Dr. Robert Hickson
5 April 2004
The Concept and Reality of „Nation-Building”: A Moral and Strategic Critique of a Recent Long-Range Study
A Note from the Author on 3 September, 2021: This essay was first written in Switzerland seventeen years ago. The author was then asked by several Europeans to write a commentary on this RAND study on Nation-Building in light of the earlier history of Umerziehung (Re-Education). The study variously attempts to endorse a two-fold “core doctrine” concerning both “a Global War on Terrorism” and also “Nation-Building.” With the publication of this essay, now seventeen years later, the author hopes to help enlighten, in a larger strategic context, the intended principles and the actual fruits of the U.S. historic presence in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, starting in October of 2001 and March of 2003, respectively. (It is fitting to know that the author himself stepped down from Federal Service in early 2003, just before the open invasion of Iraq began on 19 March.)
America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (2003) is the title of a 240-page strategic and historical study released in July 2003 by the RAND Corporation, an influential national-security Institute which originally did special research for the U.S. Air Force.1
An implicit premise of the RAND study – but a dangerously unexamined premise – is that the U.S. Military’s still strongly resisted, but newly proposed, “core mission” of foreign (and often – Muslim) “nation-building” can and must and should be conducted simultaneously with their already declared and very dissipating “Global War on Terrorism” (or the “GWOT,” as it is sometimes affectionately known). RAND’s strategic study, however, explicitly supports this new “core mission” of concurrent “nation-building,” even though “the GWOT” itself is already so increasingly ambiguous and elusive in definition, as well as centrifugally dispersing and over-extending in operation of the American military resources. Therefore, any such protracted and concurrent combination of two new “core missions” for the U.S. Military – “the GWOT” and foreign “Nation-Building” – will certainly produce and perilously constitute a self-inflicted and “self-sabotaging binary weapon.”
That is to say, if such a concurrent combination of exhausting military (and quasi-imperial) “core missions” were ever essentially and protractedly implemented as a U.S. policy and new grand-strategy, it would be a very self-destructive, self-defeating act – a sort of strategy and ideology of national suicide (in the words of the great James Burnham). The U.S. Military itself – as the armed and just defender of the U.S. Constitution (but not of the de-constructed – or “living” – Constitution) against all enemies foreign and domestic – would become thereby, in virtue of its dissipating dispersion, even more de-constructed and demoralized and exhausted than it now is. Were that to occur, one wonders whether the U.S. Military could then even be an effective proxy for Israel, despite that long-standing, manifest priority, or effectively compulsory requirement, as it would seem.
Under such cumulative conditions of dispersion and “overreach” and exhaustion, could the U.S. Military – or would the U.S. Military – then any longer even partially (let alone adequately) defend the State and far-sighted Grand-Strategy of Israel? And has that unconditional support for Israel not also effectively become a “core mission” of the U.S. Military? However, the RAND study omits any discussion of these momentous matters, let alone their longer-range implications for war and peace and the enrootedness of ordered life.
According to this 240-page Rand analysis, which is, I regret to say, a very presumptuous (and often superficial) study, the current “U.S.-led stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq” is, indeed, “after all, the sixth major nation-building enterprise the United States has mounted in 12 years, and the fifth such in a Muslim nation” (p. 220 – my emphasis added). (The other four Muslim nations alluded to are: Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan; Haiti is the one non-Muslim country which was made especially subject to U.S. “nation-building” over these twelve years.)
In Iraq, however, says the self-vaunting study, the U.S. now “embarks on its most ambitious program of nation-building since 1945” (p. 219), when an arguably pre-Imperial United States purportedly conducted “nation-building” in Germany and in Japan. And, indeed, both of those instances of “nation-building” were clearly, in the view of the RAND Corporation, “successful.” It should be noted, however, that the RAND Corporation’s only criterion of “success” in “nation-building” was Germany and Japan’s attainment of “democratization” and of a “vibrant economy.” (Does this not reveal a profound understanding of the formation and nature of a long-standing cultural nation?!)
However, the RAND Corporation now has certain grave concerns about the current U.S. vulnerability and unpreparedness for such a new and admittedly “ambitious program of nation-building” almost sixty years later, in Iraq, a predominantly Muslim society:
Over the past decade, the United States has made major investments in the combat efficiency of its forces. The return [sic] on investment has been evident in the dramatic improvement in warfighting demonstrated from Desert Storm  to the Kosovo air campaign  to Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic – March-April 2003]. [But,] there has been no comparable increase in the capacity of the U.S. armed forces or of U.S. civilian agencies to conduct postcombat stabilization and reconstruction operations (p. 220 – my emphasis added).
