Suzanne Nossel writes: Obama had good reason to be wary of nation-building [in Libya], having spent a good part of his presidency trying to unwind commitments George W. Bush made to Afghanistan and Iraq. But he now finds himself caught in a dilemma. On one hand, rebuilding failed states and conflict-torn societies is expensive, dangerous, unpredictable, open-ended, and painstakingly slow. Rather than thanks, an assertive approach can elicit debilitating and deadly political backlash. Because of its intense and sustained involvement, the nation-builder is held morally and politically accountable for the consequences of its efforts — even more so than the government that strafes a country from 30,000 feet. At least so far, as bad as the crisis in Libya is, international blame isn’t being pinned on Washington. On the other hand, failure to stabilize a nation after a debilitating war can undermine even the most decisive military action. Bad actors may be removed from authority, but the power vacuums, rivalries, corruption, incompetence, and dysfunction they leave behind can be as dangerous, if not more so. Terrorists and spoilers can encroach on weakly governed and poorly secured territory. Neighbors can jump into the fray, sparking regional conflagrations.
The nation-builder’s dilemma is not new. Failure to restore a beleaguered Germany after World War I arguably sowed the seeds of World War II. The massive investments of the Marshall Plan were designed to avoid a repeat, and they benefited from underlying political, economic, and institutional strengths in Japan and Germany. International military engagements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and South Sudan were all followed by contested nation-building engagements, most of which continue in some form to this day.
The paradox of distaste for nation-building and the imperative to nation-build should prompt long-term strategic thinking about how to get done what no single government wants to do. Three principles can help: burden sharing; creative alignments of capabilities and political credibility; and greater attention to how international post-conflict missions can build national pride and smooth the path to full sovereignty for nations in transition.
Sharing the burdens of rebuilding a war-torn nation is often best achieved through the United Nations, which currently has more than 118,000 personnel deployed in peacekeeping operations in 16 countries, alongside another 10 political missions that don’t involve military forces. U.N. peacekeeping and related missions have played an indispensable role in midwifing relative political stability in Guatemala, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Namibia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But in Libya, there was no U.N. peacekeeping mission after Qaddafi’s ouster — only a small, unsecured stabilization effort. Cost concerns raised by Britain and France, coupled with the Libyans’ own reticence, scuttled early talk of a more ambitious U.N. presence. This understaffed operation was woefully unable to tackle Libya’s most serious security challenges, struggling instead to keep its own personnel out of danger. As discussions about an expanded U.N. presence in Libya now get underway, it’s worth recognizing that wherever the next stabilization operation occurs — eastern Ukraine, Syria — the United Nations’ role is unique and essential and should be adequately funded, equipped, and thought out ahead of time. It is hard to fathom any solution to the White House’s nation-building dilemma that doesn’t begin at U.N. headquarters in New York. [Continue reading…]