Cover: Building Armies, Building Nations

Building Armies, Building Nations

Toward a New Approach to Security Force Assistance

Published Oct 24, 2017

by Michael Shurkin, John Gordon IV, Bryan Frederick, Christopher G. Pernin


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Research Questions

  1. In what ways can SFA provision be improved?
  2. What can case studies of three historic large-scale U.S. SFA programs — South Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq — tell us about the relationships between armies and nation-building and the potential role of SFA?
  3. What can case studies of three attempts by postcolonial states — Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria — tells us about the relationships between armies and nation-building and the potential role of the SFA?

This report proposes an alternative approach to Security Force Assistance (SFA) derived from an interpretation of nation-building and legitimacy formation grounded in history; it highlights the importance of ideas, identities, and ideology and argues that SFA efforts often err by focusing too much on force structure, capabilities, and readiness, while not sufficiently considering the extent to which a force's development complements the larger nation-building project and the formation of appropriate ideas, identities, and ideologies within the force. The report uses six case studies (South Korea, South Vietnam, Iraq, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria) to analyze the relationship between building armies and building nations as well as potential U.S. contributions.

Key Findings

Armies Must Be Assisted with an Eye Toward Enhancing Legitimacy

  • The extent to which a client military contributes to nation-building by enhancing state legitimacy might be more important to U.S. SFA goals than its military capabilities.
  • As indicators of SFA success, national cohesion and identity can matter as much, if not more, than military capability.

The Case Studies Make Clear That Critical to the Success of a Fragile or Beleaguered State Is the Extent to Which Its Leaders Are Committed Nation Builders

  • The United States is unlikely to make much headway unless the host-nation's own government is itself engaged in a comprehensive nation-building project, which must include promoting a specific national identity that supports its legitimacy.
  • The United States can influence and strengthen another country's nation-building efforts.

There Is a Range in the Extent to Which Host-Nation Leaders Have Engaged in Nation-Building Projects

  • Some have clear ideas about how to proceed and are actively working toward nation building goals but could benefit from assistance.
  • Other nations lack any vision or program and will have to be convinced of their importance.
  • The United States should recognize the limits of what SFA can do especially if it determines the host nations to be inattentive to nation-building.


  • SFA providers should focus less on improving the force structure or military readiness of the client military and more on the client military's place in the host nation's overall nation-building project.
  • Military capabilities alone often are insufficient in the face of enemies with compelling rival claims to legitimacy, indicating that the identity and cohesion of a force and the extent to which it serves the nation-building project can be critical.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Deputy Chief of Staff G-8, Army Quadrennial Defense Review Office, and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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