Minimalist International Interventions

For Nation-Building Missions, Modest Costs Yield Meaningful Benefits

By James Dobbins and Laurel E. Miller

In May 2013, Ambassador James Dobbins was named by President Barack Obama as his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; prior to this appointment, Dobbins served as director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Laurel Miller is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Of 20 major nation-building missions undertaken since the end of the Cold War, 16 have produced greater peace, 18 led to increases in democratization (according to Freedom House), 14 resulted in improvements in government effectiveness (according to the World Bank), 16 experienced economic growth (generally faster than their regions or income groups), and 15 saw improvements in human development (as measured by the United Nations Development Programme). Most of these efforts achieved their primary aim — establishing peace — while also generating these other benefits. And most did so at modest cost.

In six illustrative cases, many local factors that had contributed to conflict defied modification or elimination, despite the nation-building interventions. In Cambodia, nationalism and xenophobia endured; in El Salvador, landlessness remained a problem; in Bosnia, ethnic divisions hardened; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, institutions continued to be extremely weak; in East Timor, regional and political identity differences continued to produce civil unrest; and in Sierra Leone, the inequitable distribution of resources persisted. Though improvements were achieved to varying degrees in these countries (as shown in the six upper tiers of the table), the governments largely remained ineffective deliverers of public services, poor societies remained poor, resources continued to be looted, the capabilities of security institutions were still weak, and in none of the cases was corruption seriously diminished.

Nation-Building Missions Usually Scored Important Gains, Even with Modest Levels of Assistance

(in chronological order)
Average Annual per Capita Assistance in the First 5 Years (constant 2010 U.S. dollars) At Peace in 2012 In First 10 Years After Intervention
Net Change in Freedom Index (10-point scale) Net Change in Government Effectiveness (10-point scale) Net Change in Human Development Index Score (10-point scale) Cumulative Growth in per Capita Gross Domestic Product (percentage)
Cambodia 38.36 Yes +0.75 +0.07 NA 53.6
El Salvador 79.57 Yes +0.75 +0.36 +0.7 20.6
Bosnia 384.00 Yes +3.75 +1.95 NA 213.7
Democratic Republic of the Congo 36.46 No +0.75 –0.25 +0.6 8.2
East Timor 361.00 Yes +6.25 NA +0.9 42.7
Sierra Leone 93.10 Yes +2.25 +0.49 +0.8 72.7
Afghanistan 62.72 No +1.5 +1.53 +1.7 130.9
20-Country Average 156.95   +2.15 +0.61 +0.6 54.6
SOURCE: Overcoming Obstacles to Peace, 2013.

Nevertheless, the nation-building operations in most of these countries succeeded in improving security, advancing democratization, expanding economic activity, and increasing human development, as did most of the rest of the 20 post–Cold War operations, ranging from Haiti to the Solomon Islands and from Macedonia to Mozambique. In most cases, the costs were low, in contrast to the much more expensive and demanding counterinsurgency campaigns conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among all 20 operations, 17 were intended to maintain peace after a settlement had been reached, whereas 3 — in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq — were intended to impose peace. Of the peacekeeping-type missions, all but one (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) produced lasting peace. In contrast, none of the peace-enforcement missions has yet done so. That is to say, all but one of the interventions that were initiated on the basis of a peace agreement and with the consent of the parties to the conflict subsequently succeeded in establishing peace, whereas the three that lacked such prior consent did not.

Geopolitics and the strength of internal patronage networks help explain the failures. Afghanistan and Iraq were both invaded by the United States; thus, neither was there a peace agreement among all parties in place when international forces arrived, nor did the presence of foreign forces enjoy the consent of all parties. In both cases, the United States chose to exclude rather than co-opt the dominant patronage networks. Denied their accustomed access to wealth and power, these networks chose to fight back. Perhaps even more importantly, the disgruntled elements were able to receive substantial external support in order to do so.

Despite the failure to forestall renewed conflict in Afghanistan, there has been remarkable progress there across several other dimensions (also shown in the table). In the first ten years after the intervention, Afghan society achieved less than the average improvement in democratization but ranked third among the 20 cases in improved government effectiveness, scored second in economic growth, and showed the greatest improvement of all in human development. These results cannot be explained entirely by external aid flows, because Afghanistan was not among the largest foreign aid recipients on a per capita basis.

Nor is it simply that Afghanistan started from a lower base, because Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were all poorer to begin with and grew less rapidly. Dramatic advances in Afghanistan's school enrollment and life expectancy, declines in infant mortality, and rapid economic growth even in some of the most-conflicted areas of the country do reflect the emphasis of the Afghan government's counterinsurgency and development strategies in pushing resources and public services out into the hinterland.

  • Cambodians gather at the United Nations peacekeeping forces headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
  • Thousands of ethnic Albanians celebrate the arrival of French NATO troops in the town of Gnjilane, Kosovo.
  • Australian peacekeeping soldiers use a metal detector on an East Timorese citizen to check for weapons in Dili, East Timor.


Left to right: Cambodians gather at the United Nations peacekeeping forces headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 13, 1991. Thousands of ethnic Albanians celebrate the arrival of French NATO troops in the town of Gnjilane, Kosovo, on June 13, 1999. Australian peacekeeping soldiers use a metal detector on an East Timorese citizen to check for weapons during a security sweep in Dili, East Timor, on September 21, 1999.

Diplomacy Plus Resources

Across the 20 missions, the nation-building interveners had a limited set of tools at their disposal. Among these, the most decisive tool for achieving the main aims of intervention seems to have been diplomacy, when backed by economic and military assets. Thus, just as geopolitics was the most important factor in either sparking or sustaining conflict in each of the six case studies, so diplomacy proved decisive not just in mediating peace agreements but also in improving the behavior of the external actors that had given rise to or perpetuated the conflicts.

It is important to recognize, however, that even the most skillful diplomacy and the most favorable regional environments would not have sufficed to bring enduring peace to these societies. The international community also had to be willing to bring to bear military and policing capabilities, as well as economic assistance, to establish public order, demobilize combatants, reintegrate former fighters into civilian life, and create new political and economic avenues through which formerly warring factions could compete for power and wealth via peaceful rather than violent means. Where such efforts have been inadequately resourced or unwisely executed, the result has been subpar outcomes, even in favorable geopolitical circumstances.

A few spectacular nation-building failures have created a widespread impression that these missions seldom succeed. In fact, the great majority of them over the past two decades have resulted in improved security, greater democratization, significant economic growth, and higher standards of living, and most have done so with a modest commitment of military resources and economic assistance.

Perhaps most crucially, operations that have enjoyed local consent and regional support have almost always achieved peace, even when a degree of coercion was employed to secure both. Operations that did not secure local consent and regional support did not achieve peace, although even these efforts have produced improvements in most of the other dimensions assessed, particularly in Afghanistan. These findings suggest the importance of setting realistic expectations — neither expecting nation-building to quickly lift countries out of poverty and create liberal democracies, nor being swayed by a negative stereotype of nation-building that fails to recognize its signal achievements in the great majority of cases. square