Furthermore, the RAND study also addresses the matter of the willingness of the U.S. Armed Forces to conduct “nation-building,” not only the matter of their capacity (or their capability) to do it:
“Nation-building” has been a controversial mission over the past decade, and the intensity of this debate has undoubtedly inhibited the investments that would be needed to do these tasks better. Institutional resistance in the departments of State and Defense, neither of which regard nation-building among their core missions, has also been an obstacle (p. 221 – my emphasis added).
It is worthwhile to consider these above words very closely. The language is characteristic of their entire study, and their style also reveals their mentality, which is so often asphyxiatingly superficial, equivocally vague, and altogether frigid and presumptuous. (I do not exaggerate.)
The above critique of the resistance to nation-building, and the implicit grand-strategic recommendations by the RAND Corporation itself, are especially significant; not only because they are to be found on the last page of their study’s main text, but also because their concluding analysis is itself so unspecific and ambiguous – so bereft of clarity and of substance.
For example, the RAND study only mentions the “intensity,” but no substance, of the purported interior “debate” (i.e., either within both the U.S. Defense and State Departments, or disputatiously between them? – it is not clear!) concerning the putative “mission” of “nation-building.” And RAND does not even say wherefrom this purported nation-building “mission” comes, nor on what grounds, nor by what authority! (This is really a trustworthy, professional analytical study, isn’t it?!)
And what about the deeper substance of this purported debate, which is much more important than its ostensible “intensity”? What about the essential content of this policy and strategic debate? And who, specifically, are the key proponents and antagonists in this debate? The reader will search in vain, however, for RAND’s presentation of any such substantive evidence or argumentation.
lt is also significant, I think, that the RAND study does not even mention the key arguments for “nation-building” or the key arguments against such a protracted and deeply consequential, arguably neo-imperial, mission. Such omissions of important and indispensable substance are altogether unprofessional and deplorable – as well as sophistical. For, like the ancient Greek Sophists, the RAND authors “make the worse seem better and the better seem worse.” (It is clear, however, that the RAND Nomenclatura tendentiously favors an expanded neo-imperial (or neo-colonial) mission of U.S.-led “nation-building.”
Nevertheless, the RAND study does not even give a “working-definition” of “nation-building,” much less an adequate and properly strict definition of nation-building, although that concept is the key-concept of their entire study. Nor do they give any reasonable critique of “nation-building,” as such. No deep and searching objections are ever presented, much less refuted. They do not even suggest that nation-building could be, at least, a potentially utopian (and self-sabotaging) “operation,” or even an intrinsically unfulfillable “project” full of hubris. Thus, their study is, once again, evasive as well as superficial and vague. It is also embarrassingly chimerical and arrogantly wrong!
Furthermore, why should “nation-building” ever constitute a “core mission” for any military institution, for any deeper military culture in the world, let alone for the U.S. Military, which is already centrifugally over-extended, linguistically unprepared, culturally and religiously under-educated, and exhausted by the tempo of its multifarious “global” operations – such as their “Global War on Terrorism” (“the GWOT”)?! Even “the GWOT” is making war against a method of warfare, and not against a clearly specific enemy, nor a consistent “image of the enemy (a Feindbild)”! (Will anyone ever defeat “psychological warfare,” for example, as a method of warfare – or “terrorism,” either?)
And why does the RAND Corporation so disapprovingly call the U.S. Military’s firm “resistance” to “nation-building” (as a “core mission”) an “obstacle”? – an obstacle to what? Is this rational and moral military resistance to an „utopian deformation” an obstacle to the U.S. Military’s further de-construction as a military force? Or, is it, rather, an obstacle to the U.S. Military’s further transformation into an imperial police force? – or to a neo-colonial “gendarmerie” and “constabulary”?
In its important “Executive Summary,” the RAND study says the following (and without, it would appear, any intentional sarcasm or irony!):
The current [G. W. Bush] administration’s efforts to reverse the trend [in America] toward ever larger and more ambitious U.S.-led nation-building operations have proven short-lived, however. (p. xv – my emphasis added).
