Review Reviews: Ambassador Dobbins

Ambassador James Dobbins, now a Senior Fellow studying nation-building at the Rand Corporation, spoke to a crowd of about fifty people on October the 11th. Professors, particularly those affiliated with the Dicky Center made up the bulk of the listeners though several interested students and locals also attended. The topic of the day was American nation-building overseas. Because of the ambassador’s participation at a high level in three different administrations, he tried to objectively go through the lessons learned in each one, and in America’s various successful and failed attempts at nation-building.
Ambassador Dobbins began by giving his own definition of nation-building, “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy.” As Ambassador Dobbins noted, no discussion of American nation-building can take place without starting at the beginning, in West Germany and Japan after World War II. Dobbins, who has written a series of volumes on American nation-building overseas, began by distinguishing between the two schools of nation-building that these two American projects represented. General Eisenhower implemented what Dobbins referred to as a deconstruction nation-building in Germany; the United States fully deconstructed every major national institution from the Reichstag and bureaucracy to the military and Nazi Party. Millions of Germans were purged from government service, many even being forbidden from working in anything but manual labor. Additionally, like in World War I, Germany was required to accept guilt for the war. In this case however, there was no question about who had started it. Germans today have in many ways dealt with their past from the Holocaust to the massive war of aggression that their nation once waged against much of mankind.
On the other hand, General Douglas McArthur implemented what Dobbins referred to as a co-option nation-building project. By this he meant that in Japan, the United States used the institutions of the Japanese government to effect the reforms that America wished to. The bureaucracy in particular in Japan was left largely untouched, and purges were few and many were eventually over-turned. This method was far cheaper, mostly requiring only SCAP, the Supreme Command for Allied Powers, to control Japan from the top. In Germany America had to rebuild the nation’s entire institutional framework after the war. However, this cheapness came at a cost, Japan to this day has not dealt with its militarism in the same way that Germany has dealt with its Nazism.
Dobbins went on to discuss the various nation-building projects America has undertaken since then, none of which were ever quite as successful. The Ambassador attributed this to the unequaled resources that America poured into the Marshall Plan after World War II, and the unparalleled level of defeat inflicted on the Germans and Japanese as compared to our military victories since then. Others might disagree.
Despite America’s best efforts at the end of the Second World War to prevent such a global conflict from arising again, the Cold War was soon jumpstarted by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, each champions for a different ideology: one of freedom, the other of collectivism. The strains of the Cold War were not conducive to nation-building however, as each side was more interested in preventing the other from gaining a puppet state than building a successful democracy. However, after Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. defeated the Soviet Union at the end of the ‘80s, a flash-flood of conflict spread across the world, with many demanding that the United States intervene.
Somalia would prove the first nation-building project for the young and inexperienced President Clinton. As any that know the current situation in Somalia probably realize, it was a failure. Dobbins cited what lessons the thought the Clinton Administration learned: go in big, prevent violent resistance movements, police forces will be compromised by either having taken part in the conflict or by being partisan and will have to be replaced, and finally that America must get the buy-in of the nation’s neighbors. This last point seems to be among the most important, as Dobbins cited that no American nation-building project had succeeded since World War II without the buy-in of the nation’s neighbors. Fundamentally, each nation-building project was severely dependent upon the amount of resources that the United States and the international order that America created dedicated to that project. In Haiti, two years after Somalia, the United States dedicated relatively few resources but also expected only relatively small gains. Those objectives were achieved for a low cost, though the United States would be back in Haiti within a decade.
The lessons of these two previous Clinton attempts at nation-building proved most useful in the cases of Bosnia and later Kosovo. To each of these projects the United States dedicated considerable treasure, time, and manpower. In return the projects were relatively successful. Democracy was relatively successfully established in each case, along with relatively free-markets, and the previously ongoing genocides were ended.
The Bush Administration brought a new approach to nation-building, as Bush did not want to be involved in nation-building, and when he was involved wanted to do it more cheaply. Iraq and Afghanistan by most accounts have proved disasters. Especially since Obama’s untimely withdrawal from Iraq, when ISIS took America’s place, destroying monuments and wreaking havoc rather than spreading stability, these two invasions have been seen as failures. Dobbins cited the small initial forces without an intention to stay over the long-run with large dedicated resources as one reason for these failures. Additionally, America offended most of the neighbors of each country, whether it be Iran, the Gulf Monarchies, Syria, or Pakistan. Many of these countries had strong incentives to prevent the success of America’s Middle-Eastern nation-building projects. After all, if the expressed reason for America trying to establish a democracy in Iraq is the moral superiority of democracies and the hope that in the long run, democracy will spread throughout the Middle-East, such a project could hardly hope to arouse support from monarchies in the Gulf and theocrats in Iran.
As we all know, the projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have thus far been a failure. At the end of his talk, Dobbins expressed some sadness over this, because it has so soured America’s interest in involving itself in such projects abroad. Syria and Libya are just two regions where he pointed out that America two decades ago might have felt obliged to enter with its military in order to improve the situation for the citizens of those regions. Now however, such an entry is politically unpopular and not seen as part of America’s mission to a large extent because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Trump has certainly made clear his focus on putting America’s interest abroad ahead of those of any other nation, and America’s policy since World War II of sacrificing its blood and treasure for foreigners is unlikely to continue under his presidency. Some would say this is for the better. Others are concerned the China and the other great powers in the world may try to usurp this role, increasing their thuggish influence in the developing world.