The Folly of Nation Building
THERE IS a growing consensus that the United States can’t afford another war, or even a major armed humanitarian intervention. But in reality, the cost of war itself is not the critical issue. It is the nation building following many wars that drives up the costs.
For every war of the kind we are waging in Afghanistan, we could afford five hundred interventions of the type America carried out in Libya in 2011. The war in Libya cost the United States roughly $1 billion, according to the Department of Defense, and the war in Afghanistan so far has cost over $500 billion, according to the National Priorities Project.
If costs are measured in blood and not just money, the disparity is even greater, both in terms of our losses and the losses of all others involved. Particularly important in this context is the fact that nation building, foreign aid, imported democratization, Marshall Plans and counterinsurgency (COIN) with a major element of nation building are not only very costly but also highly prone to failure. Thus, they are best avoided.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM writes in The Frugal Superpower that since World War II, “in foreign affairs as in economic policy, the watchword was ‘more.’ That era has ended. The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond will be ‘less.’” Likewise, Charles Kupchan argues in Democracy that America’s economic difficulties, combined with increasing public indifference toward its international obligations, “necessitate that the country scale back its international commitments to bring them into line with diminishing means.” James Traub and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, among many others, also have made statements to the same effect.