Story Stream
recent articles

In writing Why Nation-Building Matters, Keith Mines makes the bold claim that the nation-building efforts of the United States are its best hope for creating and preserving national security. He argues the United States is most secure when sovereign governments interact according to a rules-based order that allows for strong, precise, and coordinated responses to a myriad of global issues such as terrorism, pandemics, human migration, and global climate change. Using his more than thirty-five years of firsthand experience, as a soldier, special forces officer, foreign affairs officer, and diplomat, Mines makes a compelling case for why America should lead from the front and remain committed to governance and the Westphalian order. He brings the reader along through post conflict negotiations and development in all the usual places—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia—as well as a few outside of the usual international aid circuit in Haiti and El Salvador. He provides a view into the tough trade-offs faced every day by local and national actors in underdeveloped and war-torn nations who seek to make their own corner of the world a more secure place.

Why Nation-Building Matters fills an important seam in the institutional capacity building literature by connecting academic titles and concepts with the personalities and decisions of figures carving out lives in post conflict societies. Mines furthers a claim the United States should not only attempt nation-building, but that success in this regard is imperative for the coming century. U.S. policy makers, legislators and diplomat readers will gain an hands-on perspective of the hard lessons learned through Mines’ experience in American interventions, while international allies and partners will better understand the nuances that lead to intervening and the decisions therein. The book is a compelling narrative with vivid implications for the next generation of policy makers as they consider what constitutes success or failure in future interventions.

From the beginning, Mines explains, “This is fundamentally and unabashedly a book about nation-building.”[1] He acknowledges the mixed consensus within the academic, pundit, and think-tank communities on how the United States should implement its aims and forcefully argues for his concept of nation-building as the intrusive intervention of a foreign power that requires a coordinated whole of government effort to produce results. Those opposing this strategy call for a precise application of counterterrorism training led by the United States military directed towards creating viable local and national police forces to counter security threats within the partner nation with little involvement in other political or economic institutions. Mines contends this limited engagement strategy is destined to fail, because political and economic instability over the long term will negate any short-term security wins. 

Mines builds on Nadia Schadlow’s analysis that the United States almost universally achieves its initial military objectives but fails to consolidate these military gains into political stability.[2] From his experience as a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Mines shows how an emphasis on security at the cost of governance manifested as instability in the reconstruction period. Based on his experience in Afghanistan as the senior civilian representative in Mazar-e Sharif, Mines explores how the international community failed to invest the necessary resources and support following the Bonn Agreement and Loya Jirga in 2002. This failure enabled spoilers on the periphery to destabilize the legitimacy of the government over the ensuing years. In both cases there was a window within which to capitalize on creating a new political solution, but the United States and its partners failed to take advantage of these opportunities. This is why nation-building matters.


The book is divided into three types of capacity building campaigns in roughly chronological order through eight U.S. interventions. The first section covers the efforts of the United States during the Cold War in Colombia, Grenada, and El Salvador. In using these examples, Mines identifies a number of conditions necessary for international interventions to succeed. First, governance will not take root without the support of the host nation and a functioning political agreement. Next, nation-building is a whole-of-government exercise and requires attention and resources equal to, if not greater, than in times of war. Finally, nation-building must include representation from all members and sections of the host population. Mines returns to these first hard lessons learned at the conclusion of his book and re-emphasizes the simple conditions  requisite for successful nation-building.

The second section covers the peacekeeping campaigns and humanitarian interventions of Somalia, Haiti, and Darfur. These examples of institutional failure present interesting implications for the United States as it wrestles with a methodology for intervening in humanitarian crises. History suggests a tipping point exists where humanitarian suffering prompts a moral obligation to act. The United Nations acknowledged this condition following the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia and chartered its responsibility to protect principle in 2005.[3] The most recent implementation of this principle occurred in 2011 with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 to establish a no-fly zone over Libya.[4] While endorsing the U.N. charter, the United States has not formalized a similar concept in its own doctrine regarding interventions. At the conclusion of Why Nation Building Matters, Mines provides a strong critique of the capacity building architecture of the United States and offers holistic changes to its current fractional strategy, going so far as to recommend the creation of a “Bureau of Civilian Security Assistance” as the single American institutional lead for nation-building.[5] As the world grapples with populist movements and failing states, the lessons from these three experiences suggest calls for intervention following civil war and humanitarian crisis will only increase in the future.

The third and final section of Why Nation-Building Matters touches on what will be the enduring challenge to western societies’ national security over the coming century—the rise of ungoverned space. Using his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mines describes in detail the tensions inherent in nation-building that are well studied in the academic literature. Using Iraq, he illustrates the dilemma of Michael Barnett and Christoph Zurcher’s peacebuilders contract.[6] This model covers the intervening coalition’s desire for creating a new political compact in the post conflict society. Mines explains how political institutions and governance take substantial time and effort to create which is in tension with the more immediate need to create jobs and spark economic activity. He uses the superphosphate fertilizer plant in Al Qaim and the Ramadi glass factory as illustrations revealing the struggle to get functional jobs online even with substantial support from stakeholders across the society. This drive for job creation requires the coalition of peacebuilders to partner with the same national and subnational elites from the prior regime who still hold the means of capital and production. Unfortunately, this partnership may reinforce the pre-conflict political reality and work against the intention of a new political solution. 

