In Defense of Nation-Building

President's Views


In one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, he plays a local television weatherman sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pa. Murray openly despises the assignment. Forced by bad weather to stay in the small town overnight, he continually awakens the following mornings to find himself reliving Groundhog Day in the same place. He is only able to break the time loop when he learns how to handle the people and the assignment well.

Is the United States stuck in a similar time loop when it comes to the nation-building assignment?

Of course there are real reasons to question the whole enterprise. To begin with, nation-building is a paternalistic term—it sounds like we are building someone else’s national institutions. In fact, what is usually meant is a mix of capacity building, development and reconstruction aid, often focused at the local and provincial levels, in conflict, post-conflict and crisis countries.

Rick Barton, assistant secretary of State for conflict and stabilization operations, uses the much better term “jump-starting,” which implies correctly that this enterprise doesn’t work unless the local people take ownership of it early on.

There are other reasons for a lack of enthusiasm for nation-building in the United States. It has cultural connotations of the colonial enterprise; it can become overly dependent on the U.S. military (see under Iraq); and it certainly is not the kind of international relations traditionally associated with diplomacy (see under Henry Kissinger, A World Restored).

Most importantly, it is often seen as just plain not feasible, an amorphous task without clear criteria for success at best and a waste of money at worst. State’s Office of the Inspector General reflects this skepticism in its March 2014 report on the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.

So, given all this skepticism, why do we continue to get stuck in Groundhog Day?

The circumstances are different each time, but I count Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as Groundhog Day—and one could add others.

Nation-building, or nation jump-starting, will remain a key part of our overseas mission as long as we are the pre-eminent democracy, and we should plan for it better. Here are three suggestions.

First, it is time to revise the prescriptions in the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which spoke repeatedly of a “whole of government” approach. That is a nice slogan; but if it means a laundry list from the Washington interagency for what the United States should do in conducting these difficult assignments, it is absolutely wrong.

Instead, we should have two or three clearly defined priorities adopted by a unified U.S. government at the outset of each such assignment, and that mission should be delegated to the chief of mission to implement on the ground.

Second, the U.S. government should realize that the State Department is the natural leader of this enterprise. True, USAID has critical expertise in certain sectors; Treasury plays an important role, especially in liaising with the international financial institutions. And the military has the lead in security assistance and the resources to play a greater role in key infrastructure protection, while the intelligence community is focused on the very different counterterrorism mission.

State has the people who know the region and its leadership structures, who are able to integrate the various interagency resources to best achieve mission priorities in a specific place. We sometimes come to this realization after the mission has started (see under Iraq).

Third, given its natural leadership role, State should invest more in equipping our people to be successful in carrying out the mission. To me that means more language training, more and longer interagency leadership education and more priority given to those with multiple tours in troubled regions. I believe Robert Ford’s record of effectiveness as ambassador to the Syrian opposition has something to do with his three tours in postwar Iraq.

In short, let’s embrace the nation-building enterprise and prepare for the next mission to Punxsutawney.

Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,


Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.