State Department’s New Nation-Building Office Detrimental to U.S. Security Policy

Cato scholars suggest a more judicious approach to intervention abroad

January 11, 2006

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WASHINGTON - Americans should be skeptical of the reasoning behind the State Department’s new standing office devoted to nation building, argues a study released today by the Cato Institute.

In “Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office,” Justin Logan, a Cato foreign policy analyst, and Christopher Preble, Cato’s director of foreign policy studies, point out that the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) is focusing its planning on countries such as Sudan, Haiti, and Cuba that present little security threat to the United States. Logan and Preble argue that this could entangle U.S. personnel in regional squabbles removed from the national interest.

The arguments in favor of creating an office like S/CRS are rooted in the widespread belief that failed states present threats to U.S. national security. The authors challenge this notion. Using available data on state failure, the authors point out that genuine security threats have only rarely emanated from failed states.

They argue that U.S. nation-building projects have a highly dubious track record, and there is no indication that future projects would fare any better. The authors point out “even the very officials at the State Department who are advocating for S/CRS have admitted that nation building has historically been a failure.” For example, in 2003, the State Department’s Stephen Krasner, one of the leading advocates of S/CRS, conceded, “[T]he simple fact is that we don’t know how to do democracy-building.”

Attempting to reform governments in strategically irrelevant countries is both a waste of taxpayer dollars and unlikely to succeed. Logan and Preble argue that to take on nation-building missions that aim for the capillaries of the international system is to juggle dangerously priorities and could well end up creating new security challenges where none existed before. For one, a permanent office like S/CRS would place greater demands on the military, with a likely result being more U.S. troops in more theaters abroad for long periods of time.

In short, the nation-building approach to security policy is a recipe for squandering American power, American money, and potentially American lives.

The authors state that the real costs of such a policy are frequently left out of the discussion. A more judicious approach to intervention abroad would be a better guiding principle, rather than assuming that all failed or failing states pose a threat. “When interventions are absolutely necessary, existing institutional capacity is sufficient to carry out stabilization and reconstruction missions,” write Logan and Preble.

Policy Analysis Paper no. 560