UN Nation Building Record Compares Favorably with the U.S. in Some Respects

For Release

February 18, 2005

A new RAND Corporation study finds that the United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for all but the largest and most demanding of nation-building missions, due to the UN’s comparatively low cost structure, high success rate, and high degree of international legitimacy.

The report, titled “The UN’s Role in Nation Building: From the Congo to Iraq,” says the United States and the United Nations have each developed distinct approaches to nation building. The study is a companion volume to “The U.S. Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq,” published in 2003. Together, the studies comprise “The RAND History of Nation Building” and examine 16 UN- and U.S.-led nation-building missions over 60 years.

“Both American and U.N.-led nation building efforts over the past 15 years have contributed to a marked decrease in the number of casualties from civil and international conflicts around the globe,” said James Dobbins, lead author of both reports. “The number of ongoing civil wars has been cut in half since the early 1990’s, and the number of deaths attributed to such conflicts were reduced fivefold between 1993 and 2003.” Dobbins is the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.

Researchers examined eight cases in which the UN led multinational forces in the aftermath of crises to promote a transition to peace and democracy: the Belgian Congo, Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor.

The earlier volume looked at the U.S. nation-building record in Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Both books examine the process in terms of inputs such as manpower, money, and time, and desired outputs such as peace, economic growth, and democratization. The reports explore how lessons from prior missions might be applied in Iraq.

The reports find that:

  • Among those studied, two-thirds of UN nation-building operations can be counted as successful at this time, compared with half of such U.S. operations. In large part the lower U.S. success rate can be attributed to the more demanding nature of the American-led operations. But the difference also reflects the UN’s greater success in institutionalizing past experience, establishing a doctrine for the conduct of such missions, and developing a cadre of trained personnel who carry over from mission to mission.
  • Despite the United Nations’ significant achievements, the organization continues to exhibit weaknesses that decades of experience have yet to overcome. Most UN missions are undermanned and under-funded. UN-led military forces are often sized and deployed on the basis of unrealistic best-case assumptions. Troop quality is uneven. Police and civil personnel are always of mixed competence. And all components of the UN missions tend to arrive late, with police and civil administrators arriving even more slowly than soldiers.
  • In combination, these weaknesses effectively limit UN operations to those that do not require forced entry, assume at least some measure of compliance from the various parties to any conflict, and need no more than 20,000 troops. Operations that exceed one or more of these limits require the U.S., NATO, the European Union or some other major power to take the lead and provide the core of any force. In Iraq the U.S.-led effort exhibited in its early phases many of the weaknesses that characterize UN missions.
  • Within its limits, UN peacekeeping is a highly efficient means of placing post-conflict societies on the path to enduring peace and democratic government, and the most efficient form of international intervention so far documented. Alternatives to the UN in this field are either vastly more expensive or considerably less capable. At present, for instance, the UN is manning 17 peacekeeping operations with more than 70,000 troops for less than the costs of one month of U.S.-led operations in Iraq.

Comparing and contrasting the UN- and U.S.-led efforts that were studied, the authors offer several general conclusions about nation building:

  • UN nation-building efforts tend to be smaller, shorter, cheaper and, at least among those studied, more often successful than the American efforts.
  • The UN tends to understate its objectives, emphasizing the prevention of renewed conflict. The U.S., faced with the need to build domestic public support, tends toward the more grandiloquent formulations, emphasizing democratic transformation and economic growth.
  • The UN is able to rely on certain soft power attributes to compensate for its deficiencies in hard power, in particular its impartiality and international legitimacy. These attributes are not always available to the U.S., which often must become party to the conflict it is seeking to terminate, and sometimes must act without international sanction.
  • Relying on its soft power attributes of impartiality and legitimacy, the UN is sometimes able to succeed in stabilizing post conflict societies with remarkably small forces sizes. The U.S., more reliant as it must be upon hard power, has had less success in Afghanistan and Iraq when employing the characteristic UN approach of the small footprint, or low profile.
  • The review of U.S.-led operations suggests that the higher the proportion of stabilizing troops to population, the lower the number of casualties they suffered and inflicted. Significantly lower force-to-population ratios in Afghanistan and Iraq, in contrast to Bosnia or Kosovo, have been accompanied by much higher casualty levels. Accordingly, the authors recommend that the U.S. abandon efforts to emulate the low profile, small footprint approach to nation building that has traditionally characterized the UN approach, and return to supersizing the missions America leads, as it did throughout the 1990’s.
  • International civilian police are an increasingly important component of most UN nation-building operations, in some cases representing 10 percent or more of the overall force. The U.S. relied on the UN to supply police for NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. More recently the U.S. has not included civilian police in its last two nation-building operations, thereby increasing the burden on U.S. military forces to fill the law and order gap that always emerges in a post-conflict situation.
  • Success in stemming the flow and facilitating the return of unwanted refugees is one of the chief benefits provided to the international community by nation building, and is often an incentive to launch these operations. Most UN and U.S. efforts have been highly successful in this regard.

In addition to Dobbins, the authors of the new RAND study are: Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Andrew Rathmell, Brett Steele and Richard Teltschik. The study was sponsored by RAND as part of its mission to conduct research in the public interest. The effort was made possible by the generosity of RAND’s donors and the fees earned on client-funded research.

Printed copies of “The UN’s Role in Nation Building: From the Belgian Congo to Iraq” (ISBN: 0-8330-3739-0 (hardbound set); 0-8330-3589-4 (paperback)), of “The U.S. Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq” and of both as a boxed set under the title “The RAND history of Nation Building” can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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