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Lessons Learned About Nation Building

Veteran diplomat Keith Mines shares lessons from decades in the world's hot spots

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan

DURHAM, N.C. – In the view of one seasoned diplomat, there's never a failure in nation-building, "there's just an incomplete success.”

And that answered the question posed by the title of a webinar featuring diplomat Keith Mines: “Is Nation-Building Ever Successful: Lessons from Afghanistan, Colombia, the Balkans and Elsewhere.”

Mines has taken part in nation-building efforts as a Special Forces officer, diplomat, occupation administrator and United Nations official.

Last Thursday, he and former ambassador Patrick Duddy, now director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, discussed Mines’ take on nation-building from his vast experience.

Duddy, the United States’ most recent ambassador to Venezuela, opened by asking Mines where nation-building has worked.

Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Balkans are among the nation’s where nation-building helped stem crisis including famine, genocide and war, Mile said.

“They're all successes that we have to be realistic about what's possible,” he said. “We're not turning countries into Switzerland, we're turning them away from civil war.”

Iraq and Afghanistan are recent examples of where the U.S. and others largely did not get it right, he said. Quickly training security forces, creating jobs and being present – but not overwhelmingly visible – are some of the areas that fell short, he said.

“We’ve got to be cautious about how heavy-handed we are, how visible we are ...,” Mines said. “The only way to do anything was to liberate the country and then start a process where you know somebody was running the country, but I think we were very inconsistent about how we applied those principles of being cautious. ...”

Mines, now director of the Latin America program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, used a pair of analogies to support his views, which are expanded upon in his recent book, “Why Nation-Building Matters” (Potomac Books, 2020).

He believes helping a nation recover from war, corrupt governance and other challenges requires a long-term commitment and an understanding it will likely be messy for some time.

Mines likened the effort to a sheriff and a mayor.

“Do we want to be the sheriff that every time there's an attack we run out and up a posse and go take care of that attack? Or do we want to try to support the mayor in in that small Western town to where the sheriff has less to do because it's being well-governed and they have situational awareness and all the other things that go along with the governance?

“So that's the question that I think we're debating and I think we have gone all the way back 20 years in our thinking in some ways in saying that the answer is just to wait for another attack and then go out with the posse. I would argue that that that is a fool's errand (that’s) not going to be very effective, and I think it is, it is also a bit sloppy.”

Mines also compared nation-building to Multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that has affected him. A treatment drug is debilitating and costs $17,000 a month, he said.

“I asked the doctor, I said, ‘Well how long does this go on, I mean when are we done?’ He said, ‘Well, how long do you want to live?’

Keeping countries stable and from falling into extreme fragility that leads to more problems requires a similar perspective as the merits of a maintenance drug, he said.

He also said some in the U.S. politicize the UN unfairly. The organization can sometimes do a much better job of helping rebuild a nation than we can, largely because of their expertise, Mines said.

When asked by a viewer to describe how democracy and nation-building, which requires a strong state, can coexist, Mines acknowledged it’s “tricky.”

“The question of democracy, what I would suggest is that the only long-term road to stability ultimately is consensual governance and so democracy, I think, is the ultimate goal, I think. In many cases, everyone would be better served by accepting something less than democracy on the road to that consensual governance, to that ultimate democracy.”

Regarding the way forward in Afghanistan, where he started working in 2002, Mines said sanctions and embargoes can be used “as a weapon against a political leadership, but we must also recognize that the country is going to need assistance.”

“We need some way to weave between the anger that the international community may have toward the Taliban and a recognition that there are still 30 million Afghans that are going to need international assistance to get through the winter. So I would hope that there's some kind of a balance between.”

The webinar was organized by the DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy Program and co-sponsored by the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Duke Center of International Development and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.