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Nation Building

Election Central

U.S. Involvement in Nation-Building Before Iraq

The United States is currently involved in a major effort to bring democracy to Iraq. We have had mixed results in taking on nation-building since World War II.

After World War II, the United States helped rebuild the defeated nations of Germany and Japan into new democratic nations. The rebuilding took many years and cost billions of dollars. These efforts are the two great success stories in nation-building. They showed that democracies could be built in countries that had little experience with democracy. Other nation-building efforts, however, have a checkered history--with some successes and many failures.

Two recent reports have examined previous U.S. nation-building efforts in hopes of shedding light on what can be accomplished in Iraq. One is a book titled America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. It was published in 2003 by the Rand Corporation, a highly respected U.S. think tank. A blurb on the back of the book has this statement from Ambassador L. Paul Bremmer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq: "I have kept a copy handy for ready consultation since my arrival in Baghdad and recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand or engage in [nation-building activities]." The other report is a policy paper also published in 2003 titled "Lessons from the Past: The American Record on Nation Building." It was written by two researchers from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a non-profit organization founded in 1910 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The reports agree that not every U.S. military operation constitutes nation-building. They disagree, however, on the definition of "nation-building." The Carnegie report gives three criteria for nation-building. The U.S. intervention must:

1. Be for the purpose of changing the regime or propping it up.

2. Deploy large numbers of U.S. ground troops.

3. Involve U.S. troops and civilians in the political administration of the country.

If all three criteria are met, then it is a case of nation-building. The Carnegie report finds nine cases of nation-building since World War II. It evaluates the success of the nation-building based on whether democracy exists in the country 10 years after U.S. troops have left.

The Rand report offers a different definition of nation-building. It says that nation-building attempts to "bring about fundamental societal transformations." The report examines seven cases of nation-building since World War II that fit this definition.

Both reports consider the reconstruction efforts in Japan and Germany examples of nation- building at its best. The reports echo each other in calling nation-building in the two countries "unambiguous successes" that "set a standard" that "has not since been matched."


In May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered after a long and destructive war. The victorious American, British, French, and Soviet allies each occupied a zone in Germany and set up military governments.

In 1947, as Cold War tensions grew with the Soviet Union, the United States initiated the multi-billion dollar Marshall Plan to rebuild and strengthen the democracies of Western Europe. The United States included the American, British, and French occupation zones of Germany in the Marshall Plan. Americans also took the lead in transforming Germany from a dictatorship to a democracy.

American nation-building in Germany included first outlawing the Nazi Party, firing all government officials, and disbanding the military. After such a devastating war, Germans had little will to resist the occupation. So by the end of 1946, the United States had reduced its occupation troops from 1.6 million to 200,000. The U.S. military trained a new German police force to take over most law-enforcement functions. But American occupation authorities were forced to bring back many former low and mid-level Nazi government officials because they possessed the needed expertise to run the country.

Germany had some experience with democracy before Hitler took power in 1933. Therefore, the American occupation government decided to hold local elections in 1946. But the first national elections in the combined American, British, and French zones did not take place until 1949.

The 1949 elections formed the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). But West Germany did not regain full sovereignty (supreme power) from the occupiers until 1955, 10 years after the occupation began. Since then, Germany has remained a strong democratic nation. (West and East Germany were unified in 1990 when the Cold War ended.)


Japan unconditionally surrendered following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Unlike in Germany, the United States alone occupied Japan. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur served as supreme commander of the reconstruction efforts.

Gen. MacArthur decided to keep Japanese government officials, except war criminals, in office from the beginning of the occupation. MacArthur generally issued broad decrees to the Japanese officials and then monitored them to make sure they carried out his orders.

MacArthur believed he would need up to 600,000 occupation troops to pacify the home islands of Japan. But no resistance emerged, and he ended up needing less than half that number.

During the American occupation of Japan, MacArthur oversaw efforts to help the country's starving and homeless people. He also distributed millions of dollars in U.S. aid for Japan's economic reconstruction.

Japan had never been a democracy with western-style freedoms. Japan did have a constitution, but it placed sovereignty in the hands of the emperor rather than the people. Fortunately, the emperor supported MacArthur's actions.

MacArthur wrote a new democratic constitution, which the Japanese government adopted in March 1946. One of the unique features of this constitution is that Japan renounced war forever.

The first national parliamentary elections, which included women voting for the first time, took place in April 1946. Japan never received the tremendous amount of economic aid that the United States provided Europe under the Marshall Plan. But during the Korean War (1950-53), Japan served as a staging area for U.S. forces and benefited economically. In 1953, a little more than seven years after the occupation began, Japan regained full sovereignty. Since then, democracy has become firmly rooted in Japan.


