Does Nation Building Work? By James L. Payne - Independent - Price of Liberty
Does Nation Building Work?
By James L. Payne

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December 10, 2007

In medicine, doctors weigh the success rate of a procedure before they undertake an operation. Unfortunately, foreign policy isn’t made in the same scientific spirit. Propelled by the excitement of the moment and lots of wishful thinking, policymakers order military deployments without consulting past experience.

A case in point is President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He hoped that our military occupation would turn that country into a democracy, but there is no sign he considered the success rate for this kind of action. Over the past century, the United States has sent military forces to many troubled areas in an effort to establish democracy. Great Britain has done the same, several dozen times. Before invading Iraq, the president should have studied how these efforts have turned out, to know his chances of success.

He would have learned that a president who went around the world invading countries in order to make them democratic would fail most of the time. The record shows that of the 51 times the United States and Great Britain attempted nation-building by force over the past 150 years, they left behind an enduring democracy in only 14 cases, or 27 percent of the time. (For details of this study see the newly-released book by the Independent Institute, “Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism.”)

This disappointing pattern can be seen in America’s first effort at nation-building, in Cuba after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following the war, the United States administered Cuba for four years, turning power over to an elected Cuban president in 1902. A few years later, a violent revolution forced him from office, and U.S. troops came back in 1906. After more reforms and new elections, the U.S. again turned power over to the Cubans in 1909. More instability ensued, including another violent revolt. The marines came back yet a third time in 1917; restored order; set up another constitutional regime; and withdrew in 1922. After that, Cuba saw a succession of unstable and autocratic regimes, and now suffers the totalitarian dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

In Iraq, the batting average for nation-building is zero. The British occupied it from 1917 to 1932, and again from 1941 to 1947. Despite their efforts to cultivate democracy, civil strife, warlordism, and dictatorship emerged both times after the troops left.

Other failed democracy-building efforts in the Middle East include Lebanon, where the U.S. twice sent troops, in 1958 and again in 1982, and Somalia in 1992.

Some have said that these failures were caused by too brief an involvement, that democratic powers need a long occupation to impose democracy. Alas, the record gives no support for this theory. Many lengthy involvements have ended in failure. The U.S. occupied Haiti for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934, and left civil turbulence from which emerged the notorious dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In Nicaragua, the U.S. supervised the political system for 24 years, from 1909 to 1933, and U.S. troops held three fair and free elections. A year after U.S. troops left in 1933, dictator Anastasio Somoza took over the country.

Britain’s experience with long involvements is equally discouraging. Examples of prolonged colonial administration followed by democratic failure include Burma (63 years), Egypt (40 years), Sudan (57 years), Cyprus (46 years), Ghana (71 years), Kenya (69 years), Uganda (68 years), and Zimbabwe (92 years).

Roots of Failure

What accounts for so much failure at nation-building? At bottom, the answer is that policymakers have overlooked the first, necessary requirement for democracy, which is a low level of political violence. They have focused secondary aspects—drafting constitutions, holding elections, building schools, and promoting women’s rights—without realizing that none of this matters if participants are disposed to kill each other to get what they want.

A study of the evolution of democracy in places like England, Holland, or France shows that democracy was not consciously constructed and deliberately adopted. It came about by default as political leaders gradually grew nonviolent. Opposition groups ceased resorting to revolution to overthrow incumbents, and incumbents stopped putting critics and opponents in jail. As force dropped out of the picture, participants moved to the obvious nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes: counting heads (elections), and acceding to the decisions of courts, councils, and legislatures. That’s what we call democracy.

In other words, democracy isn’t a system you teach people or impose on them. It is what happens automatically when participants aren’t violent.

This point explains the few cases where military intervention did leave behind a democracy: the country already had a nonviolent political culture. Germany after World War II is a good example. Proponents of nation-building often point to it as a model, but the fact is that the U.S. military occupation did not create democracy. It was the post-war German leaders who did it.

