RAND Book Looks at Nation-Building from Germany to Iraq

For Release

July 28, 2003

A new RAND book titled America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq reviews more than 50 years of U.S. efforts to transform defeated and broken enemies into democratic and prosperous allies. The authors conclude that rebuilding Iraq will be difficult but possible, and use historical perspective to illuminate today's headlines.

The lead author of this book is veteran diplomatic troubleshooter James Dobbins, who is currently Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at The RAND Corporation in Washington. Dobbins may have more personal experience leading nation-building efforts than any other American. As the Clinton Administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo he supervised postwar relief and reconstruction operations in all four places. Dobbins' last State Department post was as President George W. Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan, where he successfully put together a successor regime to the Taliban and reopened the long-closed American Embassy in Kabul.

Dobbins and his co-authors—John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Rollie Lal, Andrew Rathmell, Rachel Swanger, and Anga Timilsina—argue forcefully that the United States cannot afford to contemplate an early exit from Iraq and leave the job of nation-building there half completed. The authors state: “The real question for the United States should not be how soon it can leave, but rather how fast and how much to share power with Iraqis and the international community while retaining enough power to oversee an enduring transition to democracy and stability.”

The book says that the post-World War II occupations of Germany and Japan set standards for successful post-conflict nation-building that have never again been matched. In recent years the United States has a mixed record of success in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Now Iraq looms as the greatest nation-building challenge since 1945.

America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq draws lessons from America's experiences in rebuilding Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to extract best practices in nation-building and to suggest how these lessons might be applied to current and future endeavors, particularly the reconstruction of Iraq.

Despite a more supportive international environment, the costs and risks of nation-building have remained high, and the U.S. has had a limited commitment to such endeavors, according to the authors. America withdrew from Somalia at the first serious resistance, avoided intervention in Rwanda, and resisted European efforts to intervene in the Balkans during four years of bloody civil war before finally intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo. While it is perhaps too early to pass final judgment on the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be difficult thus far to claim they offer an improvement over their most recent predecessors, the authors state.

What lessons can be learned from past endeavors that can be applied to Iraq, an effort comparable in scale to the earlier American occupations of Germany and Japan? Although each of the seven cases analyzed in this volume offers unique elements, the authors find areas where comparisons might be useful. In particular, they quantify and compare measures of nation-building input (such as troops, time, and economic assistance) and output (including democratic elections and increases in per capita GDP).

According to the authors: “What principally distinguishes Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo from Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather, it is the level of effort the United States and the international community have put into their democratic transformations. In Germany and Japan, for example, substantial American aid reduced social, political, and other obstacles to the reconstitution of parliamentary politics and facilitated a transition to democracy. Nation-building, as this study illustrates, is a time- and resource-consuming effort.”

General Conclusions

In addition to numerous lessons specific to each case, the authors offer several general conclusions about nation-building:

  • While many factors influence the success of nation-building efforts, among controllable factors the most important is the level of effort—measured in time, people, and money.
  • Although multilateral nation-building is complex and time consuming, it is considerably less expensive for participants and can produce a more thorough transformation and greater prospects for regional peace than unilateral efforts.
  • Unity of command and broad participation are compatible when major participants share a common vision and can shape international institutions accordingly.
  • There appears to be an inverse correlation between the size of the stabilization force and the level of risk. The higher the proportion of stabilizing troops, the lower the number of casualties both suffered and inflicted. In fact, most adequately manned post-conflict operations suffered no casualties.
  • Neighboring states can exert significant influence, and it is nearly impossible to succeed without their support.
  • Accountability for past injustices can be a powerful component of democratization but is also among the most challenging and controversial aspects of any nation-building endeavor.
  • There is no quick route to nation-building. Five years seems to be the minimum required to enforce an enduring transformation to democracy.

In conclusion, the authors note that the United States has not seen improvements in its performance of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction missions commensurate with its experience to date (six major such missions in 12 years) or with the dramatic gains in warfighting capabilities its forces have registered over the same period. They suggest that such improvements can only come if the State and Defense Departments include nation-building among their core missions and make the longer-term investments needed to improve not just present but future performance.

Comments on This Book

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Interim Administrator for Iraq, says: “Jim Dobbins and his team have produced a marvelous 'how to' manual for post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. I have kept a copy handy for ready consultation since my arrival in Baghdad and recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand or engage in such activities.”

Frank C. Carlucci, Chairman Emeritus of The Carlyle Group, and former Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor, says: “Ambassador Dobbins is one of the United States' ace troubleshooters with as much experience as anyone in nation-building exercises. He and his team have put together a timely and relevant package that draws on a wealth of experience and should enable our policy makers to move forward without reinventing the wheel. It is as good a guide as one can get for an effort that is central to stabilizing the Middle East and for the effectiveness of our foreign policy in general.”

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden and the first international High Representative for Bosnia, says: “Jim Dobbins and his colleagues at RAND have provided a fascinating look at the American role in nation-building over the past half century, illustrating the maxim that those who fail to learn from history are often condemned to repeat it. With the issues of state- or nation-building once more coming to the forefront of efforts to achieve global stability, there is no excuse for not trying to learn from what we have done before. Winning wars can sometimes be relatively easy or at least rapid, but, as this RAND study underscores, winning the peace that prevents a return to war can be a far more complex and time-consuming undertaking.”

More Information

America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq
266 pages • paperback • ISBN: 0-8330-3460-X

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