The classic western High Noon culminates with a scene in which the hero, a retired sheriff played by Gary Cooper, finally confronts the dangerous gang that’s descended upon the unsuspecting town of Hadleyville. The townspeople remain in the background throughout the climactic fight, passive and frightened. Whether Hadleyville will be saved is solely in the hands of the outsider: his wisdom, his courage, his determination.
Most of the policy debates in recent years on international intervention seem to have been framed around that famous plotline. Foreign powers—the soldiers and civilian nation builders from the United States and Europe—have often been cast as the lone heroes, upon whose determination the fates of entire nations depend. Ordinary Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis, Afghans, and now Libyans have been regarded as bystanders, dependent on the decisions of those who came to their rescue. (Some locals, of course, have been cast as villains, members of threatening gangs—whether Balkan nationalists, Baathists, or Taliban—that need to be vanquished.)
But as flattering as this narrative is for potential interveners, it doesn’t always serve the populations in need. (Which is not to say that it serves the outsiders either: Gary Cooper didn’t have the option of withdrawing from Hadleyville if the costs got too high.) The last twenty years has seen a series of humanitarian interventions and nation-building experiments initiated by the West—the successful military intervention in Libya being only the latest—but our conversations about them have often been badly distorted. Nation-building projects are sometimes necessary, but the West's ineffectual and narcissistic debates are not. Rather than obsessing over the size of our own role in such interventions, we should learn to pay deference to the local capabilities and local knowledge of the foreign countries we are trying to help.
DIFFERENT THINKERS ARTICULATE the task of the heroic nation-builder in different ways, from advocates of humanitarian intervention who are motivated by moral responsibility, to neo-conservative geo-strategists who see failed states as a global security threat. But it's common to believe that success is a matter of good preparation and adequate resources: outputs, essentially, are assumed to be determined by one’s own inputs.
According to this "planning" mindset, nation-building isn't easy: Indeed, mobilizing the necessary resources (soldiers, civilian nation builders, money) is hard, as the most prominent and comprehensive planners—like the thinkers at the RAND Corporation who produced a Beginner’s Guide to Nation Building in 2003--have noted. And yet, the planners suggest, there’s always a formula for ultimate success in foreign intervention: It’s just a matter of cracking the code.
For some, that code involves the intangible quality of charismatic leadership, and a professed willingness to stay the course as long as it takes. For others, it's primarily a matter of material resources. Either way, many seem to agree that the ultimate success or failure of nation-building efforts and military intervention is up to the outsiders.
But what if it actually depends most of all on the citizens of the country that demands the intervention? Outsiders will obviously always be able to make an important contribution. They can, as the U.S. and NATO did in the 1990s in the Balkans, weaken the genocidal armies of Slobodan Milosevic through air strikes and by allowing arms to reach his opponents. NATO, after all, did the same in recent weeks in Libya. But humanitarian wars and their nation-building aftermaths also require a realistic sense of what can be achieved, and how much remains outside the control of outsiders.
This was certainly how American policymakers approached peace-making in the Balkans in the mid 1990s. As Richard Holbrooke later recalled, at one tense moment during the Dayton Peace talks, when it looked as if there might be no agreement, the White House spokesperson told him that “if Dayton failed, there would be a combination of relief and disappointment. If you succeeded there would be a matter of pride and apprehension.” Washington was not determined to right Bosnia's wrong at all costs; non-intervention wasn't the preference, but it was always an option.
In the end the NATO intervention in Bosnia brought to an end a horrific war and produced a peace that has since lasted more than 15 years, without any American casualties. But in doing so, the U.S. proceeded cautiously, demanding that Bosnians take the lead, and aware that real but limited humanitarian interests justified only limited risks. Success came ultimately after the successful transformation of a whole region, as Bosnia’s neighbors found themselves turning away from violence. It wasn’t all about the West's nation-building prowess after all.
In the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan that sense of caution was lost. In Afghanistan, the international community was gradually drawn into a nation-building effort whose reach exceeded its grasp. In Iraq, Washington absurdly used as its model the successful U.S.-led occupation of post-World War II Germany, a nation that had been pummeled into unconditional surrender. Needless to say, those plans were an utter non sequitur.
AS THE INTERNATIONAL community contemplates today what its options are in post-Qaddafi Libya—as well as in places like Syria, where massacres are still ongoing—it would do well to look back instead to the realism of the late 1990s, when international missions were always on the table, but were always also expected to be limited and focused.
To that end, NATO's role in the Libyan war seems like an encouraging example. The United States defined its role as tipping the balance, supporting, but not controlling, the efforts of local forces rebelling against a cruel regime. NATO adjusted its objectives to developments on the ground, worked for incremental success without raising exaggerated expectations. Wars of this sort, with limited and strictly defined costs, may be the only way to rescue the idea of humanitarian intervention at all; the West should be similarly cautious in the nation-building phase.
Unsurprisingly, some critics are already criticizing the lack of certainty in Libya's post-war nation-building effort, saying that America's role is inadequate and unworthy of a superpower. But they are only hearkening back to a failed decade of hubris. They have failed to learn that the rest of the world isn’t Hadleyville.
Gerald Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), is author, with Rory Stewart, of the recently published book Can Intervention Work?