UN Surpasses U.S. on Learning Curve

By James Dobbins

James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, served as U.S. special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

Since World War II, the United Nations (UN) and the United States have developed distinctive styles of nation-building derived from their very different natures and capabilities. The United Nations is an international organization entirely dependent on its members for the wherewithal to conduct nation-building. The United States is the world’s only superpower, commanding abundant resources of its own and having access to those of many other nations and institutions.

We at the RAND Corporation define nation-building as “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a crisis to promote a transition to democracy.” We have examined eight instances in which the United Nations took the lead in such endeavors and eight in which the United States took the lead.

UN operations have almost always been undermanned and under-resourced, because member states are rarely willing to commit the manpower or the money any prudent military commander would desire. As a result, small and weak UN forces are routinely deployed into what they hope, on the basis of best-case assumptions, will prove to be post-conflict situations. Where such assumptions have proven ill founded, UN forces have had to be reinforced, withdrawn, or, in extreme cases, rescued. Nevertheless, UN nation-building missions have often met with success.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States adopted the opposite approach, basing its plans on worst-case assumptions and relying on overwhelming force to quickly establish a stable environment and to deter resistance from forming. By intervening in numbers and with capabilities that discouraged significant resistance, U.S.-led coalitions achieved progressively higher levels of success throughout the 1990s, from Somalia to Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo.

The United States would be well advised to resume supersizing its nation-building missions and to leave the small-footprint approach to the United Nations.

But in sizing its stabilization operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the new American leadership abandoned the strategy of overwhelming preponderance, known as the Powell doctrine, in favor of the “small footprint” or “low profile” force posture that had characterized UN operations. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the original American-led forces proved unable to establish a secure environment.

In both countries, the initial U.S. force levels have had to be significantly increased, but in neither country has this yet sufficed to establish adequate levels of public security. In Afghanistan, reduced levels of insurgent violence have been replaced by organized crime on a massive level, with some 60 percent of the entire country’s gross domestic product now coming from illegal drug production. In Iraq, resistance to a U.S. occupation may be morphing into a sectarian civil conflict.

The low-profile, small-footprint approach to nation-building is much better suited to UN-style peacekeeping than to U.S.-style peace enforcement. The United Nations has an ability to compensate, to some degree at least, for its “hard power” deficit with “soft power” attributes of local impartiality and international legitimacy. The United States does not have such advantages in situations where America itself is a party to the conflict being terminated or where the United States has felt compelled to act without an international mandate.

The United States would be well advised to resume supersizing its nation-building missions and to leave the small-footprint approach to the United Nations. At the same time, the United States would be well advised to emulate the track record of the United Nations in implementing lessons learned from prior operations.

Inputs and Outputs

The UN experience with nation-building began in the newly independent Congo in 1960. Since then, the instances in which UN forces have been used for nation-building have all occurred since the end of the Cold War in 1989, to include Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia (in Croatia), Sierra Leone, and East Timor. The U.S. experience began with the occupations of West Germany and Japan in 1945; continued in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo after 1989; and expanded to Afghanistan and Iraq in this decade.

Figure 1 -- UN Cases of Nation-Building Have Involved Fewer Troops and/or Less Money Per Capita Than U.S. Cases (Except in Some Extremely Small Societies, Like East Timor)

Nation-building can be measured in terms of inputs (such as manpower, money, and time) and outputs (such as casualties, peace, economic growth, and democratization). Success depends not just on the inputs, of course, but also on the wisdom with which the resources are employed and on the susceptibility of the society in question to the changes being fostered. Nevertheless, success depends in some measure on the quantity of international military and police personnel, the quantity of external economic assistance, and the time over which they are applied.

In terms of personnel, military force levels for UN missions ranged from nearly 20,000 troops deployed in the Congo and 16,000 in Cambodia to fewer than 5,000 in Namibia and El Salvador. UN missions have normally fielded much smaller contingents than American-led operations. In absolute numbers, the largest UN contingent was smaller than the smallest U.S. contingent. However, the UN missions in Eastern Slavonia and East Timor did deploy sizable military forces relative to the local populations (see Figure 1).

