Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cato's Critique of S/CRS is Wrong

Back in early January, Justin Logan and Christopher Preble, with the Cato Institute, published the first counterargument in the ongoing academic, military and policy discussion about reinforcing military and civilian post-conflict S&R capabilities: Failed States and Flawed Logic. The Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office (here, pdf).

Their argument is three-pronged: a) there is no direct necessary threat from failed states, and quantifying state failure shows this; b) the US have been doing a bad job at this before and is likely to do so again; c) the present system will be able to carry the weight if the US intervenes only when absolutely necessary. In that case, there will be no need for neither reform nor the S/CRS. My post at the time dealt with the first part of the argument (will get back to that below). The two latter parts of the argument are tied together in a weird way. Logan and Preble seem to want to have it both ways; to argue both that nationbuilding costs are inhibitive; that the US cannot learn from its mistakes ... AND that the present capabilities are sufficient provided we just don't do more, or do less, nationbuilding.

Logan/Preble's rundown of the structural challenges connected to nation-building are pretty fair: both the Defense Science Board reports, the James Dobbins/RAND reports and Quinlivan's research point to a negative structural challenge in terms of country/population size. With a 20 personnel per 1000 inhabitants requirement for ambititous operations, Quinlivan noted in 1995, some countries are simply to large to become subject to S&R (see my report's literature section for references). My report pointed to a further negative condition: the level of previously inculcated expectations of statehood. This is a far more anthropological measure, but clearly a contributing factor to success in the cases of Japan and Germany post-WWII. Unfortunately, exactly the absence of an historical legacy of successful statehood is often correlated with weak and failing states, making succes harder to obtain.

Yet, when Logan/Preble argue that "there simply is no 'model' for nation-building" it is stretching the truth -- and this weakness goes hand in hand with their attack on S/CRS for being both to small and a bureaucratic monster in spe, possibly prone to produce demand for its product.
What has changed since 9/11 is the increased attempt to shoehorn American interests into nation building. As Gary Dempsey wrote in 2002: "Liberal internationalism, in short, is back, and this time it is posing in the realist attire of national self-interest. But its utopian premise is still the same: if only we could populate the planet with “good” states, we could eradicate international conflict and terrorism." A standing nation-building office with dedicated funding and institutional support would likely become a vocal advocate of nation building. Bureaucracies are remarkably inventive in finding ways to justify their own existence. In the case of S/CRS, justifying its existence would involve agitating for a costly, dangerous course of foreign policy that would generate reconstruction and stabilization missions to work on.
The bureaucracy argument looks correct -- "if we really stink at doing something we are less likely to do so" -- but its fallout is fallacious: Anything that is worth doing is difficult. Taking into account the positive structural conditions (our input variables: time, men, money, political determination) and the negative structural conditions (situational input: size, security situation, statehood legacy) is not enough. We need the dynamic variables as well in order to estimate the future ability to conduct nation- and state-building operations. Arguing over the size of the S/CRS is missing the point. For the time being, the S/CRS has a coordinating role -- and the operative, executive and planning organizations on both sides must be included in order to fathom the machinery. This includes the Pentagon, USAID, OCHA, UNDP and the new UN Peacebuilding Commission (UNPC), and it includes all of the foreign equivalents of these organizations who are willing participate and fund such operations. The S/CRS is but a small element in this machinery, but it might prove to be very important.

With the recent realignment of USAID within State, with the (coming implementation of the) DoD Directive 3000, and the UNPC in the works, the S/CRS has the potential to be a central element in the best practice based planning and training for future interventions. The overriding conclusion of the Dobbins reports was not so much the difficulty of the operations, but that the US had been as bad as the UN (actually: worse) in learning from past mistakes. State- and Nation-building are unlikely ever to be "add water and stir"-operations but there is an incredibly amount of lessons being learned within all of the relevant policy sectors. Proposing that we cannot learn to this at the very moment where initiatives are launced in all sectors to ensure exactly knowledge accumulation is pushing the envelope of reason.

Where Logan and Preble do have a valid point is the first part of their paper: that there is an absence of direct correlation between threats to national security and failed states. That claim is valid and original, and deserves attention. This is also where their repeated call for a proper debate on nation-building is warranted. But absence of evidence of utility in the short term is not evidence of absence of utility in the medium or long term: basically, the Cato logic of minimal state interference is a function of an allready well-functioning state (i.e. the US) and is just not valid in low-quality state situations. When the GWOT becomes the Long War it will probably take a far more political turn, framing military operations according to their political effect. Rooting out terrorism can only happen through succesful development policy, which again may very well hinge on (coordination with) effective military policies. In this context, nation-building missions are important showcases for our will to integrate the developing world in the democtratic political community and the global economy.

Furthermore, a more speculative argument can be made, that post-conflict states have better potential for far-reaching reform than non-conflict states who have less of an incentive. Measured in relative progress over time this area may just be the growth stock of international donor policy. Add to this the more cynical observation, that our willingness to spend is larger when "security", not "development", heads the bill. The latter point is of course what Logan and Preble oppose: when they argue that nation-building proponents are in a sense "liberal internationalists" this is not incorrect in a philosophical way.

But the fact that this has been the strategic, not ideological, choice made by a Republican administration that came into office with a strong opposition to nationbuilding is an remarkable indication of the need for better capabilities here. Unfortunately, the otherwise healthy dose of libertarianism at Cato is a weird starting point in matters of national security. As noted in my first post on the Cato-report, the minimal state approach makes them misjudge what US national security "means" and has "meant" ever since WWII: namely something much more forward than just homeland defense. Applying that logic would result in a hands-off isolationism whose effects are likely to be far more pernicious in the long term than a balanced activism.

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