Nation Building: From Success to Failure

An examination of the differences between past and recent US nation building efforts; why the former succeeded and the latter failed.

The United States has been involved in serious nation building over the last decade in two Middle Eastern nations – Iraq and Afghanistan. These ventures recall two other major efforts of this type dating back to the middle of last century – Germany and Japan. By any measure, the earlier two (Germany and Japan) were rip-snorting successes. On the other hand, with regard to the most recent two (Iraq and Afghanistan) – although the final word is not in yet – it appears highly unlikely that either will prove to be anything other than a disaster. To evaluate why success has been followed by failure, we shall first need a concrete definition of the concept of nation building.

Wikipedia entries must always be treated with caution, but in this case, the definition provided there will serve adequately for the purposes of this piece. To wit: [The] deliberate effort by a foreign power to construct or install the institutions of a national government, according to a model that may be more familiar to the foreign power…[and]…typically characterized by massive investment, military occupation, transitional government, and the use of propaganda to communicate governmental policy. Furthermore, in all cases in which the US has been the foreign power, the process has always been …succinctly described by its proponents as the use of force [and coercion] in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy.

The US occupations of (West) Germany and Japan following their defeat in World War II were absolute and unqualified successes. Both nations were converted from brutal, totalitarian dictatorships into peaceful, democratic, free nations whose societies adopted social/political/cultural mores much more reminiscent of the Western, liberal tradition than of an Eastern, authoritarian model. Moreover, those changes have endured over three successive generations.

No one expects that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, which are now winding down, will achieve even a fraction of the success enjoyed by the preceding two. A fragile democracy has indeed been installed in Iraq. But it appears unlikely to survive the fractured ethnic structure of the population, the intrusive enmity of its neighbors, the lack of any historical basis of free institutions, the sponsor’s loss of interest, and a position in the crosshairs of radical Islamic forces seeking to remake that portion of the world. We have also installed a fragile government in Afghanistan, but it is certainly not a democracy. Moreover, each of the five conditions stated above calling into question the survivability of the US sponsored regime in Iraq applies to Afghanistan – with even more emphasis, if possible.

One might argue that the US engaged in two other great efforts at nation building between the first two and last two named above – namely, Korea and Vietnam. The second of these will immediately and legitimately be labeled as an abject failure. On the other hand, given the situation today in (South) Korea, one could argue that that effort was a success. But strictly speaking, neither of these efforts qualifies as nation building according to the afore-stated definition. In Vietnam, we never got to that phase, because we never achieved the requisite military success to initiate the process of changing the political/cultural structure of the nation. In Korea, at least in the South, we did reach that point, but after the armistice, we made no serious effort to alter the politics or culture of the nation. Nevertheless, I will apply to both Korea and Vietnam the criteria that I develop below as I attempt to identify why our retooling of the Axis nations succeeded, while our remaking of the two Muslim Middle Eastern nations failed.

The criteria I will examine are:

  1. Size of the occupying force.
  2. Duration of the effort.
  3. Extent of US control of developments in the occupied country. This includes whether there is any local resistance, but also the isolation of the target, i.e., the US’ ability to control the regional environment surrounding the occupied country.
  4. US understanding of the culture and history of the occupied country and its people.
  5. Level of support in the US for the venture.
  6. Stature of the US in the world at the time and its willingness to project power.

The meaning of each of these half-dozen criteria should be evident. Moreover, it should be clear that all have a bearing on the success or failure of a nation building effort. While other criteria could be envisioned, I believe these six represent the crucial factors that will determine success or failure in a nation building enterprise.

Let’s consider the cases in chronological order:

  • Germany. Five of six of the factors were in our favor. The occupying force was large; it stayed for a long while (remnants are still there); we had an excellent understanding of Germany and its people (at the time, Germans comprised one of the largest ethnic groups in the US); the American people were totally behind the recreation of Germany as a democratic state; and the US was the preeminent power in the world with no shame or hesitation about projecting that power. The only failing criterion was #3: Germany was half-surrounded by Soviet clients and mischief across its borders was theoretically possible. But Germany was thoroughly defeated, America had ample forces on the ground and the Soviets were so preoccupied consolidating their own gains in Eastern Europe as to forestall any meaningful attempt at subversive destabilization of W. Germany (at the time).
  • Japan. Again, we enjoyed five of six. The missing ingredient here was #4: a deep understanding of the Japanese people and culture. But we had total control of the country, which contained a people willing to try something different, and we deployed some extraordinary personnel (from MacArthur down) who did a fantastic job. In some ways, our success in Japanese nation building was more amazing than in the German effort. The Japanese nation, indeed the world is a far better place for our nation building project there. It was a phenomenal American achievement.
  • Korea. Although we were in a position to engage in nation building in South Korea in 1953, we did not do so. Actually, of the six criteria, only #4 and #5 were not satisfied. We had sufficient troops, and as time has shown, the capability of keeping them in place for a very long time. We were in complete control of the southern portion of the peninsula and we were still the most powerful nation on Earth. Of course we had little understanding of Korean culture and the folks at home were weary of the venture. Whether this would have been sufficient to succeed cannot be known since we didn’t really try.
  • Vietnam. Like Korea, our effort here does not count because we never got to the nation building phase. As for the criteria: only #1 and #2 applied. We committed a half-million troops for nearly a decade. But we failed at the remaining four criteria. We never really established control of South Vietnam or its neighbors; we understood the Vietnamese even less well than we understood the Koreans or Japanese; the domestic opposition to our Vietnam adventure was fierce; and from the mid 60s to the end of the 70s, US global stature was declining as the Soviets were on the march.
  • Iraq. Again only #1 and #2 were satisfied. That we failed at 3-5 is self-evident. And certainly with the arrival of the Obama administration, #6 eluded us too. In fact, one could claim, as many did, that we did not have enough boots on the ground. As for #2, eight years should be long enough. It didn’t take much longer than that in Germany and Japan. But now we can’t get out of Iraq quickly enough.
  • Afghanistan. Once again, virtually everything said about Iraq is true here in spades. The only caveat is domestic opposition to this venture is somewhat tempered by 9-11 and our elimination of Osama bin Laden.

So what conclusions can we draw? All the criteria are important to the success of a nation building mission; in principle, one would like them all to be satisfied. But is it possible that the lack of any one or specific group of them must prove fatal? In Germany we lacked #3 and in Japan #4, yet we succeeded. On the other hand, I believe that the other four are indispensable. However, I also believe that, regarding #1 and #2, this is so basic as to be obvious and uninteresting. They are a set of minimum necessary criteria. What is more surprising is the absolute necessity of #5 and #6. These are not as self-evidently necessary as are #1 and #2. But as history has shown, without them, there is no chance of success. Without the support of the homeland, there cannot be a sustained will to carry through with the incredibly difficult task of fundamentally altering the course of a nation. And without the requisite power and willingness to use it, even with the political will to nation build, there will not be the capability.

With these lessons in mind, we might ponder any future nation building enterprise under consideration. There are those who advocate such an exercise in Syria or Iran. But it should be completely clear that none of conditions 3-6 will be fulfilled for either of those nations. Our examination has revealed that this might not prove fatal in case of #3 or #4, but the missing pieces in #5 and #6 would surely spell doom. Of course, we have a compelling interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We will just have to do so without attempting to alter the character of that tortured nation.
This article also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at:
and also in The Land of the Free at: