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Can America Nation-Build?

  • Jason Brownlee (a1)

Post-9/11 security concerns and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have renewed scholarly interest in nation-building as a form of externally fostered democratization. The selected works assess Iraq and its precursors, seeking general lessons for establishing new democracies. They principally conclude that successful nation-building depends on sustained commitments of time, materiel, and manpower. Although this thesis improves upon earlier studies of democracy promotion, which often treated intentions as determinative, it does not fully reckon with the effect of antecedent conditions on external intervention. As this review addresses, American efforts at nation-building have historically been enabled or constrained by local political institutions. Rather than autonomously reengineering the target society, nation-builders have buttressed bureaucracies and parliaments where they were already available (Germany, Japan) and foundered in countries that lacked such institutions (Somalia, Haiti). In sum, nation-building has been most effective when pursued least ambitiously, amid functioning states with prior experience in constitutional government.

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1 Diamond Larry, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring mocracy in Iraq (New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2005); Etherington Mark, Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq (Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell University Press, 2005); Phillips David L., Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco (New York:Westview Press, 2005); Shadid Anthony, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of Americas War (New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2005); Chandrasekaran Rajiv, ImperialLife in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (New York:Knopf, 2006); Gordon Michael R. and Trainor Bernard E., Cobra II: The Inside Story ofthe Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York:Pantheon, 2006); Packer George, The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (New York:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006); Ricks Thomas E., Fiasco: TheAmerican Military Adventure in Iraq (New York:Penguin Press, 2006); Rosen Nir, In the Belly ofthe Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (New York:Free Press, 2006); Woodward Bob, State ofDenial: Bush at War, Part III (New York:Simon and Schuster, 2006).

2 Sluggett Peter, “Blunder Books: Iraq since Saddam,” Middle East Journal 60 (Spring 2006); Dodge Toby, “How Iraq Was Lost,” Survival 48 (Winter 2006-7).

3 Friedrich Carl J., “Nation-Building?” in Deutsch Karl W. and Foltz William J., eds., Nation-Building (New York:Atherton, 1963), 31.

4 Halpern Manfred, “Toward Further Modernization of the Study of New Nations,” World Politics 17 (October 1964); Connor Walker, “Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying?” World Politics 24 (April 1972), 322, 326.

5 Deutsch Karl W., “Some Problems in Nation-Building,” in Deutsch and Foltz (fn. 3), 3. This concept of nation-building was not unchallenged, and Friedrich asked, “[A]re nations really built? Or, rather, do they grow?” Friedrich (fn. 3), 27.

6 Hippel Von, “Democracy by Force: A Renewed Commitment to Nation-Building,” Washington Quarterly 23 (Winter 2000), 96.

7 Indeed the definition recognized by von Hippel runs counter to some comparativists'judgment that nationhood and stateness are chronologically and causally prior to democratization. For two influential discussions, see Rustow Dankwart, “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics 2 (April 1970), 350–52; Linz Juan J. and Stepan Alfred, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 2429.

8 A more general definition, encompassing democratic and nondemocratic outcomes, is “intervention in a state to prevent civil unrest or to promote a form of government.” Watson Cynthia A., Nation-Building: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara:ABC-cuo, 2004), 2.

9 Deutsch Karl W., “The Study of Nation-Building, 1962–1966,” in Deutsch and Foltz (fn. 3), viii.

10 Gilman Nils, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 6.

11 This attention is relatively recent. As Tony Smith describes in his authoritative survey of U.S. foreign policy: “Until the 1980s, American scholarship neglected to investigate with any comparative framework or historical depth the consequences for foreign peoples... [of the US ambition] to foster democracy abroad as a way of ensuring national security”; Smith , America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Strugglefor Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1994), 348.

12 The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington, D.C.:The White House, 2002), 1.

13 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.:Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2005), 4.

14 Fukuyama , State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21” Century (Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell University Press, 2004), 104.

15 Krasner , “Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States,” International Security (Fall 2004), 85.

16 Ferguson , Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (New York:Penguin Press, 2004), 24.

17 Carothers Thomas, In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1991); Lowenthal Abraham, Exporting Democracy: The United States and Latin America (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Diamond Larry, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Ikenberry G. John, “America's Liberal Grand Strategy: Democracy and National Security in the Postwar Era,” in Cox Michael, Ikenberry G. John, and Inoguchi Takashi, eds., American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2000); Carothers Thomas and Ottaway Marina, eds., Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East (Washington, D.C. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005).

