In a new RAND Corporation study of nation-building—Overcoming Obstacles to Peace: Local Factors in Nation-Building—we analyze the impediments that local conditions pose to interventions aimed at stabilizing conflict-affected areas. Previous RAND studies of nation-building over the past decade focused on external interveners’ activities. Our new work shifts the focus to internal circumstances, first identifying the conditions that give rise to conflicts or threaten to perpetuate them and then determining how external and local actors have or have not been able to modify or work around them to promote enduring peace.
The set of activities that we label nation-building corresponds closely to those to which the term peacebuilding—preferred by the United Nations and other organizations and analysts—is applied. The terms state-building and peace operations are also often used to capture similar international engagements in establishing peace, rebuilding shattered societies, and preventing the recurrence of conflict. For our study, we employ the term nation-building to describe operations conducted by external civilian and military authorities that employ armed force—by deploying foreign troops, armed foreign police, or both—together with other levers of influence to promote enduring peace in conflict-affected areas.
We examined in depth six societies: Cambodia, El Salvador, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We also analyzed a larger set of twenty major post–Cold War nation-building interventions. We assessed the risk of renewed conflict at the onset of the interventions and subsequent progress along five dimensions: security, democratization, government effectiveness, economic growth, and human development (which measures changes in health and education as well as income levels).
Changing many of the specific conditions that fueled conflict often is infeasible in the time-frame of nation-building operations. But we also found that such changes are not essential to achieving the primary goal of nation-building—that is, establishing enduring peace.
We found that changing many of the specific conditions that fueled conflict often is infeasible in the time- frame of nation-building operations. But we also found that such changes are not essential to achieving the primary goal of nation-building—that is, establishing enduring peace. In most of the countries that have experienced nation-building interventions in the past twenty-five years, conflict has not recurred and there has been improvement in the other dimensions we assessed—in some cases, considerable improvement—even where it cannot be said that the intervention reengineered social relations or otherwise fully resolved the causes of conflict.
The countries that were better off to begin with, institutionally and economically, were better off at the end of nation-building interventions than were those that had greater limitations at the start. Nevertheless, almost all countries were meaningfully better off than when the operations began. Most post–Cold War interventions have been followed by improved security, some democratization, significant economic growth, and modest improvements in human development and government effectiveness. These outcomes have been achieved, in most cases, with only a modest commitment of international military and civilian manpower and economic assistance. The measurable improvements we document for the twenty post–Cold War nation-building operations suggest benchmarks by which to measure progress in future operations.
Our study shows that three factors most influence the establishment of sustainable peace: gaining local consent; neutralizing the interference of outside actors, including neighboring states; and mitigating the influence of entrenched patronage networks. Nation-building operations that have enjoyed local consent and regional support almost always have achieved peace. In the twenty cases we examined, the warring parties’ consent to an international intervention was very closely related to success in establishing enduring peace. All but one of the seventeen missions that enjoyed consent (the exception being the peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) led to peace, whereas none of the three nonconsensual peace-enforcement missions (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia) did so.
In our six in-depth case studies, the regional or global situations had a profound effect in fomenting or sustaining violence, and changing those situations was crucial to ending the conflicts. The international community succeeded considerably in altering the geopolitical sources of conflict in each of the six cases, but it could not substantially weaken the hold of patronage networks that were competing for wealth and power. These networks often were coopted into power-sharing arrangements, which produced peace and even some modicum of democracy, but they could almost never be persuaded to support institutional and policy reforms that would curb their own rent-seeking capacity.
Those involved in nation-building operations should not expect to quickly lift countries out of poverty and create liberal democracies. They also should not be swayed by a negative stereotype of nation-building that does not recognize its signal achievements…
For example, international pressure on the leaderships of Serbia and Croatia compelled them to persuade their proxies within Bosnia to make peace, but the power-sharing governance arrangements in Bosnia that were integral to the peace settlement have persistently been dysfunctional. In Sierra Leone, the UN peacekeeping operation gained traction after the United Kingdom stepped in to suppress insurgent elements and after the international community helped stabilize neighboring Liberia, but the deeply entrenched patronage system has been an obstacle to strengthening Sierra Leone’s state institutions.
Overall, our findings suggest the importance of setting realistic expectations. Those involved in nation-building operations should not expect to quickly lift countries out of poverty and create liberal democracies. They also should not be swayed by a negative stereotype of nation-building that does not recognize its signal achievements in the great majority of cases. These more realistic expectations should guide the development of nation-building strategies and implementation plans, as well as the appreciation of outcomes.