Policy Analysis No. 560

Failed States and Flawed Logic: The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office

Executive Summary

In July 2004 the State Department opened the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). Its official mandate is 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.” The idea of a standing nation-building office has strong support in the Bush administration, among academics and foreign policy analysts, and from key players in Congress.

The arguments in favor of creating such an office are rooted in the belief that failed states are threats to U.S. national security. S/CRS’s early projects included postconflict planning for Sudan, Haiti, and Cuba, all countries largely unrelated to U.S. national security concerns. Although failed states can present threats, it is a mistake to argue that they frequently do. The few attempts that have been made to quantify what “state failure” means demonstrate that it is not inherently threatening.

Moreover, attempting to remedy state failure would pose serious problems for U.S. foreign policy. U.S. nation-building projects in the past had a highly dubious track record, and there is no indication that future projects would fare any better.

A standing office devoted to nation building is a cure worse than the disease. Sober assessment of the U.S. national interest and a more judicious approach to intervention abroad would be better guiding principles 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.

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Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst and Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.