18 Dahl Robert A., Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven:Yale University Press 1971), 200; Jackson Robert H., Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1990), 202.

19 Compare, for example, Muravchik Joshua, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling Americas Destiny (Washington, D.C.:American Enterprise Institute, 1992), 91; Robinson William I., “Globalization, the World System, and 'Democracy Promotion' in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Theory and Society 25 (October 1996), 626–27.

20 A focus on capacity ameliorates the risk of retrospectively imputing intentions based on outcomes, for example, seeing “genuine effort” where success obtained. At the same time, research on nation-building still needs to take into account the motivations and goals of foreign occupiers. Full consideration of a nation-builder's motives is a serious issue itself, but one that falls outside the scope of this review because it is not an analytic emphasis of the chosen books. The contribution of the selected works lies in their evaluation of nation-building capacity and their insight into how that capacity shapes the boundaries of achievable outcomes. Future scholars may revisit the issue of intent and investigate how the objectives of nation-building are intertwined with the attempt at changing local society.

21 Barbara Geddes, “How the Cases You Choose Affect the Answers You Get: Selection Bias in Comparative Politics,” Political Analysis 2 (1990), 131; King Gary, Keohane Robert O., and Verba Sidney, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton:Princeton Uni versity Press, 1994), 129.

22 Tony Smith's America's Mission is one of the few comparative works that addresses how post-Civil War reconstruction anticipated the challenges of modern nation-building; see Smith (fn. 11), 19–33.

23 Ayers Edward L., What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History (New York:W. W. Norton, 2005); Blair William, “The Use of Military Force to Protect the Gains of Reconstruction,” Civil War History 51 (December 2005).

24 Friend Theodore, Between Two Empires: The Ordeal ofthe Philippines, 1929–1946 (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1965), 35; Kramer Paul A., The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 32.

25 Wurfel David, Filipino Politics: Development and Decay (Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell University Press, 1988), 9.

26 Anderson Benedict, “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” New Left Reviewing (May-June 1988), 1011.

27 Judis John B., The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learnfrom Theodore Roosevelt Woodrow Wilson (New York:Scribner, 2004), 6768.

28 Sayre Francis B., Glad Adventure (New York:MacMillan, 1957), 196.

29 They are Cuba (1898–1902), Panama (1903–6), Cuba (1906–9), Nicaragua (1909–33), Haiti (1915–34), Cuba (1917–22), and the Dominican Republic (1916–24); Pei, Amin, and Garz, “Building Nations: The American Experience,” in Fukuyama, 66.

30 The authors under review seemingly disagree about the total number of cases that count in assessing American nation-building efforts. Whereas they all include the same few cases of successful nation-building (for example, Germany, Japan), they differ in the number and type of unsuccessful cases they recognize. For example, Dobbins and his team limit themselves to post-World War II experiences, whereas Pei and his coauthors address the many early-twentieth-century U.S. interventions as well. These discrepancies are not randomly or evenly distributed. The omitted cases fall mainly at lower values of the dependent variable, raising the risk of a truncated sample and biased inferences. The only fully satisfactory solution to this problem will be for future scholars to concur in definitively specifying the full universe of cases. Pending such an agreement, analytic gains in robustness and reliability argue for considering the fullest range of nation-building efforts, thereby maximizing the number of observations and the range of variance in outcomes while maintaining internal validity around the shared definition of nation-building as imposed democratization. On truncation and selection bias, see Collier David and Mahoney James, “Insights and Pitfalls: Selection Bias in Qualitative Research,” World Politics 49 (October 1996), 6163.

31 This compromise matches what John Ikenberry has called “institutional binding,” a process by which victorious powers incorporate the defeated party's preferences to increase their own authority; Ikenberry G. John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding ofOrder after Major Wars (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2001), 63.

32 Dower John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York:W.W. Norton, 1999), 27, 212.

33 Dower John W., “A Warning from History,” Boston Review (February-March 2003), http:// (accessed February 27, 2007).

34 An estimated 920 Japanese, most of them military officers, were eventually executed for war crimes; Dower (fn. 32), 447.

35 Smith (fn. 11), 150.

36 The U.S. government would seem to provide a case of multidivisional hierarchy, but Cooley notes that truly federal systems are nonhierarchical ("H-form” in organizational theory) (pp. 27–28).

