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Can the US 'Build a Nation' in Iraq?


One way of assessing whether the United States will be able to meet its objective of building a stable, democratic polity in Iraq is to look at its record in other parts of the world. Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper use three criteria to define nation building efforts: (a) an American armed intervention that led to regime change or the survival of a regime that would otherwise have collapsed; (b) the deployment of a large number of US troops on the ground; and (c) the use of American military and civilian personnel in the administration of the target countries. On this definition, there have been 16 US attempts at nation building since 1900. How successful have they been in establishing stable democratic rule?

The record is at best 'mixed'. There are only two unambiguous successes: Japan and West Germany after World War Two. Grenada (1983 intervention) and Panama (1989 intervention) might also be counted among the successes, although Pei and Kasper suggest that Grenada is a rather easy case because of its very small population. 'Nation building generally is less challenging in small societies'. The overall success rate is therefore only about 25%.

For many readers, the most interesting part of this policy brief is likely to be the implications of this historical record for Iraq, and for the likely success of other similar interventions in future. Examining past cases of success and failure, Pei and Kasper conclude that there are three sets of critical variables: (a) the internal characteristics of the target country; (b) the extent of convergence of the geopolitical interests of the target country and the power that is intervening; and (c) the degree of commitment of the intervening power to the economic development of the target country. They examine the implications for Iraq very concisely, and conclude with a checklist of seven factors that would be favourable to a successful nation building outcome. Three of those factors are definitely unfavourable, and four are 'questionable'.

Many 'policy briefs' fail to live up to their label; this one scores very highly.

Source: Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper, 'Lessons from the Past: The American Record of Nation Building' Policy Brief 24, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2003. This paper is available at

Keywords: reconstruction, institutions.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS, (June 2003)

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