The Case for Nation-Building

Why and How to Fix Failed States

Published In: Prism, v. 3, no. 1, Dec. 2011, p. 63-74

Posted on on December 01, 2011

by Paul D. Miller

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Nation-building has a bad reputation. It is widely seen as an impossible fool's errand that is too expensive for today's constrained budgets. That reputation is wrong. First, nation-building is not international charity. It is a necessary and pragmatic response to failed states that threaten regional stability. Time and time again, history has shown that state failure, when left unaddressed, causes demonstrable harm to neighbors, whole regions, and occasionally the international order itself. Second, nation-building is not doomed to failure: the perception that nation building always fails is due to a few famous cases of dramatic failure. A closer look at the history and practice of nation-building illustrates that the international community has learned key lessons and improved its ability to foster stability and democracy in states confronted with violence, illegitimacy, poverty, and institutional breakdown. Finally, nation-building, while expensive, is relatively cost-effective compared to the alternatives: both isolationism and imperialism would be prohibitively expensive. As U.S. policymakers review budget and force structure in coming years, they should recognize that nation-building is a pragmatic option that can meet the needs of the hour, and it can do so successfully and cost-effectively.

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