In terms of money, UN-led operations have tended to be less well supported with international economic assistance than U.S. operations, in both absolute and proportional terms. This reflects the greater access of the United States to donor assistance funds, including its own, and to those of the international financial institutions to which it belongs. In effect, the United States can always ensure the level of funding it deems necessary. The United Nations seldom can. Many UN operations are consequently poorly supported with economic assistance.

In terms of time, UN forces have tended to remain in post-conflict countries for shorter periods than have U.S. forces. In the early 1990s, both UN- and U.S.-led operations tended to be terminated rather quickly, often immediately following the completion of an initial democratic election and the inauguration of a new government. As experience with nation-building grew, both the United Nations and the United States recognized that reconciliation and democratization could require more than a single election. By the end of the decade, both UN- and U.S.-led operations had become more extended.

For each of the eight UN and eight U.S. missions, we measured “outputs,” including casualties suffered, peace sustained, economic growth, and democratization. Casualties suffered are a good measure of the difficulties encountered in a nation-building operation. Missions with high casualty levels have been among the least successful.

Table 1 – Peace and Democracy Are the Most Important Measures of Success
Country or Territory At Peace Democratic
Congo No No
Namibia Yes Yes
El Salvador Yes Yes
Cambodia Yes No
Mozambique Yes Yes
Eastern Slavonia Yes Yes
Sierra Leone* Yes Yes
East Timor* Yes Yes
Germany Yes Yes
Japan Yes Yes
Somalia No No
Haiti No No
Bosnia* Yes Yes
Kosovo* No No
Afghanistan* No ?
Iraq* No ?

SOURCE: The UN’s Role in Nation-Building, 2005.
* Ongoing operation.

UN UN-led cases  US U.S.-led cases

Among the UN-led cases, the Congo had the highest number of casualties, reflecting the peace enforcement nature of the operation. The Cambodian operation, lightly manned as a proportion of the population, had the second-highest casualty level, followed by Sierra Leone.

Following the loss of 18 U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, the United States took great precautions to avoid casualties through the rest of the decade. But American sensitivity to casualties diminished in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the same time, the United States abandoned its strategy of deploying overwhelming force at the outset of nation-building operations. Significantly lower force-to-population ratios in Afghanistan and Iraq than in Bosnia or Kosovo have been accompanied by much higher casualty levels. There have been more casualties among U.S. forces in Afghanistan than in all American nation-building operations studied going back to 1945, and the casualty levels in Iraq are ten times higher than in Afghanistan.

Peace is the most essential product of nation-building.

Peace is the most essential product of nation-building. Without peace, neither economic growth nor democratization is possible. With peace, some level of economic growth becomes almost inevitable, and democratization at least possible. Among the 16 societies studied, 11 remain at peace today, and 5 do not (see Table 1). Of the 8 UN-led cases, 7 are at peace. Of the 8 U.S.-led cases, 4 are at peace; 4 are not — or not yet — at peace.

These categorizations are necessarily provisional, particularly for the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peace in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Kosovo has been sustained, but so far only with the ongoing presence of international peacekeepers.

The key determinant of economic growth seems to be not the level of economic assistance but rather the presence of international peacekeepers and their success in suppressing renewed conflict. As illustrated by the present situation in Iraq, security is a prerequisite for growth, and money is no substitute for adequate security forces. Indeed, security without economic assistance is much more likely to spur economic growth than is economic assistance without security.

The final output is democratization. Table 1 characterizes each of the 16 societies as democratic or not based on ratings from Freedom House and the Polity IV Project at the University of Maryland. Among the UN-led cases, all but the Congo and Cambodia remain democratic, some of course more than others. Among the U.S.-led cases, Germany and Japan are clearly democratic; Bosnia and Kosovo are democratic but still under varying degrees of international administration; Somalia and Haiti are not democratic; and Afghanistan and Iraq are seeking to build democratic structures in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

UN 6, U.S. 4

UN-led nation-building missions tend to be smaller than American operations, to take place in less demanding circumstances, to be more frequent and therefore more numerous, to have more circumspectly defined objectives, and — at least among the missions studied — to enjoy a higher success rate than U.S.-led efforts. By contrast, U.S.-led nation-building has taken place in more demanding circumstances, required larger forces and stronger mandates, received more economic support, espoused more ambitious objectives, and — at least among the missions studied —fallen short of the objectives more often than has the United Nations.