37 Mann Michael, “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results,” in Hall John A., ed., States in History (Oxford:Blackwell, 1986), 109–36; Migdal Joel S., Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1988); Migdal Joel S., Kohli Atul, and Shue Vivienne, eds., State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1994); Boone Catherine, Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2003).

38 The Philippines under American colonial rule, which Cooley does not code, would have been an M-form hierarchy, structurally akin to those credited with success in Germany and Japan.

39 Smith (fn. 11), 198.

40 Kohli Atul, State-Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2004), 6467.

41 Peceny Mark, “Forcing Them to Be Free,” Political Science Quarterly 52 (September 1999), 564; Edelstein David M., “Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail,” International Security 29 (Summer 2004), 88.

42 Smith (fn. 11), 230–31.

43 Ibid., 200.

44 John F. Kennedy, “Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Conference on Vietnam Luncheon in the Hotel Willard, Washington, D.C., June 1,1956,” available at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; JFK+Pre-Pres/002PREPRES12SPEECHES_56JUN01.htm (accessed February 23,2007).

45 John F. Kennedy, “Address in New Orleans at the Opening of the New Dockside Terminal,” May 4,1962, available at the American Presidency Project, php?pid=8633&st=&stl= (accessed February 23, 2007).

46 Young Kenneth T., “United States Policy and Vietnamese Political Viability, 1954–1967,” Asian Survey 7 (August 1967), 508.

47 Takashi Inoguchi, “Three Frameworks in Search of a Policy: U.S. Democracy Promotion in Asia-Pacific,” in Cox, Ikenberry, and Inoguchi (fn. 17), 283.

48 See, for example, Young Marilyn B. and Gardner Lloyd, eds., Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past (New York:New Press, 2007).

49 Shacochis Bob, The Immaculate Invasion (New York:Penguin, 1999).

50 For alternative inferences from a similar set of cases, see Coyne Christopher J. and Davies Steve, “Empire: Public Goods and Bads,” Eton Journal Watch 4 (January 2007), 3337.

51 Dobbins underlines the point in his chapter; Dobbins, “Learning the Lessons of Iraq,” in Fu-kuyama, 223.

52 Phillips (fn. 1), 145, 149; Woodward (fn. 1), 193–98.

53 Ibid.; Packer (fn. 1), 195–96; Shadid (fn. 1), 151–52.

54 Woodward (fn. 1), 234.

55 Recalling Ikenberry's work, it would seem that Bremer was unable to “dominate” the population or to “bind” U.S. forces with Iraqis into a “mutually acceptable postwar order.” See Ikenberry (fn. 31), 50–51.

56 Woodard(fn. 1), 264.

57 In the next chapter Feldman writes: “The nation builder will not stand directly for election, so it follows as a matter of course that he can never be as accountable as elected politicians can be” (p. 100).

58 On media censorship in post-Saddam Iraq, see Lynch Marc, Voices ofthe New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (New York:Columbia University Press), 214–27.

39 At points contradictory statements follow one another: “In the end . . . not we, but the Iraqis, will have to run these institutions and make them work-and there is just too much that we do not understand about the complexities of Iraqi politics and society. My skepticism, however, does not lead me to conclude that we should abandon any role in the process whereby institutions must be designed”; Feldman, 82.

60 For a critical accounting based on international law, see Falk Richard, Gendzier Irene, and Jay Lifton Robert, Crimes of War: Iraq (New York:Nation Books, 2006).

61 Juan Cole, “The United States and Shi” ite Religious Factions in Post Ba” thist Iraq,” Middle East JournalSl (Autumn 2003), 552–53; Etherington (fn. 1), 88.

62 “U-turn as U.S. Tries to Revive Iraq State Industry,” Financial Times, March 8, 2007; “Iraq Moves to Ease Rules on Baathists,” Financial Times, March 28, 2007.

63 Francis Fukuyama, “Nation-Building 101,” Atlantic Online (January-February 2004), http:// (accessed February 27,2007).

64 The Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization was created on August 5, 2004. Its principal mission “is to lead, coordinate and institutionalize U.S. Government civilian capacity to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations, and to help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy”; http://www.state.gOv/s/crs/ (accessed March 12, 2007).

65 Packenham Robert, Liberal America and the Third World: Political Development Ideas in Foreign Aid and Social Sciences (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1973); Latham Michael E., Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

66 Dahl (fn. 18), 200.

67 Ibid., 201.

* The author thanks Daniel Chirot, Patrick McDonald, Robert Vitalis, Kurt Weyland, and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on a prior version of this article.

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