The Rand report rejects as examples of nation-building the two biggest wars that the United States has fought since World War II: the Korean and Vietnam wars. The United States, says the Rand report, did not attempt fundamental societal transformations in Korea or Vietnam. Instead, the wars were fought as part of the U.S. policy of containing communism.

The Carnegie report similarly rejects the Korean War as an example of nation-building. The U.S.'s purpose was not to prop up a regime in Korea, but to defend its ally, which had been attacked by North Korea.

But the Carnegie report considers Vietnam--and neighboring Cambodia--as cases of nation- building. In the 1960s and '70s, the United States poured more than 500,000 troops into Southeast Asia to prop up the anti-communist regimes of Vietnam and Cambodia. It used military and economic aid to pressure the anti-communist leaders to adopt democratic reforms. The U.S.-backed regimes collapsed after American forces withdrew. The Carnegie report says the collapse is typical of "American-supported surrogate regimes, which are characterized by their near total dependence on Washington." The report argues that these regimes invariably fail probably due to lack of popular support or because the military is overemphasized and military states develop instead of democracies.

The Carnegie report also considers as nation-building three Caribbean interventions by the United States--in the Dominican Republic (1965-6), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989). It views the interventions in Grenada and Panama as successes. It attributes their success to two factors: The countries are small, which makes nation-building easier, and the United States quickly returned power to democratically elected leaders. The report views the Dominican nation-building a failure, as authoritarian rulers emerged when the United States left. The report attributes the failure to the United States turning power over to a U.S. surrogate regime. The Rand report rejects all three as examples of nation-building because they were "undertaken to overthrow unfriendly regimes and reinstall friendly ones, rather than bring about fundamental societal transformations."

Interventions in the 1990s

The two reports also differ over whether three interventions in the 1990s involved nation-building. In 1992, civil war and starvation prompted the United Nations to intervene in Somalia, a country on the east coast of Africa just south of the Arabian Peninsula. A military force, under both U.S. and U.N. commands, attempted to establish order and provide security for rebuilding the economy and government. But fighters for a Somali warlord shot down two American military helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers, some of whom were mutilated. President Clinton ordered all American troops out of the country. He drew heavy criticism for entangling U.S. troops in a nation-building mission directed by the United Nations. The Rand report faults the lack of unity in command between the United States and United Nations. It also points out that nation-building cannot succeed when a country is not secure and that neither the United States nor United Nations was willing to commit enough forces to pacify Somalia. The Carnegie report fails to mention Somalia. The authors apparently believe it was not an example of nation-building because no attempt was made to topple or prop up a regime in Somalia.

In the late 1990s, President Clinton authorized American military forces to work with the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to end ethnic conflict and genocide in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was breaking up and ethnic warfare was enveloping the area. Two separate interventions took place. One was in Bosnia, a country that had been part of Yugoslavia. The other was in Kosovo, a region in Serbia that had been treated as almost a separate republic before Yugoslavia collapsed. Critics in Congress predicted U.S. troops would end up in the middle of centuries-old ethnic fighting. But a relatively large number of American and other NATO troops restored peace with few casualties. U.S. and other NATO peacekeeping troops still remain in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Rand report sees these two interventions as modest successes in nation-building. Both places have held elections. But the government is weak in Bosnia, and organized crime threatens the success of building a democracy.

In Kosovo, a great deal of economic aid has led to economic growth. But tension remains between the various ethnic groups. The Rand report emphasizes that using a NATO force instead of a U.S. force led to economic contributions by other nations. The United States has paid only 16 percent of the costs and sent 16 percent of the troops in Kosovo. The Carnegie report also notes the cost-savings for the United States of using a multilateral approach in Bosnia and Kosovo. But it considers both to be "cases of multilateral humanitarian intervention (not regime change)" and therefore not nation-building.

Another U.S. intervention took place in the Caribbean nation of Haiti in 1994. Both reports agree that it was a case of nation-building and that it failed. In 1994, the United Nations approved military intervention in Haiti to restore the elected president whom the army had overthrown. President Clinton sent in American troops who joined with smaller forces from other countries. They established order, abolished the Haitian army, trained a national police force, and oversaw elections. An unsupportive Republican-controlled Congress pressed President Clinton, a Democrat, to set a deadline for removing American troops. He removed troops in 1996 before economic and democratic reforms had taken root.

