Paul D. Miller: Historical Analogies and Nation Building

Roundup: Talking About History

[Paul D. Miller is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at The College of International Security Affairs.]

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...

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