Indeed, in seeming contrast to President Clinton, “President Bush,” according to RAND, “adopted a more modest set of objectives when faced with a comparable challenge in Afghanistan [as in Kosovo?]” (p. xv – my emphasis added). However, the RAND study never tells us what, specifically, this “more modest” set of objectives was! (Name 5!). Once again, no specificity!
But now, their study continues:
In Iraq, the United States has taken on a task with a scope comparable to the transformational attempts [from what, to what?] still under way in Bosnia and Kosovo and [on] a scale comparable only to the earlier U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan. Nation-building, it appears, is the inescapable responsibility of the world’s only superpower (p. xv – my emphasis added). [N.B. Some might even consider these words to be somewhat presumptuous, not to say malodorously self-vaunting!]
Moreover, the first paragraph of their Executive Summary will further focus – and perhaps even provoke – the attentive mind of the reader:
The goal of the work documented here was to analyze and extract the best-practices in nation-building from the post-World War II experiences of the United States. To do this, we examined U.S. and international [?] military, political and economic activities in postconflict situations [sic] since World War II, identified the key determinants of the success of these operations in terms of democratization and the creation of vibrant economies, and drew implications for future U.S. nation-building operations (p. xiii – my emphasis added).
And, it is clear that Iraq is the strategic focus. In fact, after the preceeding Chapter 9 on “Lessons Learned” from history, the study’s concluding chapter (Chapter 10 – pp. 167-222) is a lengthy and very sobering consideration of Iraq itself and its vulnerable geography, and the barriers to any U.S. mission of “nation-building” there. Nevertheless, the study’s consideration of the deeper religious factors is very poor, indeed, and even dangerously shallow.2
The Executive Summary itself later concludes with a slightly more unambiguous set of statements and an often-repeated emphasis, except, perhaps, for their “softening” last sentence, which is itself all too characteristically vague and equivocal as well as evasive and so timorously optimistic:
The current administration [of President G. W. Bush], despite a strong disinclination [even by the strategically influential “Neo-Conservatives”?] to engage U.S. armed forces in such activities [i.e., “nation-building”] has launched two major nation-building enterprises within 18 months [both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as part of its “Global War an Terrorism”]. lt now seems clear that nation-building is the inescapable responsibility of the world’s only superpower [and its “Messianic Democracy”]. Once that recognition [of the U.S.’s “superpower-responsibility”] is more widely accepted [but, by whom, specifically?], there is much the United States can do to better prepare itself to lead such missions [i.e., the new multi-national “nation-building” missions!] (p. xxix – my emphasis added).
All things considered, the RAND’s Study strongly implies that the current, internal U.S. military resistance to the “mission of nation-building” constitutes an “obstacle to success” – like the purported success that the U.S. Military had with their nation-building in Germany and Japan after the military defeat and “unconditional surrender” of the “Axis-Powers” in 19453. Once again, it should be emphatically noted, RAND’s only measure of “success” was the degree to which Germany and Japan underwent “democratization” and attained to a “vibrant economy”!
However, did the United States really build the German nation? Did the United States really build the Japanese nation? Are such deeply formed cultural nations of long history ever to be “built” by “outsiders”? Can a slowly growing, well-rooted and fruitful nation ever be “engineered,” even by “insiders”? lt would seem not!
And, with reference to Iraq, what, indeed, is the substance of the historic culture of this purported “Iraqi nation,” which is now also to be reformed? Was there ever such a thing as “the Iraqi nation,” and is it in any way comparable to the coherent (and unified) German or Japanese cultural nations? What cultural substance is the United States now to draw upon, so as to conduct (or inflict) its new “nation-building operations” there? What is the nature of the evidence for an historic Iraqi nation (as was the case in Germany and Japan)? What are we really talking about? “Democratization” and “vibrant economy,” once again? Is that it?
And how many years would it take for the U.S. to build even a slightly deeper “democratic (non-autocratic) political culture” in Iraq? And, what, in truth, are the real linguistic capacities and working skills of the current (or future) resident American “reformers” and “nation-builders”? What are the facts, not only about the language problem, for example, but also about the deeper issues of mutually alien and incommensurate religious cultures?
For, it is true, that both the Arabic Shi’ite and the Arabic Sunni religious cultures of Iraq are not so easily compatible with increasingly secularized (and formless) U.S. religious traditions, nor even with each other! Nor are they made easily compatible even with Iraq’s significant Kurdish, Turkoman and Assyrian religious and cultural traditions! Nor with the Christian minority of the Oriental Chaldean Rite. Therefore, this question of the interaction of religious cultures, not to mention the “re-building” of often incommensurate (or immiscible) religious cultures, will be an especially challenging factor for the U.S. “occupational” and “democratizing” forces. The combination is likely to be a “time bomb” – especially if the U.S. will regard Iraq, effectively, as a “Satrapy.”