For over a century before World War II, Germany had a basically nonviolent politics. Political leaders had long ceased trying to murder each other; freedom of expression was generally observed; and elections had been being held for generations. In the 1930s, the peaceful political elite was temporarily displaced by Hitler’s gang of thugs, who dominated the country through violent mob action and assassination. When these criminal politicians were removed by the Allied victory, the traditional elites came forward again. They wrote constitutions; staffed the government; and carried on nonviolent politics—that is, democratic politics—as before.

The lesson is clear: if you invade and occupy a country where elites have already evolved to nonviolent politics, then democracy will continue after you leave. On the other hand, if you invade a politically violent society, you have to expect more violence—civil strife, terrorism, and repressive dictatorship—after you leave.

And, yes—in case there is anyone who hasn’t noticed—Iraq is a politically violent society.

Your comments welcome!

Dr. James L. Payne is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis and author of numerous books, including A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem,and he has taught political science at Yale University, Wesleyan University, Johns Hopkins University, and Texas A & M University.

Ernest C. Pasour is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, and author of Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture (with Randy Rucker) and Agriculture and the State from the Independent Institute.

Randal R. Rucker is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University, and co-author (with E.C. Pasour, Jr.) of Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture.

Charles V. Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

William Ratliff is Adjunct Fellow at the Independent Institute, Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and a frequent writer on Chinese and Cuban foreign policies.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Full Biography and Recent Publications

Jonathan J. Bean is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the forthcoming book, Race and Liberty: The Classical Liberal Tradition of Civil Rights.

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute. He earned his bachelor's degree in American history from the University of California at Berkeley and gave the undergraduate history commencement speech in 2003. In addition to his work with the Independent Institute, he regularly writes for numerous news and commentary web sites, including, Future of Freedom Foundation, and the Rational Review.
Full Biography and Recent Publications

Dominick T. Armentano is professor emeritus in economics at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) and a research fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. He is author of Antitrust & Monopoly (Independent Institute, 1998).

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is director of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. He is widely published and has lectured on world economic and political issues including at the Mont Pelerin Society, Naumann Foundation (Germany), FAES Foundation (Spain), Brazilian Institute of Business Studies, Fundación Libertad (Argentina), CEDICE Foundation (Venezuela), Florida International University, and the Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce. He is the author of the Independent Institute books The Che Guevara Myth and Liberty for Latin America. Full biography and recent publications.

Gabriel Roth is a transport and privatization consultant and a research fellow at the Independent Institute, where he is editing a book on private-sector roles in the provision of roads, Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads.

Pierre Lemieux is an economist and co-director of the Economics and Liberty Research Group at the Université du Québec en Outaouais and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

Alexander Tabarrok is research director at The Independent Institute, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, editor of the Independent Institute books, Entrepreneurial Economics, The Voluntary City (with D. Beito and P. Gordon), and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute, author of Against Leviathan and Crisis and Leviathan, and editor of the scholarly quarterly journal, The Independent Review. Click here for a bio on Dr. Higgs, the noted economist and historian.

William Marina is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus of History at Florida Atlantic University.

David T. Beito is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama, and co-editor of the book, The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society.

William Marina and David T. Beito belong to "Liberty and Power," a group blog at the History News Network.

For further articles and studies, see the Center on Peace & Liberty and

Nicolas Heidorn is a public policy intern at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

For further information, see the Independent Institute’s book on wasteful farm programs, Agriculture and the State: Market Processes and Bureaucracy, by Ernest C. Pasour, Jr.

New from Ivan Eland!
THE EMPIRE HAS NO CLOTHES: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed
Most Americans don’t think of their government as an empire, but in fact the United States has been steadily expanding its control of overseas territories since the turn of the twentieth century. In The Empire Has No Clothes, Ivan Eland, a leading expert on U.S. defense policy and national security, examines American military interventions around the world from the Spanish-American War to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Buy It Today.


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