The Foreign Service Journal - May 2014 - page 7

MAY 2014
n one of my favorite Bill Murray
movies, he plays a local television
weatherman sent to cover the annual
Groundhog Day festivities in Punx-
sutawney, Pa. Murray openly despises
the assignment. Forced by bad weather
to stay in the small town overnight, he
continually awakens the following morn-
ings 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
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 some-
one else’s national institutions. In fact,
what is usually meant is a mix of capacity
building, development and reconstruc-
tion 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 associ-
ated with diplomacy (see under Henry
AWorld 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
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-start-
ing, will remain a key part of our overseas
mission as long as we are the pre-eminent
democracy, and we should plan for it bet-
ter. Here are three suggestions.
First, it is time to revise the prescrip-
tions 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 abso-
lutely 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 infra-
structure protection, while the intelligence
community is focused on the very different
State has the people who know the
region and its leadership structures, who
are able to integrate the various inter-
agency 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. Tome that means more language
training, more and longer interagency
leadership education andmore prior-
ity given to those withmultiple 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-build-
ing 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.
In Defense of Nation-Building
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