James Dobbins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Nation Building: Conversation with Ambassador James Dobbins; Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, Rand Corporation; February 28, 2005
by Harry Kreisler

Page 3 of 8

Institutional Obstacles to Nation-Building

Let's go back to the nineties. What drew you in to, shall we call it, the "failed state" portfolio that began to emerge in the nineties with the fall of communism and the changing nature of the international environment? What was it about the end of the Cold War that led to the appearance of this new set of challenges?

With the end of the Cold War, the United States had both a new set of challenges and a new set of opportunities. The opportunities were the fact that it was the world's only superpower, it was unconstrained by a peer competitor, it could in most cases get international endorsements for its actions, it could secure Security Council mandates, and it could normally lead large coalitions.

The challenges were that with the aftermath of the Cold War, a number of countries that had been held together by Cold War pressures, countries like Afghanistan, or Yugoslavia, or Somalia, had been important pieces on the Cold War chessboard, and either the Soviet Union or the United States had acted to try to hold these divided weak states together. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Soviet Union lost its capacity to hold these states together and the United States lost one of its principle incentives. As a result, we began to see the phenomenon of disintegrating states, not a new phenomenon but one that became more acute, but also one about which we could now do something.

During the Cold War, American power tended to be used to prevent problems getting worse, not to solve them. And the UN, for that matter, also used force not to solve problems but to prevent them from becoming a source of East-West conflict. So during the Cold War, Berlin remained divided, Germany remained divided, Europe remained divided, Cypress remained divided, Palestine remained divided, Korea remained divided, China remained divided, and either American or UN troops were used to maintain those divisions -- not to solve the problem, just to stop them getting worse.

With the aftermath of the Cold War, it suddenly became possible for the international community to agree on a solution and to use international force not just to freeze a conflict but actually to address some of the underlying causes and fix the problem. So, you had in effect the increase in the demand for nation building as the result of failed states, and you had an increase in supply of nation building because the Security Council of the United Nations could now agree, and the United States, as the world's only superpower, was no longer counter-balanced by a peer competitor which effectively limited its options.

In undertaking this new set of tasks, the U.S. fumbled the ball some of the times, but a response began to emerge. Talk a little about that. In Somalia we got in for humanitarian reasons, because of the lack of food supplies and the evidence on the media of starvation, but in Rwanda we didn't respond. So, there was a learning curve going on.

Yes. America's first experience in modern nation building began after the Second World War, with the occupations of Germany and Japan. Those were very successful, but during the Cold War, as I've suggested, military power tended to be used to freeze problems, not to solve them. By the time the end of the Cold War came, the lessons of Germany and Japan had largely been forgotten. The experiences were too distant to inform current American policy, and so we had to start learning all over again. And we learned through trial and error.

Somalia was an almost unmitigated disaster. The lessons we learned there were essentially negative lessons. They were what not to do. We did get progressively better through the nineties. Haiti was a better organized intervention than Somalia, and at least briefly it was more successful, although ultimately it was not a success. Bosnia and Kosovo were better organized still. So there was a learning curve, as the same people confronted similar problems and performance slowly improved. I'm sorry to say this learning curve wasn't sustained into the current decade, and we had to re-learn a lot of those lessons again in a trial-and-error process.

Put on the hat here of U.S. foreign policy analyst. In your writings, in your two volumes, one gets a sense of a serious failure to build and institutionalize this capacity [for nation building]. What is it about our political system, if that's what we can attribute this to -- the way we do government, the way we do foreign policy -- that has led to a reluctance to build this capacity? Does this only happen when we change administrations, that everything is wiped off the table by the new, incoming administration, or is there something more going on here?

There is a tendency when new administrations come in to lose a lot of accumulated knowledge, unless that knowledge has been institutionalized in some enduring fashion. The problem in the nineties is that although we were getting better, we weren't regarding these contingencies as an ongoing and likely permanent necessity. Neither the State Department nor the Defense Department considered nation building among their core competencies.

The early failure in Somalia made the whole process very controversial. The political opposition in Washington was very critical of the whole process, and indeed, the current administration came into office having argued that the Clinton administration confused foreign policy with social work, and that nation building was an inappropriate activity for the American armed forces. So, it was a combination of the controversial nature of it and the ambiguous results of the missions that we did launch.

The result is that we tended to treat each [mission] as if it was the first one we had ever done, and we sent new people with new ideas to face old problems. But worse than that, we treated each of them as if it was the last one we were going to do. As a consequence, once the contingency had been met, we tended to dissipate the expertise. We didn't create an ongoing doctrine, we didn't build a cadre of people with experience who would be available to fill similar positions the next time it became necessary.

I think the administration has finally, largely as the result of the early setbacks in Iraq, learned this lesson, and both the Defense Department and the State Department are now making a more serious effort to try to institutionalize their knowledge and expertise so that it won't be lost the next time we have a change in administrations.

I want to be specific about this because I think it's important. It really means that you [need] an "office of stabilization." You have to decide where to locate it, it has to have a mission, and you have to have employees who [can] move on to each new situation as it happens and bring an institutional memory. Up until this point in time, although this may be changing now, we haven't gone that far.

Right.

It's also difficult to get the budget from the Congress to fund these operations. In the Clinton administration, for example, there was an effort -- we had Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson here -- to build an African force that would be available to respond to situations in Africa. That never came to fruition.

There have been any number of initiatives and some of them have been funded a bit and some of them have not been funded at all. Congress is reluctant to vote contingency funds. Their attitude is, "We'll wait until we have a demonstrable need and then we'll provide the funding, but if we give you a contingency fund, you're going to spend it whether you need it or not." So, it's partially that mentality.

There's also the difficulty of not knowing who's supposed to do what. The State Department and the Defense Department aren't going to invest in these capabilities unless they know that they will be responsible, and responsibility for a lot of these activities has bounced back and forth from one agency to the other. So, nobody's quite sure who was, in fact, going to be responsible for this or that activity. As a result, they're reluctant to invest a lot of time, effort, or money in improving that capacity.

To the extent that we have a well-understood division of labor, perhaps even one that's set down in legislation so that when these kinds of circumstances [arise], people know what are the State Department's responsibilities, what is the Agency for International Development's responsibilities, what are the Pentagon's responsibilities, where do they overlap, where are they distinct -- the agencies may be willing to make the investments which would give them a long-term capacity.

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