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What Future Does ‘Nation Building’ Have After Such a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year?



Guest Column




Army troops are deployed in formation in Yangon in February, when anti-regime mass protests took place in the city. / The Irrawaddy


By Tony Waters 21 October 2021

2021 was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad year for nation builders from the UN, US, NATO, World Bank, and other promoters of peace building and democracy.  First, on Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized control of the government, and arrested recently elected leaders. This followed a decade’s worth of assistance for security, drug eradication, elections, ceasefires and development, all in the name of a nation building project designed to bring Myanmar in line with the world’s political and economic norms. The work of billions of dollars in nation building assistance disappeared in a flash as the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, arrested elected NLD leaders and parliamentarians on the first day of Parliament, to the beat of an aerobic exercise video.

Then in August 2021, an even more dramatic retreat for the nation builders happened, when the US, UN and NATO precipitously withdrew from Afghanistan, and not just billions this time, but trillions of US dollars in nation building were abandoned. Coming under the umbrella in Afghanistan were—as in Myanmar—spending on security, drug eradication, elections, ceasefires, human rights and development. This pot of gold too seemingly vanished over a weekend, as the Taliban reclaimed control of Kabul. Thus in 2021, two very different sets of autocrats, the Myanmar Tatmadaw and the Afghan Taliban, thumbed their noses at the West’s nation building agenda.

Why is ‘security first’ the only idea?

Both Myanmar and Afghanistan’s foreign nation builders had common policies emphasizing security first, then nation building. Many such ideas were developed in North American and European universities and think tanks steeped in post-World War II experiences. The general assumption is that the legitimacy of the government rests first on the power of its security forces, then everything else naturally follows. The reasoning is that democracy, health, agriculture, human rights and schools only come after the police and military secure “peace”. The question about what happens when the military itself is the source of anti-democratic authoritarianism, often goes unasked. The problem is that military rule and democratic rule are generally incompatible with each other. Just ask the imprisoned leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar who tried to run a joint government with the Myanmar military from 2016 to 2021.

The origins of security first nation building

The passion for nation building emerged as an American-designed project after World War II.  After winning the war, the Americans first occupied their enemies militarily, and only later invested heavily in rebuilding Japan and West Germany. The nature of the war’s conclusion meant “American military first.”

The impulse to nation-build on the back of the occupation was perhaps an afterthought, but it has had powerful long-term consequences. The Marshall Plan and other generous investments in the German and Japanese economies were initiated with a new “financial architecture” via the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund were established. The United Nations in New York City also created a new political forum for the American-dominated world order, which quickly came to include newly independent countries created in the wake of European and Japanese colonial projects. Nation building in many new countries quickly assumed American-style economic capitalism, free markets, democratic politics, strong civil society, and anti-Communism. The nation builders’ belief was that this American combination was a recipe for good societies everywhere.

Indeed, both Japan and West Germany created sociopolitical miracles within two decades, re-emerging from autocratic military occupation as strong social democracies and American allies against communism. Military occupation followed by nation building also hindered the re-emergence of fascism, permitted large industrial conglomerates to expand customer bases, and established new democratic constitutions which protected human rights and property rights.  Military first seemed to work there—so shouldn’t it work in Myanmar, Afghanistan and elsewhere? In fact, the Japanese and German cases were to be outliers—most of the West’s postwar nation building efforts would not turn out so well.

The nation building regime

Every time a recent American president has confronted a security problem with military force—whether in 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq, 2011 in Libya, 2014 in Syria, or multiple times in Haiti—it seems they quickly follow up with a “no nation building” pledge.  This pledge is of course immediately violated, because simply leaving an invaded country is not a good option, either.

But because the military arrives first, the pattern is the same as after 1945 in Germany and Japan:  Let “security” establish norms for the nation building. Those men in dark glasses and sidearms become prominent, and helicopters are the preferred method of transport. “Hardened” embassies become secure compounds with US Marines, and senior local politicians are summoned by the ambassador. Western accounting standards are insisted upon for recipients of “development aid” with elaborate Request for Proposals (RFPs), which can be effectively completed only by companies well-schooled in American accountability law.