The two reports differ on what we can learn from Haiti. The Rand report emphasizes that nation-building takes time. It points out that all the successful transformations of countries into democracies since World War II took at least five years. The Carnegie report is far more pessimistic on the prospects of turning Haiti into a democracy. It compares Haiti to Grenada and Panama where the United States also quickly turned over power to democratically elected leaders. Democracy grew in Panama and Grenada, but failed in Haiti. The Carnegie report mentions that Haiti's "deep ethnic fissures, religious animosities, and high levels of inequality" make nation-building difficult if not impossible.


Following the Al Qaeda terrorist acts against the United States in 2001, the United Nations approved the American attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban had provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. Currently, U.N. and NATO peacekeepers keep order in Kabul, the capital city. About 10,000 American troops continue to search for Taliban and Al Queda fighters in remote areas of the country. But widespread disorder and violence in many parts of Afghanistan continue to delay economic rebuilding projects and national elections.

Both the Rand and Carnegie reports view the intervention in Afghanistan as nation-building. They both agree that it is too early to judge the success of the effort. The Rand report believes that more troops and other resources are needed. It states: "The low input of military and civilian resources yields low output in terms of security, democratic transformation, and economic development."


Both reports make conclusions on what is needed for nation-building to be successful. Many of the conclusions can be grouped under the following four categories:

1. Security. Both reports agree that nothing can be achieved if the nation is not secure. People must feel safe to go out and conduct their lives. The Rand report stresses the importance of having a large number of troops on the ground. Kosovo, for example, had 20 troops for every 1,000 inhabitants. "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."

2. The country's internal characteristics. The Carnegie report emphasizes four characteristics that aid nation-building efforts. First, it's better if the nation is united with a strong national identity. It hurts if the country is torn into factions (e.g., among ethnic groups). Second, nation-building requires local people to be available to take over most of the basic tasks of government. In both Germany and Japan, for example, most civil servants and bureaucrats remained on their jobs. The Carnegie report says that outsiders probably cannot train people to do these jobs and that if outsiders take over the jobs, they may soon be viewed with hostility. Third, it helps if the country is economically developed. The Carnegie report stresses "the difficulty of such efforts in underdeveloped countries." Fourth, it helps if the nation has had "periods of constitutional rule--characterized by the effective rule of law and binding limits on the government's power . . . ."

3. Multilateralism. Both reports give examples of failures and successes when the United States acted alone or with other countries in nation-building efforts. So this factor alone, say the reports, is not decisive. Multilateralism can make decision-making more difficult. But it has several advantages. It can be far less expensive, because other nations also bear the costs. It can also confer greater legitimacy to the U.S. military intervention. And the Rand report notes that it's very important to get the support of neighboring countries in the nation-building effort. "It is exceptionally difficult to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbors are trying to pull it apart."

4. Level of effort. As the saying goes, "Roman wasn't built in a day." The same is true for democracy. The Rand report gives five years as the minimum amount of time for successful nation-building. It particularly stresses the importance of great effort. It states: "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."

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What is nation-building? Which definition of nation-building do you think is better--that of the Rand or Carnegie report? Why?
  2. Germany and Japan are the standard by which other nation-building efforts are judged. What factors do you think were most important in ensuring the success in Germany and Japan? Why?
  3. The article mentions several nation-building efforts that failed. What factors do you think led to their failure? Explain.


Is It Nation-Building?

The term "nation-building" is frequently in the news. As the article shows, its meaning varies. The Rand and Carnegie reports offer two different definitions. In small groups, do the following:

1. Read the Situations below.

2. For each, discuss and answer these questions:

Is it nation-building as defined by the Carnegie report? Why?

Is it nation-building as defined by the Rand report? Why?

Do you think it is a nation-building mission? Explain.

Do you think intervention is likely to bring a democracy to the country? Why?

3. Prepare to report to the class your answers and the reasons for them.


A. A nearby small country has a long history of poverty and dictatorial rule. The latest dictator flees the country, and order collapses. People are rioting, buildings are on fire, and people are getting killed. The United Nations has authorized the United States to send troops to restore order and put a democratic government in place.

B. A large Muslim country in Asia has been run by dictators for decades. Its current leader seems intent on aiding the terrorist group Al Qaeda and may even try to transfer nuclear technology to it. As the crisis develops, the dictator further threatens the United States. The United States builds a multi-national force and invades to overthrow the dictator.

C. In South America, a country has a long history of ethnic violence. A civil war has erupted, and genocide is taking place. The Organization of American States has authorized the United States to intervene to stop the slaughter.

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