home > archive > 2010 > this article

The perils of nation-building

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted July 19, 2010

In last week's piece, I referred to counter-insurgency as a mug's game: the strategic answer to the proverbial inside-straight draw. It often looks like a sure thing, even an easy victory, but it's not often successful and is never a cakewalk.

The troubles that come with counter-insurgency bear in a fairly direct way to the perils of nation-building. Like it or not, nation-building has to be done through a counter-insurgency; even unconditional surrender doesn't build nations. The term, as commonly understood, involves an invasion of another country to change its form of government. Unlike straight conquest, its aim is to leave the other country with a new independent government after altering the form. Invading a dictatorship to turn it into a procedural democracy is the example that comes most easily to mind.

The colors under which any such effort flies is "liberation," in order to distinguish it from conquest. Unfortunately, the method used for any liberation effort is essentially the same as the one used for conquest: send in the troops. Thus, the distinction may not be that apparent to the people targeted to be liberated. It's actually a subtle concept, which we take for granted because of a certain distinction present in our culture that's absent in some others.

The crucial add-on is the distinguishment between people and government. Nation-building missions take care to attack the government, not the people. Therein lies the catch-22: in any nation that doesn't recognize a clear difference, attacking the government is going to be interpreted in some quarters as an attack on the people. It's an unfortunate fact that authoritarian leaders, even tyrants, always go out of their way to get the people to identify with them and their regime. Even tyrants have talents, and a highly skilled one can achieve that aim to a degree that's incomprehensible to us. There's a sick kind of consistency in the phrase "democratic dictatorship" if "democratic" is understood to mean siding with the majority. It's this kind of 'democracy' that most resembles mob rule in its effects. A cunning dictator, if he (or she!) scapegoats skillfully, can not only get the majority to identify with him but also lead them to believe that they're complicit with his repressions. The promise of any 'democratic' dictator is always to implement majority rule more efficiently than representative democracy. To make for "an election every day," to borrow a phrase from a certain source.

Any old Cold Warrior who wonders why the Communist countries were never invaded for the purpose of nation-building, or liberated through force of arms, should consider the fact that the Communist rulers were very careful with the majority. They had the knack of marginalizing or neutering dissent before crushing it. Stalin was a master of the technique; how he gained supreme power shows his talent in this area.

As a result, any would-be liberator would have been pre-maneuvered into doing so in the name of a successfully disparaged minority group. The only exceptions came with internal revolts, which didn't last very long; they may not have succeeded even if Soviet troops had not been the ones to crush them. Any liberation effort would have had long odds against it…particularly after Hitler's bloodthirsty invasion of Eastern Europe. It wasn't just Marxist ideology that made the Communist rulers assert that the United States was 'fascist' like Nazi Germany. Those authorities laid it on so thick, a liberation effort by the United States would have led to jump in heart attacks due to induced fright.

Unintended Consequences

I've already hinted at some of them. Although the Cold War is history, the period makes for an eye-opener to any supporter of nation-building. The Soviet Union played off well against the free world, offering a different kind of "liberation" that tended to use scapegoating as a means of being solicitous to the majority. Marxism contained a sophisticated apologia for the notion that our freedom was a kind of slavery. It seized upon everyday irritants and anxieties, plus occasional tragedies, as 'proof' that freedom was slavery. Communist rulers did clamp down on the subject populaces, but they clamped down solidly and often subtly. There was a stark difference between the treatment accorded to the regular Joe and that meted out to would-be dissidents. The "democratic dictatorship," which successfully casts plain and procedural rights as an affront to "true democracy" (efficient mob rule), is an effective shield against outside nation-building. Had Communism not collapsed of its own accord, liberating its subjects would have been little more than a pipe dream because of that solidity. One unintended consequence of nation-building as a policy is to encourage that kind of tyranny.

There's another, revealed in the last decade. Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom have these two features in common: the enemy governments fell quickly, and the mop-up operations have been long and arduous. The secret is the complete opposite of the Communist-style approach.

If "democratic dictatorship" is impracticable, there's another option that's close to being the opposite from a certain angle. It's one that the Taliban have exploited in Afghanistan, although it pre-existed them. It's radical decentralization. Radical decentralization has this advantage when facing a stronger enemy: when the capitol falls, the real war begins. That war is necessarily an insurgency, leaving the liberating force with the headache of a counter-insurgency to cope with. Afghanistan has always been radically decentralized; one of the reasons why the Taliban were such tyrants was the alienness of nationhood to the Afghanis.

If the United States takes up nation-building as a policy, it's not hard to foresee any rogue governments promoting a Machiavellian kind of decentralism. Tyrants always seek to forge a bond between their regime and the bulk of the people, while protecting themselves and their overlordship. If communist ultra-centralization fails, then dispersal might succeed.

To that end, any liberation policy that sees real virtues in decentralization would co-opt any such maneuver. "Freedom is decentralization" as a central part of any counter-insurgency effort would go a long way towards pre-empting the Machiavellian sort. If stuck to consistently, it would also allay fears of liberation being nothing more than disguised conquest. What kind of conqueror promotes localism?

As a bonus, it makes the division line between people and government easier to understand. Local authorities as a proxy for "the people" can get the point across if said authorities are left alone unless a reasonably direct threat.

Unfortunately, doing so would mean nation-building would have to take a back seat – and not wind up the back-seat driver. The U.S. and its allies would have to be satisfied with the much slower but much more durable process of internal nation-building. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.






Site Map

E-mail ESR



© 1996-2024, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.