretaste of what some of the fighting might be like in Baghdad if the US were tempted down that path – but that’s another story). But whatever the US marines and others were doing in Somalia, it wasn’t nation building in any meaningful sense of that term. It began as support for humanitarian relief, and it ended before any serious rebuilding exercise began.

5. In some of the cases where nation-building hasn’t yet worked, it’s a product of the task being incomplete, not misconceived

Bosnia has not been yet the success story it should by now have become. Much has been done in stabilising the country, building a number of central institutions, achieving refugee return, and replacing ethnic and specifically anti-Islamic hatred with slowly emerging ethnic government again at the central level, but the country is still fragmented and it is difficult to argue that it could now be self-sustaining if the international community left. The problem is essentially that the Dayton constitutional arrangements, good enough as a peace settlement, have not been inherently capable of producing a stable, multi-ethnic, society overall: until they are changed, by evolution or imposition, serious problems will continue.

Kosovo is another partial success story, with the recent elections producing close to 70 percent election turnout, with secular Muslim political parties and close cooperation in shutting down extremist Muslim charities. But there is no chance of nation or state building being really complete until Kosovo’s final status is finally determined. Whatever the weaknesses in the present situation, it is hard to understand how allowing the region to remain a running sore of conflict, religious violence and extremism would have better served US interests.


I have been around long enough in government, and as an observer of governments and intergovernmental organisations, not to be naïve about their shortcomings:

- the inability to think longer term than about 3 months;

- the inability to think through and clearly define goals and objectives;

- the miscalculations so often as to what is necessary operationally and in resource terms to meet those objectives;

- the failure to adapt to new circumstances; - the failure to deliver the necessary resources even when they have been committed; and

- the gap so often between aspiration and achievement.

But I have also been round long enough to know that the aspiration is deeply worthwhile, and that it’s our responsibility in the policy community not to pour scorn upon the aspiration, but to make sure that the gap between aspiration and achievement is closed to the extent it possibly can be.

It’s not only in the interests of young Afghan (and for that matter Pakistani kids) to have a decent non-madrassa education, and the kind of government that can provide it, it’s in our interests. We can afford to do it, and we can’t afford not to do it.

And it is absolutely in our interests to do everything we humanly can to ensure that failed state disasters like Afghanistan don’t happen again.

I’m not asking Americans to support this kind of nation building because you are full of the milk of human kindness, and can’t wait to do the decent thing, though I’m sure that’s true. I’m asking you to do it because you’re smart.

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