BY A. LAWRENCE CHICKERING AND JAMES S. TURNER
Barack Obama and Donald Trump share a common aversion to ‘nation-building’ in foreign policy. It is clear why they agree about this: because U.S. foreign policymakers have shown no understanding of how to do it, and their failures have been massively expensive.
Despite past failures, nation-building is an essential component of successful foreign and security policytoward the ‘weak states’ or ‘tribal societies’ that became our primary policy concerns after 9/11. Especially in the larger Middle East, these societies feature weak central governments and strong non-state actors and forces, including culture. They are very different from the ‘strong states’ that were our traditional enemies (Nazi Germany, the USSR, and communist China).
Aid policy under both Bush and Obama was guided by no clear vision. Projects were funded that bypassed laws, cultures, and customs—and built up a vast parallel structure supposedly building projects for people. Unsurprisingly, these projects alienated people, who often had little role in their choice, planning or implementation.
Community empowerment, as in the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, is the answer for these societies. The institutions that are usually predatory to people also need to be reformed. Serious reform and community empowerment has just not been tried.
Community empowerment will help promote the social development of traditional people, expanding identity beyond traditional roles and honoring individual values. This will increase social trust beyond family and tribe to other, larger communities, including the state.
Traditional foreign policy institutions have no capacity to promote subjective changes in identity and culture. Promoting these subjective changes will require new strategies and even different actors than those involved in traditional foreign policy. Civil society organizations need to play the leading role in promoting these objectives. Indigenous CSOs, representing and empowering people and communities and owning the solutions, must play the most important roles.
Three names are circulating for President-elect Trump’s Secretary of State: Rudi Guiliani, GEN David Petraeus, and Mitt Romney. Who would be most qualified to provide leadership for this transpartisan component in a new foreign policy?
Petraeus alone has direct experience operating in such environments, building security by empowering local communities. In evaluating candidates for Secretary of State, we hope the President-elect will appreciate this aspect of the case for Petraeus.