At the same time crony contracts go out the side door in the name of “security,” or in more common terms used in Yangon, anti-terrorism funding, drug eradication, ceasefire negotiations, etc. Such money directly and indirectly ends up in the coffers of the local police and military who, after all, have a monopoly on security issues. And for those confronting enemies of the West, there is the lure of potential US$1,000 (and more) per day consulting contracts, Land Cruisers, and admission to embassies with their duty free goods and fast-food restaurants. For less important local allies, there are lower-level meetings at preferred public eateries like the Fuji Coffee House and Restaurant next to the US Embassy on University Avenue in Yangon, which is within the perimeter US Marines are allowed to “secure.”

What can the nation builders do in Myanmar now?

The foreign nation builders are undoubtedly feeling a new low in Myanmar today. They wonder how they can continue democratic nation building in a country where the army has shut down the elected Parliament, the rule of law and respect for human rights, and in which snipers shoot demonstrators, activists are imprisoned and there is an incipient civil war. And then by tradition and habit, it seems that the UN and donors are still looking to Afghanistan for inspiration; donors and diplomats are becoming even more isolated as they restrict their numbers and travel.  The emphasis on security for embassy compounds increases. Military attaches are considered even more important, and the West is afraid because the two countries which produce most of the world’s heroin and methamphetamines—Afghanistan and Myanmar—are now ruled by powers hostile to Western interests.

Thus, soon enough, the only way to prevent the poisoning of American youth with drugs is reinforcement of the Taliban and Tatmadaw’s drug suppression efforts, and bags of cash are quietly shifted around. The solution seems to be simply double down on old nation building policies that did not work well in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Haiti, etc.  After all, the same people who organized previous aid polices remain in charge in New York, Geneva and Washington, searching for ways to re-exert foreign influence in Myanmar by paying astronomical rents to generals who control Yangon’s luxury housing, and rewarding military cronies with ever more development contracts.

It is likely that someday Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the military will again move to the side, whether in one, five, 10 or more years. There will then be new calls for peace building and nation building, just as there were under the reformer General Thein Sein after 2010. Will the response come from the nation builders whose policies created the Afghanistan and Myanmar interventions that collapsed both nations in 2021? Will donors again look to the same old North American and EU think tanks and consultancy firms?  Or will they finally consider something new?

Anti-regime protesters fight back against advancing regime troops in Yangon in March. / The Irrawaddy

Where does legitimacy really come from?

The core problem, however, is the assumption that legitimacy only comes from the barrel of a gun, because presumably that’s what happened after the American invasions of Japan, Germany, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. But that’s not the whole story. Legitimacy really comes first from the competency of local people who govern, along perhaps with sometimes a dose of charismatic leadership. Successful governments generate legitimacy first, and then create a security force that protects that legitimacy. Autocratic governments, on the other hand, start with military who assume that fear leads to legitimacy. This is the nation building dogma that emerged in places like Afghanistan and Myanmar. Authoritarian regimes like that of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw and Afghanistan’s Taliban throve in “security first” environments created by the now retreating donors who, in the case of Afghanistan, became occupiers.

But how else can outsiders be involved, what can be done without “security first?” A suggestion: Why not try some of the same under-the-table financing for schools, clinics, scholarships, and other forms of assistance that the CIA sent out the side doors to various military groups pledging support for counterterrorism, security and drug eradication initiatives in Afghanistan? There are thousands of under-financed schools for Myanmar’s peoples in Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh and elsewhere serving Myanmar’s peoples in exile. They are often shoestring operations operated by parents, small NGOs, ethnic organizations, churches, mosques, refugees, migrants, etc., which do not have the capacity to apply for conventional donor funding with their elaborate RFPs. Meanwhile, Myanmar newspapers struggle to maintain freedom of information. Clinics struggle to serve populations inside Myanmar and in exile. All might benefit from some “no RFP required,” just like the funding already sent out through side doors in US embassies to militia groups throughout the world.  The side doors are already there, why not use them for something besides guns?

Again, the end of today’s military government will come, and even the Taliban will one day be moderated or overthrown. When that time comes, will donors be ready to assist the government with effective programs that will contribute to the liberal democracy with free markets and guarantees of human rights that they claim to support? Or will the situation revert to military first? Donors have much to learn about how to engage places like Myanmar. 2021 was indeed the nation builders’ Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad annus horribilis. The question is whether the military and security forces will still set the stage for the new “legitimacy first” Marshall Plans that follow.

Tony Waters is Professor of Sociology at Payap University, and Director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Chiangmai. He works with Burmese, Karen and other students in the university’s PhD program in Peacebuilding. He is the author of academic books and articles about refugee relief and development such as  Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan, and an occasional contributor to The Irrawaddy. He can be reached at [email protected].


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