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Book Review: Fool’s Errands

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Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building
by Gary T. Dempsey with Roger W. Fontaine (Washington, D. C.: Cato Institute, 2001); 224 pages; $19.95

THE CONCEPT OF “nation building” became widely used in the 1960s as a growing number of former European colonies around the world were given independence. The concept was most frequently applied in the context of Africa. The European powers that had divided up Africa in the 19th century had drawn political boundaries across the continent with little consideration of the ethnic, tribal, or religious divisions and borderlines of the various peoples over whom they established their rule.

When these countries became independent states, they often comprised tribal groups and clans having virtually nothing in common. The task undertaken by the new tribal rulers in these states was to try to inculcate notions of national identity among their diverse peoples through government education, political indoctrination, an imposed official language, and very frequently socialist planning to organize the people under a single purpose of “national economic development.” Some proponents of such techniques referred to the product of this social engineering as “nations by design.” The rationale was that these new nations could not afford to wait for social institutions and relationships to evolve naturally over time through the interactions of the citizenry.

In general these attempts have failed. The continent of Africa, three decades after political independence, comprises nation-states most of whom still have the same tribal divisions and conflicts that were present when their European rulers lowered their flags and departed. These 30 years have been drenched in the blood of tribal and civil wars, ethnic and religious conflict, political tyranny, terror and mass murder, and numerous border wars. Nation building and social engineering have been abysmal failures.

In the 1990s the idea of nation building was given a new lease on life. But this time the initiator was the U.S. government. Four times in the last decade, during the Clinton administration, American political and military personnel were sent abroad to set a foreign country right. The results from these experiments in nation building have been little better than the earlier attempts during the postcolonial period.

This is the theme of Fool’s Errands: America’s Recent Encounters with Nation Building, by Gary T. Dempsey with Roger W. Fontaine. The authors detail America’s four experiments in trying to recreate and design countries during the 1990s — in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Attempts at nation building

Several times in the 20th century America tried to use its political, military, and economic power for purposes of global redemption. Woodrow Wilson attempted to make the world “safe for democracy” during and following the First World War; this effort created the conditions out of which emerged communism, fascism, and Nazism.

Franklin Roosevelt wished to give the world a global New Deal in the Second World War. That crusade resulted in the spread of communism into Central Europe and Asia. It also generated the Cold War, with the United States as the armed crusader on every continent around the world in political and ideological combat with the Soviet Union.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States took upon itself the mantle of world leadership in designing a new global order for the postcommunist era. Bill Clinton and his advisors set as their goal the creation of prosperous and functioning democracies around the world. They devised a doctrine that the authors refer to as “virtuous power” that was meant to foster and, if necessary, create democratic regimes all around the world, where they did not already exist, in the name of human rights and social justice.

In pursuit of that goal, American and some European leaders heralded the end of national sovereignty whenever these champions of the new global freedom concluded that the government of some nation-state was acting in a manner inconsistent with standards of proper conduct within their own countries. The United States and these other European powers claimed the right, in principle, to politically and militarily intervene in other lands wherever and whenever they concluded human rights and social justice were being threatened or destroyed.

Somalia and Haiti

In Somalia American intervention started with the Bush administration in late 1992 as part of a humanitarian aid attempt to feed a starving population affected by bad weather and destructive clan warfare that engulfed and divided the country. But once Clinton entered the White House, the mission was transformed into a task of national reconstruction, under which the United States was assigned the role of unifying the country by disarming and ending the clan conflict and helping rebuild various political and economic institutions for returning Somalia to the international community of “legitimate” nation-states.

What U.S. military forces found themselves trapped in was an intricate web of clan and tribal intrigues and warfare, in which the rival sides each tried to use American intervention as a tool for gaining the upper hand against its domestic opponents. When the United States decided to label one of these clan leaders — Mohammed Farah Aideed — as the villain standing in the way of Somalia’s reconstruction, it merely drove him underground, with his forces rearming themselves and fighting an urban guerrilla war.