And, in this context, let us return once again to the concept and reality of “nation-building.” What, after all, is this process or this thing called “nation-building”? A nation is not an artifact nor a product to be engineered. Nor does a nation have a “modular” structure capable of being “changed” and “re-arranged” in various artificial “permutations.”
What does it really mean to “build” a nation, or even to “re-construct” and “reform” a militarily defeated nation? From the evidence of history, a cultural nation grows slowly over time in and through its deeply shared experiences and vivid, living memories, even (and sometimes especially) memories of intimately shared sorrow, and of tragic, but heroic military defeats. Remember the Serbian military defeat against the Turks in the 14th century (on the current territory of Kosovo) and its unifying effects still today upon the broken Serbian people. Remember the Hungarian military defeat at Mohacs in 1526, an heroic and turning-point battle near the Danube River, against the advancing Ottoman Turks, whose own very costly “Pyrrhic victory” there caused them to withdraw from their more ambitious plans of domination for almost 150 years thereafter.
More generally, how does any foreign culture – especially an increasingly intrusive and very secularized culture like the USA – “build a nation” during its own military occupation of a religiously Muslim society? After an openly pre-emptive, supposedly “preventive,” “war of aggression” (against current and long-traditional International Law, as well), can any foreign “interventionist” armed forces really build a nation, even if they were both linguistically competent and culturally sensitive, as well as religiously respectful? In any case, what should be our realistic expectations about the United States, i.e., our realistic expectations of how the impatient and largely technocratic Americans are likely to try “to build a nation,” even if they were to be very generous and sincerely acting “according to their own lights” and best wisdom for the common good of Iraq? For, it is important to remember that the United States of 2004 is not at all the United States of 1945. The U.S. is now, moreover, also “culturally Balkanized” and even “religiously Lebanonized.” And, morally (ethically), even under the so-called “neo-conservative” Bush Administration, the United States itself is still “Clinton’s America,” as well as a “proxy force” for the intelligently advancing grand-strategy of Israel.
Those who would want to know much more about the deeper nature and meaning of this thing called “Clinton’s America” should read Joe Sobran’s eloquent and discerning book, entitled HUSTLER, on “the Clinton Legacy.” For, it is this very “legacy,” at least in part, which the U.S. is now presuming to inflict upon other countries, often under the deceptive guise of progressive “globalism” or of “economies (and finance) without borders.” And, this includes the whole ideology of unrooted and restless neo-Liberal (and neo-Mandevillean) Capitalism (along with its oligarchical “chaos managers”).
In the longer light of history, how might (or how would) the Ancient Greeks have thought about this whole matter of “nation-building”? For example, after their unexpected victory over the arrogant Persian Empire (c. 490 B.C.) – after Marathon and Salamis – to what extent might the Athenian Democracy have then considered as a wise strategic policy their subsequent “nation-building” of the defeated Persians? Would the “vibrant” Athenian Democracy have believed that their own aggressive energy and love of freedom could have sufficiently (or at all) transformed the autocratic political culture of Persia? It would seem not. The “temptations of Empire” would come a little later, nonetheless, especially for the Athenians.
For, the Ancient Greeks, learning from their own grave mistakes, have also taught us so much about true tragedy and about “the tragic view of life,” to include the Athenian tragedy which resulted from their hubris in the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 B.C.), as was so memorably depicted by Thucydides. (Perhaps, the greatest tragedy occurs – as in Sophocles’ Antigone – when a lesser good tramples out a greater good without ever knowing it, until it is too late !)
Even after the Greeks’ earlier exultant victory against the Persians, almost sixty years before their own tragic Peloponnesian War began, would the high leadership of the surprised and very vigorous Athenian victors have even dared to presume to re-build or transform the defeated Persian Empire? Or, would they have wisely and immediately considered this to be an act of self-destructive, overweening pride? lt is likely that they would not have been even so blind and foolish as to consider the theoretical possibility! In all likelihood, they would have practically considered such a policy or such a strategy to be an act of folly (ATË, in Greek – i.e., “blinding self-infatuation”) – or, an act of blinding self-aggrandizement (PLËONEXIA, in Greek) and a presumptuous “overreaching” (HUBRIS, in Greek).