There are three explanations for the better UN success rate. The first is that a different selection of cases would produce a different result. The second is that the U.S. cases are intrinsically more difficult. The third is that the United Nations has done a better job of learning from its mistakes than has the United States (see Table 2).

Table 2 – The UN History of Nation-Building
Country or Territory Years Peak Troops Lead Actors Assessment Lessons Learned
Congo 1960-1964 19,828 UN-led Partially successful, costly, and controversial.
UN ensured decolonization and territorial integrity but not democracy.
Money and manpower demands almost always exceed supply. Controversial missions leave legacies of “risk aversion.”
Namibia 1989-1990 4,493 UN-led Successful.
UN helped ensure peace, democratic development, and economic growth.
Compliant neighbors, a competent government, and a clear end state can contribute to successful outcome.
El Salvador 1991-1996 4,948 UN-led Successful.
UN negotiated lasting peace settlement and transition to democracy after 12-year civil war.
UN participation in settlement negotiations can facilitate smooth transition.
Cambodia 1991-1993 15,991 UN-led Partially successful.
UN organized elections, verified withdrawal of foreign troops, and ended large-scale civil war. But democracy did not take hold.
Democratization requires long-term engagement.
Mozambique 1992-1994 6,576 UN-led Mostly successful.
Transition to indepen-dence was peaceful and democratic. But negative economic growth.
Cooperation of neighboring states is critical to success. Incorporation of insurgent groups into political process is key to democratic transition.
Eastern Slavonia 1995-1998 8,248 UN-led Successful.
Well-resourced operation and clear end state contributed to peaceful and democratic transition.
UN can successfully conduct small peace enforcement missions with support from major powers.
Sierra Leone 1998-present 15,255 UN-led, parallel UK force in support Initially unsuccessful, then much improved.
Parallel British engagement helped stabilize mission.
Lack of support from major power can undermine UN operations. But even a badly compromised mission can be turned around.
East Timor 1999-present 8,084 Australian-led entry followed by UN-led peacekeeping mission Successful.
UN oversaw transition to democracy, peace, and economic growth.
Support of neighboring states is important for security. Local actors should be involved as early as possible in governance.

SOURCE: The UN’s Role in Nation-Building, 2005.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States became steadily better at nation-building. The Haitian operation was better managed than Somalia, Bosnia better than Haiti, and Kosovo better than Bosnia. The U.S. learning curve was not sustained into the current decade. The administration that took office in 2001 initially disdained nation-building as an unsuitable activity for U.S. forces. When compelled to engage in such missions, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, the administration sought to break with the strategies and institutional responses that had been honed throughout the 1990s to deal with these challenges.

The United Nations has largely avoided the institutional discontinuities that have marred U.S. performance. Current UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping and head of the UN peacekeeping operation in Bosnia throughout the first half of the 1990s, when UN nation-building began to burgeon. The United States and other member governments chose him for his current post largely on the basis of his demonstrated skills in managing the UN peacekeeping portfolio. Some of his closest associates from that period moved up with him to the UN front office while others remain in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. As a result, an increasingly experienced cadre of international civil servants has run UN nation-building missions over the past 15 years. Similarly, many UN peacekeeping operations in the field are headed and staffed by veterans of earlier operations.

The United Nations has done a better job of learning from its mistakes than has the United States.

Whereas the United Nations has gradually built up a cadre of experienced nation-builders, the United States starts each mission more or less from scratch. The United States tends to staff each new operation as if it were its first and destined to be its last. Service in such missions has never been regarded as career enhancing for American military or Foreign Service officers. Recruitment is often a problem, terms tend to be short, and few individuals volunteer for more than one mission.