UN Peacekeepers (peacekeeping.un.org)

A second lesson gleaned from Iraq is the transition from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the new Iraqi government. Fundamental to any nation-building program are the questions of how long we stay and how we leave. David Edelstein titles this quandary as the duration dilemma. It covers the tension that exists between the benefits of stability, financing, and security provided by the intervening coalition balanced against the will of the people to govern themselves.[7] In the Iraqi case, Mines demonstrates how a rush to hold elections was an ill-guided metric to gauge institutional viability. Contributing factors of anti-interventionist attributes of coalition partners and the Iraqi people’s desire to govern themselves led to a transition that occurred before the new government institutions could take hold. In this instance, the Coalition Provisional Authority transitioned after 14 months of governing the country to the interim Iraqi government. The fledgling government was unable to provide security and stability which resulted in a recommitment of coalition forces over the following years.

Finally, in a postmortem of his time in Afghanistan, Mines articulates Edelstein’s footprint dilemma.[8] Too small a presence in 2002 led to a failure to secure the periphery of the country, which led to a resurgence of violence that directly contradicted the newly formed government’s perception of control. As a result, the pendulum swung to the opposite end and resulted in a footprint of more than 100,000 coalition forces in the country by 2010, thus destroying any legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Why Nation-Building Matters closes an important gap in the academic literature of capacity building and governance by filling in the human stories that good governance protects. Mines connects the intellectual titles of national and sub-national elites with personalities like Minni Minawi and Mohammed Arif, political actors attempting to navigate an opaque post conflict world as they make decisions that ripple across society. This book connects programs like the Barrios Military Academy exchange with the stories of these soldiers who trained in the United States and then returned to El Salvador to fight against guerrillas in their homeland. Mines illustrates how sustained commitment over decades, not years, leads to governance and stability. The individual human dimension resident in all social compacts is the enduring characteristic uniquely covered throughout his book.

Why Nation-Building Matters is particularly appropriate now as the United States develops its national security strategy from counterinsurgency to great power competition, because it provides insight into the competing interests resident in building partner capacity within fragile states. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and supporting counterterrorism strategy are aligned towards strengthening American national security through integrated partnerships around the globe. The counterterrorism strategy argues that local solutions from sovereign states are an effective deterrent to ungoverned space and help mitigate the development of extremist organizations. It seeks to enable these solutions through augmenting partner nations capabilities across law enforcement, military, and security services.[9] Mines’ description of El Salvador in the 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s will be eerily similar to the experience of diplomats and foreign affairs officers implementing the National Defense Strategy today. 


Mines does not present a new way of thinking or present a new model for nation-building in the future. But he does ask the reader to consider how and why the United States continues to intervene abroad. How do Americans evaluate the necessary and prudent work conducted on their behalf? What is the result of the blood and treasure invested in their name? Ungoverned space and post conflict societies will remain a persistent threat, most recently demonstrated by instability in the Western Sahara, Tigray, and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. The United States must come to terms with a taxonomy and evaluation criteria for future nation-building interventions.

While an interesting and engaging narrative of his personal experiences, Why Nation-Building Matters suffers as an objective analysis due to the author's targeted attempt to persuade the reader of the need for more American involvement worldwide. Missing from the work is analysis or description of when the United States should not attempt to intervene. In his epilogue, Mine’s captures his view of American interventionism succinctly with the claim that “full spectrum power needs to be deployed across the entire range of the contest, from pre-conflict, through conflict, fully into post-conflict, and with a strong, capable component for the lengthy post-post conflict.”[10] However, Mines’ own accounts provide evidence of the mixed-record of success for America’s nation-building endeavors and the woefully underdeveloped policies upon which it attempts to create partners’ institutional capacity. The unique cultural, political, and economic involvement requisite in nation-building should preserve its use to only the most opportune scenarios and not as the standard procedure for American engagement with fragile and failing states.

As a whole, Why Nation-Building Matters provides a vivid account of the United States nation-building successes and failures over the past 40 years. Keith Mines’ breadth of firsthand experience covers all aspects of building partner capacity: from training counterinsurgency forces as a special operations detachment commander in Honduras to advising Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the governance and security of nine northern provinces in Afghanistan. The insights and hard lessons learned come from a career dedicated to challenges of institution building. Perhaps appropriately, Why Nation-Building Matters ultimately leaves us in the same position as where we began; reaffirming that the process of creating governance and functioning institutions is hard but worthwhile.

Brian Mathews is a U.S. Army officer studying at Georgetown University as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff internship program. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Keith W. Mines, Why Nation-Building Matters: Political Consolidation, Building Security Forces, and Economic Development in Failed and Fragile States (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

[2] Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017).

[3] “United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,” United Nations (United Nations), https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/about-responsibility-to-protect.shtml.

[4] Bellamy, Alex J. “Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: The Exception and the Norm.” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (2011): 263–69.

[5] Keith W. Mines, Why Nation-Building Matters: Political Consolidation, Building Security Forces, and Economic Development in Failed and Fragile States (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

[6] Michael Barnett and Christoph Zurcher, “The Peacebuilder's Contract,” in The Dilemmas of Statebuilding Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations (London: Routledge, 2009).

[7] David M. Edelstein, “Foreign militaries, sustainable institutions, and postwar statebuilding.,” in The Dilemmas of Statebuilding Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 81-103.

[8] Ibid.

[9] U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America, 2018. pp 23-24.

[10] Keith W. Mines, Why Nation-Building Matters: Political Consolidation, Building Security Forces, and Economic Development in Failed and Fragile States (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press, 2020). pp. 328.

Show comments Hide Comments