Shadow Government

If Afghanistan's failing does that mean nation building is impossible? No.

In response to my last post about why realists should support nation building, some readers responded with a curious argument: Afghanistan (they believe) is failing, therefore nation building is impossible. Set aside the fact that this is does not respond to my argument -- which was not about Afghanistan and did not argue that nation building is easy, only that it can serve our interests when done right -- it strikes me as a lazy argument to condemn nation building on the basis of a single example. I call this the Somalia Fallacy.

According to the Somalia Fallacy, the failure of the U.N.'s effort to rebuild Somalia in the 1990s proves that all nation building interventions are doomed to fail. It is the favored argument of pundits who want to argue against overseas interventions. Fareed Zakaria gave perfect expression to the Somalia Fallacy in a Washington Post column in July. "The trouble with trying to fix failed states is that it implicates the United States in a vast nation building effort in countries where the odds of success are low and the risk of unintended consequences is very high. Consider Somalia..." Zakaria then retells the recent history of that unfortunate state, and concludes "Somalia highlights the complexity of almost every approach to failed states."

Well, no, it doesn't. Somalia is not a useful historical analogy from which to generalize about failed states (and neither is Afghanistan). To make a useful generalization, you'd want to start with a typical failed state, or, better yet, several of them. Somalia is not a typical failed state: it is an extreme outlier. It has been the most completely failed state on earth for almost two decades. On top of that, the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s was not a typical U.N. intervention: it was a singularly, uniquely inept one. Deploy an inept U.N. mission to the most failed state and you have the recipe for a famous catastrophe, not have a blueprint for how all interventions are doomed to play out.

Most armed interventions deployed to improve a failed state's government capabilities -- whether you call it nation building or something else -- do not have to contend with Somalian levels of anarchy. The United States and the United Nations have learned by watching the big failures (in Angola and Liberia as much as Somalia), and operate with a measure of greater sophistication. The track record has actually improved since the early 1990s. The failures have been big, public, and humiliating, but the United States and the United Nations have also racked up better outcomes in Namibia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia (the second time around), Sierra Leone (which came back from the brink of failure), and possibly Burundi.

Few of those countries are fully rebuilt, modern, stable, liberal democracies. Most are not particularly nice places to live. But the international interventions changed their trajectories. They are better off now than they were at the nadir of their respective wars and failures. That makes a real difference in human lives and is usually good enough to secure whatever interests led us to intervene in the first place.

There is still the obvious question: how do you do nation building in a country, like Afghanistan, that looks a lot more like Somalia, Liberia, and Angola than Bosnia, Nicaragua, or Mozambique? The Somalia analogy doesn't work as a parable for nation building generally, but does it apply to Afghanistan? That is an excellent question for a future post -- but let me start by noting that poverty and violence are only half of the equation. The size, strategy, and mandate of the intervention are the other half. While the circumstances of state failure in Afghanistan look like Somalia, the design of the intervention (130,000 troops, more than $50 billion in aid, a decade of effort) looks more like Bosnia, on steroids. That's an interesting and largely unprecedented mix. More on that later.

The broader point, Afghanistan aside, is that liberals, paleoconservatives, and others are writing a version of history that says failed states cannot be fixed; nation building always fails; and we should reduce our ambitions. Somalia, Vietnam, and a handful of other cases are duly trotted out to serve as talking points. The argument provides convenient cover for our desire to see an end to the wars and to avoid shouldering uncomfortable responsibilities. But it does not have the virtue of being true.

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Shadow Government

Has the Obama administration been tough enough with China?

Anybody who spends time in Singapore, Delhi or Seoul will appreciate how much anxiety China's aggressive new stance on territorial disputes is causing in Asia. Japan is the most recent recipient of Beijing's growing chutzpah. For several years now, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been surging its operations around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan (the islands are called the Diaoyutai in Chinese). PLAN submarines have circumnavigated Japan and PLAN destroyers have trained their deck guns at unarmed Japanese patrol planes. Over the past few months, Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming around the Senkakus in what Japanese authorities suspect is a coordinated operation. When a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard cutter on September 7, the Japanese ship arrested the Chinese captain on charges of obstructing law enforcement activities. China immediately responded by severing all high level diplomatic interactions with Japan and staging a series of predictable anti-Japanese protests.

The stand-off ended on September 24 when local Japanese prosecutors in Naha (Okinawa) announced that they would return the Chinese captain without pressing charges. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed Japan's decision, commenting that this is how "mature states resolve these things -- through diplomacy."

The Obama administration deserves credit for sending a strong signal of solidarity with Japan publicly throughout the confrontation with Beijing. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and others came out early and often to restate the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and to reconfirm that U.S. obligations under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty extend to the security of the Senkaku Islands, since they are administered by Japan. However, the administration should be deeply worried about the way this stand-off ended. Japan may have acted as a "mature state" and used diplomacy in search of a quick resolution, but Beijing unleashed a mercantilist assault on Japan that went far beyond the pale of international norms, including the arrest of four Japanese workers in Northern China on charges of "espionage" and threats to embargo critical rare earth metal exports to Japan (Chinese officials later denied the embargo threat after other advanced industrial economies howled, but markets gave that denial little credence).

In all likelihood, the Japanese government counted on Washington's strong support to provide adequate cover for an exit strategy from the showdown and did not anticipate the seventh hour escalation by China. Now the Japanese media have universally declared the outcome a diplomatic defeat for Japan (even the Communist Party's Akahata newspaper has demanded the government give an explanation). Prime Minister Naoto Kan will probably take a major hit in public support in the next round of public opinion polls. Worse, Beijing has come away from the crisis triumphant over Japan's apparent capitulation in the face of overwhelming countermeasures. China's hyper-nationalistic netizens and PLA officers will now expect the government to continue using blunt economic and military tools to put Japan in its place.

The administration can feel satisfied that it provided effective reassurance to Tokyo during this crisis, but the dissuasion message to Beijing has been inadequate. China's neighbors are looking to the United States for leadership -- this includes now even the ruling Democratic Party of Japan which not too long ago campaigned on the promise to distance its foreign policy from Washington. The administration should take full advantage of this opening by enhancing joint military exercises with allies and like-minded maritime states and by using Asia's normally sleepy multilateral institutions to spotlight regional concerns about China's more aggressive stance on territorial disputes. Secretary Clinton won kudos and diplomatic support across the region when she openly addressed China's push for control over the South China Sea during her appearance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July. Now it would be useful to find ways to demonstrate U.S. and regional concern about Beijing's disproportionate escalation against Japan in the most recent dispute. This case is not closed. As one influential Indian politician put it to me on Friday, "this time it is Japan, but next time it could be us."

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