Yet, it may have been possible, once again, that the restless Athenians would also have (even back in 490 B.C.) tragically succumbed to the seductive temptation to overreach themselves, as the conspicuously more arrogant Athenians later did in their “Sicilian Expedition” during the Peloponnesian War; especially after they had so unjustly, so cynically and self-blindingly destroyed the weak and vulnerable Melians on their little Island of Melos off the coast of Sparta; and even after General Nicias himself had later honorably and wisely tried to warn the Athenians against their over-extended and likely self-sabotaging military expedition!
What lessons might the United States learn from this Greek experience, an experience which was not at all considered by the RAND study as part of their “lessons to be learned from history”? In view of this illuminating and admonitory history from the Ancient World, where is the open and honest public debate in the United States now about America’s own potentially tragic “Sicilian Expedition” to Iraq? Or, where is the public debate about the wisdom and the justice of America’s protracted presence there amidst the Muslim society of Iraq, much less the “transformational efforts” at “nation-building”? The neo-Trotskyites and the Socialist International, as well as the “Muslim International,” among others, might be very pleased, however, – and even the Zionists! – with America’s centrifugal and presumptuous and self-sabotaging over-extension in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as its infatuated and concurrent “nation-building projects” in Afghanistan and in Iraq (as well as in the Balkans). But just-minded and far-sighted and well-rooted Americans should not! Nor should they be in complicity with any grand-strategy designed to fragment and de-stabilize the Middle East, and certainly not as a “useful idiot” or “proxy” for the Israelis and their long-range objectives as an historical cultural nation. Moreover, the moral resistance to such destructive and self-destructive conduct (and policy and strategy) should intelligently and courageously grow.
To what extent does the United States have even one general like the deeply wise (but tragically rejected) General Nicias – or a far-sighted admiral (and strategos) like Admiral Thucydides – who also, like them, may have to suffer much for speaking the truth, but who is humble enough to learn from his own (not only from his country’s) mistakes?
May they have the courage and the fuller virtue to come forth, to bear full witness to the truth – to speak out and to act and to help make a „course-correction”, also for the common good – and in the spirit of high chivalry. For, it is true, that a grand-strategic „course-correction” is needed by the United States – and leaders of virtue are needed, too, for the greater common good, and to resist the growing injustice and suffering! (The true spirit of chivalry always taught that “the more defenseless someone is, the more that one calls out for our defense”!) Hubris is always a form of blindness and self-destructivness. Pride (superbia, orgueil, Hochmut) is not a spiritual strength, but a weakness. And a “provocative weakness”! It is certainly provocative to others. Caveat Imperator.
— FINIS —
© 2004/2021 Robert Hickson
1 The early intellectual leadership of the RAND Corporation is still influential in U.S. “Neo-Conservative” circles. For example, Albert Wohlstetter and his friend, Andrew Marshall (the long-serving and founding head of the Pentagon’s “Office of Net Assessment” – a very influential “in-house Think Tank” of the Department of Defense) have been, like Professor Leo Strauss himself, deeply formative mentors – and strategic collaborators – of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, among others.
2However, the study is especially aware of the contrary national interests of the bordering countries of Iraq, to include the NATO member of Turkey, as well as the more expectedly resistant countries of Iran and Syria, all of whom could provide a serious impediment to any U.S. success in the context of Iraq’s multi-cultural and religious conflicts, and other strategic vulnerabilities.
3A second essay could be usefully written on the RAND Corporation’s two superficial „case studies” of the U.S. operations of “nation-building” in Germany and Japan after World War II – both of which RAND considers to be an impressive success. RAND’s measures (or “criteria and standards”) of the reality and essence of an historic cultural nation are, indeed, very insulting and very embarrassing, I think. “Democratizations” and “vibrant economies” just won’t do! Furthermore, all those who know the deeper history of the Occupation and “Re-Education” (UMERZIEHUNG) of Germany and Japan – and especially its distorting long-range effects on the “guilty” German nation and its youth – will be justly indignant and impatient with Rand’s perfunctory and smugly condescending treatment of this earlier “success” in “nation-building”!
One thought on “The Concept and Reality of “Nation-Building” — a Critique”
Well done Dr Hickson. If only your advice had been heeded. Thousands of lives and trillions of dollars would have been saved. Aside from the credibility of “the lone superpower “.