A Plan for Nation Building

To some fanfare, the Army has just released a new field manual, FM 3-07, Stability Operations [.pdf, 13.4 MB], which Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center, calls “a roadmap from conflict to peace, a practical guidebook” that “institutionalizes the hard-won lessons of the past while charting a path for tomorrow.”

Well.

Don’t get me wrong: it would certainly be a wonderful thing if we could figure out a way to achieve a peaceful world, but thinking that one has “a practical guidebook” to do so strikes me as naive.

I’m even more troubled by the presumptions underlying the new doctrine.  

In the foreword to FM 3-07, Gen. Caldwell writes:

America’s future abroad is unlikely to resemble Afghanistan or Iraq, where we grapple with the burden of nation-building under fire. Instead, we will work through and with the community of nations to defeat insurgency, assist fragile states, and provide vital humanitarian aid to the suffering.

I understand from a political perspective why it is important to differentiate the wars of the future from the wars of the present, especially Iraq. With 60 percent of all Americans believing the Iraq war to have been a mistake, you don’t get off to a good start by telling the public that the new doctrine will make it easier to fight future Iraq wars. Of course, FM 3-07 isn’t addressed to the public at large, or, to the extent that it is, one rationale for it is that had FM 3-07 existed in 2002, we might have avoided some of the mistakes in Iraq. Further, the public remains supportive of the mission in Afghanistan, despite our recent difficulties there, and the authors of FM 3-07 no doubt believe it will be useful there.

But how can we be so sure that future nation-building missions will not be conducted under fire? Are we so confident in the preventive measures set forth in FM 3-07 and elsewhere that we think we’ve discovered the secret to stopping wars before they begin? And with respect to working “through and with the community of nations” to fight common challenges, presumably this is the same community of nations that refuses to fight in Afghanistan, that shrinks by the day in Iraq, and that, generally speaking, has allowed its military capabilities to atrophy? (China and Russia being among the few exceptions). Count me a skeptic on all three counts.

The broader misconception underlying FM 3-07 is even more problematic. The manual asserts as a given that “the greatest threat to our national security comes not in the form of terrorism or ambitious powers, but from fragile states either unable or unwilling to provide for the most basic needs of their people.” Justin Logan and I took aim at this argument nearly three years ago, and again more recently, but the notion is now widely held across the political spectrum.

Notwithstanding the bipartisan enthusiasm for nation building, I stand by our original argument: most failed states do not represent a threat to U.S. security, and some threats emanate from perfectly healthy states. Given this, a blanket supposition that we must fix failed states in order to be more secure is badly mistaken.

Further:

If the costs of successfully administering foreign countries were low and the prospects for success high, the new strategy might make sense. However, a simple look at what it takes to “get nation building right” demonstrates that the costs of making nation building a core object of U.S. foreign policy…would greatly outweigh any benefits.

I returned to that theme last year with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky, in a paper deconstructing the inordinate faith, also expressed in FM 3-07, that better interagency coordination holds the key to success in nation-building operations. We noted “The trick in politics is not having the right plans; it is having the power to implement them. And in societies our military occupies, the power of the United States is severely circumscribed.” We continued: 

The functioning of a modern state requires the participation of millions of people who show up for work, pay taxes, and so on. People do these things because they believe in a national idea that organizes the state or because they are coerced. In attempting to build foreign nations, the United States is unable to impose a national idea and our liberalism, thankfully, limits our willingness to run foreign states through sheer terror.

If the United States occupies a country where the national identity is intact and simply assists in the management of its institutions and in security, state-building may succeed. But success requires the cooperation of the subject population or a goodly portion of it. That is not something that we can create through planning.

If we are right, first, that security is still necessary (but hardly sufficient) to achieving success in nation building, and second, that even the most well-executed plans for nation building are likely to fail, then we are in danger of merely compounding our past errors: absolving other countries of their primary obligations to provide security for their own people, and placing the burdens squarely on the shoulders of all Americans, but especially on the American military. Meanwhile, we will have signed up for an overarching strategy that will be extraordinarily costly in money and lives, time consuming on the order of decades, not years, and that ultimately depends upon the cooperation of the population within the host nation, cooperation that often will not be forthcoming.

One final point: we have allowed others to free ride on our stated willingness to play the role of global cop, a posture that FM 3-07 accepts as a given. The manual ultimately can’t address that deeper problem, however, because our military’s missions are driven by the policy choices of our civilian leaders. That said, the new doctrine seems to assume too much about the nature of the fights we are in, and that we are likely to be in in the future. If those within the military establishment aren’t willing to sound a cautionary note, then that cries out for dissent from outsiders.