The UN success rate among the missions studied — seven out of eight societies left peaceful, six out of eight left democratic — substantiates the view that nation-building can be an effective means of terminating conflicts, ensuring against their recurrence, and promoting democracy. The sharp overall decline in deaths from armed conflict around the world over the past decade also points to the efficacy of nation-building. During the 1990s, deaths from armed conflict were averaging over 200,000 per year. Most were in Africa. In 2003, the last year for which figures exist, that number had fallen to 27,000, less than 15 percent of the previous average. Despite the daily dosage of horrific violence displayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world has not become a more violent place within the past decade. Rather, the reverse is true. International peacekeeping and nation-building have contributed to this decline in deaths from armed conflicts (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 -- The Number of Civil Wars Has Declined Since the Early 1990s as the Number of UN Operations Has Grown

The cost of UN nation-building tends to look quite modest compared with the cost of larger and more demanding U.S.-led operations. At present, the United States is spending some $4.5 billion per month to support its military operations in Iraq. This is more than the United Nations spends to run all 17 of its current peacekeeping missions for a year. This is not to suggest that the United Nations could perform the U.S. mission in Iraq more cheaply, or perform it at all. It is to underline that there are 17 other places where the United States will probably not have to intervene because UN troops are doing so at a tiny fraction of the cost of U.S.-led operations.

Highly Interdependent

Despite the United Nations’ significant achievements in the field of nation-building, the organization continues to exhibit weaknesses that decades of experience have yet to overcome. Most UN missions are undermanned and underfunded. UN-led military forces are often sized and deployed on the basis of unrealistic best-case assumptions. Troop quality is uneven and has even gotten worse, as many rich Western nations have followed U.S. practice and become less willing to commit their armed forces to UN operations. Police and civil personnel are always of mixed competence. All components of the mission arrive late; police and civil administrators arrive even more slowly than soldiers.

These same weaknesses have been exhibited in the U.S.-led operation in Iraq. There, it was an American-led stabilization force that was deployed on the basis of unrealistic, best-case assumptions and American troops that arrived in inadequate numbers and had to be progressively reinforced as new, unanticipated challenges emerged. There, it was the quality of the U.S.-led coalition’s military contingents that proved distinctly variable, as has been their willingness to take orders and risks and to accept casualties. There, it was American civil administrators who were late to arrive, of mixed competence, and not available in adequate numbers. These weaknesses thus appear to be endemic to nation-building rather than unique to the United Nations.

Assuming adequate consensus among Security Council members on the purpose for any intervention, the United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for most nation-building missions. The UN framework offers a comparatively low cost structure, a comparatively high success rate, and the greatest degree of international legitimacy. Other possible options are likely to be either more expensive (such as coalitions led by the United States, the European Union, or NATO) or less capable (such as coalitions led by the African Union, the Organization of American States, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

The more expensive options are best suited to missions that require forced entry or employ more than 20,000 men, which so far has been the effective upper limit for UN operations. The less capable options are suited to missions where there is a regional but not a global consensus for action or where the United States simply does not care enough to foot 25 percent of the bill.

Although the UN and U.S. styles of nation-building are distinguishable, they are also highly interdependent. It is a rare operation in which both are not involved. Both UN and U.S. nation-building efforts presently stand at near historic highs. The United Nations currently has about 60,000 troops deployed in 17 countries. This is a modest expeditionary commitment in comparison with that of the United States, but it exceeds that of any other nation or combination of nations. Demand for UN-led peacekeeping operations nevertheless far exceeds the available supply, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. American armed forces, the world’s most powerful, also find themselves badly overstretched by the demands of such missions.

A decade ago, in the wake of UN and U.S. setbacks in Somalia and Bosnia, nation-building became a term of opprobrium, leading a significant segment of American opinion to reject the whole concept. Ten years later, nation-building appears ever more clearly as a responsibility that neither the United Nations nor the United States can escape. The United Nations and the United States bring different capabilities to the process. Neither is likely to succeed without the other. Both have much to learn not just from their own experience but also from that of each other.

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