The Inescapable Responsibility of the World's Only Superpower

By James Dobbins


U.S. Marine Corporal Roy Edinton, from Midway, Ky., sits in a gun turret atop a truck delivering food to a CARE warehouse in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Dec. 12, 1992. The convoy of three trucks was the first to be escorted through the war-ravaged town by U.S. Marines.

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

We at the RAND Corporation have compiled what we have found to be the most important lessons learned by the United States in its nation-building efforts since World War II. Not all these hard-won lessons have yet been fully applied to America's most recent nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We define nation-building as "the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy." We have compared the levels of progress toward this goal among seven historical cases: Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. These are the most important instances in which American military power has been used in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin democratization elsewhere around the world since World War II.

From our review of the historical cases, we at RAND have derived a number of overarching conclusions:

  • Many factors—such as prior democratic experience, level of economic development, and social homogeneity—can influence the ease or difficulty of nation-building, but the single most important controllable determinant seems to be the level of effort, as measured in troops, money, and time.
  • Multilateral nation-building is more complex and time-consuming than a unilateral approach. But the multilateral approach is considerably less expensive for individual participants.
  • Multilateral nation-building can produce more thorough transformations and greater regional reconciliation than can unilateral efforts.
  • Unity of command is as essential in peace operations as it is in war. This unity of command can be achieved even in operations with broad multilateral participation when the major participants share a common vision and tailor the response of international institutions accordingly.
  • There appears to be an inverse correlation between the size of the military stabilization force and the level of casualties. The higher the proportion of troops relative to the resident population, the lower the number of casualties suffered and inflicted. Indeed, most of the post-conflict operations that were generously manned suffered no casualties at all.
  • Neighboring states can exert significant influence, for good or bad. It is nearly impossible to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbors try to tear it apart. Every effort should be made to secure their support.
  • Accountability for past injustices can be a powerful component of democratization. Such accountability can be among the most difficult and controversial aspects of any nation-building endeavor, however, and therefore should be attempted only if there is a deep and long-term commitment to the overall operation.
  • There is no quick fix for nation-building. None of our cases was successfully completed in less than seven years.

These lessons are drawn from the "best practices" of nation-building over the past 60 years. We explain the lessons in greater detail below and then suggest how they might be applied to future operations and, in particular, to Iraq. Although the combat phase of the war against Iraq went very well and the regime collapsed much faster than many had expected, the United States has been left with the unenviable task of seeking to build a democratic, economically vibrant Iraqi nation.

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