The end result was a series of bloody battles between Aideed’s forces and American military forces, with dozens of American soldiers being wounded or killed. The dead bodies of some Americans were dragged through the streets. The shock and fear produced by photos of these scenes made the Clinton administration rethink its nation-building designs in Somalia. By the end of 1993, all American military personnel were withdrawn from the country.

But in 1994 the next foreign crusade began, this time in Haiti. A military coup there in 1991 had overthrown the elected president of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton tried to pressure the ruling junta to step down and restore Aristide to the presidency of the country.

When the junta refused to do so, the United States got the United Nations to pass a resolution giving America the sanction to use military force to reestablish political and economic order in Haiti. Twenty thousand American troops were sent into the country. But by the time most U.S. forces were withdrawn the following year and replaced by a joint U.S.-UN “mission force,” little was changed other than the reinstatement of Aristide. Indeed, by the end of the 1990s Haiti had sunk into even worse corruption, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy than when the United States intervened in 1994.

The authors trace Haiti’s history through the 19th and 20th centuries, including the 19 years of American military occupation from 1915 to 1934. The country, they explain, has never had a cultural tradition of rule of law, respect for private property, constitutional order, or individual freedom. Most of the country’s regimes over a period of 200 years have been brutal and tyrannical.

The authors conclude by pointing out,

If Haiti should teach Washington anything at all it is that an ambitious nation-building program alone is not a sufficient condition to transform a country into a self-sustaining, democratic member of the family of nations. Other domestic variables can cancel out the effort, rendering it futile.

Bosnia and Kosovo

The Bosnian and Kosovo crises of the second half of the 1990s grew out of the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the political disintegration of Yugoslavia. Bosnia had been an artificial political administrative entity containing Catholic Croatians, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks. Their quarrels and mistrusts go back hundreds of years. The wisest policy, the authors suggest, would have been a peaceful partition of Bosnia with those areas of the region heavily populated by Croatians and Serbs transferred, respectively, to the independent states of Croatia and the remnant of Yugoslavia dominated by the Serbians.

Instead, the United States took the position that a postcommunist Europe had to transcend the ancient divisions and rivalries of ethnic and religious conflict. The ideal for the newly independent Bosnia should be a multi-ethnic and multireligious nation-state. That policy helped to foster a vicious and deadly civil war, the consequences of which generated mass murder, torture, and widespread rape.

In 1995, under the Dayton Accords, the United States and some of its European allies began the military occupation of Bosnia. It continues today and, as the authors explain in great detail, has become a dictatorship of “political correctness,” with newspapers censored or shut down when they have reported or editorialized in ways considered “unhelpful” by the occupying military authority.

Elections in Bosnia have been manipulated or overthrown by the occupying political controllers to ensure the “multicultural” outcomes considered desirable. Tens of millions of dollars in nation-building reconstruction have been spent, large amounts of which have disappeared in the cracks of corruption that pervade the country. And state enterprises have been propped up with foreign-aid subsidies to create or maintain jobs.

In Kosovo, a joint force led by the United States has made this region of the former Yugoslavia a virtual protectorate of the Western powers. Determined to stop Serbian killings of the Albanians, who make up the vast majority of the province’s population, the U.S.-European occupying forces have fostered the growth of a strong Albanian nationalist movement that has used terror and murder to drive out the Serbian and gypsy minority populations.

As in Bosnia, corruption and the residue of the socialist mentality dominate the local political and economic landscape. The Western occupying force presides over a nondemocratic and predominantly socialist economic system, with little interest or inclination on the part of many of the people to readily adopt the “enlightened” political order the American-European force wants to impose on them.

Lessons from nation building

What are the lessons to be learned from these four episodes in attempted nation building? They are, the authors suggest, that America cannot make the world over in its own idealized image of the good society when: (1) the peoples in other countries have no desire to stop the warfare and bloodshed that divides them; (2) the history, traditions, and cultures of the country offer no local soil for the fostering of constitutional order bolstered by individual freedom, property rights, and the market economy; and (3) the groups within a country or region lack the willingness or tolerance to live and interact peacefully within the same political regime, especially when the government is viewed by each of the groups as a vehicle for power and privilege at the expense of the others. The failure to appreciate these factors is what made these four foreign interventions “fool’s errands” during the 1990s.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).