In the wake of the war in Iraq, the world is learning once again that is far easier to destroy a regime with military might than to build a new state out of the bomb craters. We have tried before, and there is much to be learned from the successes and failures of nation-building in the past few decades - from Haiti to Kosovo and East Timor. No two situations are identical, but seven lessons stand out.
Lesson 1: It is imperative to establish a secure environment very fast. In Bosnia, we failed in the critical transfer of territories in Sarajevo. In Kosovo, the mandate for the troops was clearer, but we still failed to protect minorities. In both cases, we still suffer from the consequences of these initial failures.
In Afghanistan there are grave question marks over the consequences of limiting the international security presence to Kabul. As long as the gun remains the fastest way to power and property, there simply will not be room for democratic politics and entrepreneurship. With national police in disarray and international police always taking time to recruit, there is no alternative to using soldiers and armies to keep order.
Lesson 2: The central challenge is not reconstruction, but state-building. Reconstruction of the physical scars of war is certainly important, and it can be costly and take time. But building a political infrastructure that unites competing forces and ensures some sort of order, and an infrastructure of economic governance that promotes jobs and growth, is far more complex. Priorities must be right.
Lesson 3: To build a state, you need to know what state to build. Normally this requires some sort of a peace agreement or constitution. When this is not the case - as in Kosovo - any initial success risks being short-lived. In the Balkans, we have seen the immense challenge of doing so in a multiethnic environment. We must recognize that Iraq has some issues in common with other former parts of the Ottoman Empire, such as Kosovo and the Kurdish region.
The potential of Iraq for disintegration is obvious, as are the consequences if this was to happen. Thus there has to be an early and fast agreement on a constitutional structure that will unite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians of different beliefs in a state structure acceptable to them all.
Lesson 4: While humanitarian problems are always in the focus in the initial phase, it is dangerous to let them predominate over the long-term issues. There must be an early focus on economic questions such as currency, customs, taxation systems, commercial law, banking, debt restructuring and accessing international capital markets.
The sanctions that were provoked by Saddam Hussein have destroyed much of Iraq's economy. Because Iraq has experienced a population explosion, oil income per capita is unlikely to be substantially more than a tenth of what it was in the early 1980s. Job creation and bringing back a vibrant middle class are the keys to long-term stability.
Lesson 5: There has to be a benevolent regional environment. In the Balkans, regime change in Zagreb and Belgrade was key to improving prospects in Bosnia and Kosovo; in Afghanistan, the open or tacit cooperation of Pakistan and Iran is critical. If neighbors try to destabilize, they will sooner or later succeed.
Iraq is now a fragile zone in one of the most volatile areas of the world. Just about everyone recognizes that if the liberation of Iraq from tyranny is not followed by the liberation of Palestine from occupation - giving true security to Israel, too - the presence of U.S. and other NATO forces in Iraq will be an extremely challenging operation.
Lesson 6: The greater the international support, the easier the process. If there is international disagreement over the state-building process, this sooner or later risks translating into conflicts in the country in question. Some sort of UN framework normally helps, although it is not a guarantee. Building peace is a far more fragile, complex, costly and drawn-out process than fighting a war. So a peace coalition normally needs to be much broader than a war coalition.
Lesson 7: Nation-building takes a longer time, and requires more resources, than most initially believe. As the first High Representative in Bosnia, I was told that everything should be concluded within a year. When the folly of this was recognized, a new deadline of two years was given. But five years after that has expired, the fourth High Representative is hardly less busy than the first. Bosnia and Kosovo might be easy cases compared with Afghanistan and Iraq. Peace-building requires an abundance of patience.
Faced with the "mother of all nation-building," we must succeed. Failure will fracture Iraq, destabilize the region and affect the entire world. Once upon a time, Iraq was part of the Fertile Crescent. The coming years will determine whether this crescent now will be fertile for the forces of reform and representative government, or for the forces of resentment and revenge.
The writer is a former prime minister of Sweden. A trustee of the RAND Corporation, he was the first international High Representative in Bosnia, and has also served as European Union and UN envoy in the Balkans.
This commentary originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune on May 7, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.