The most effective way to persuade people to accept a new government is by understanding the operations of local communities, Professor Roger Myerson argues.
Roger Myerson

In a recent paper,Local Politics and Democratic State-Building,Roger B. Myerson, David L. Pearson Distinguished Service Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the Harris School of Public Policy, examined the United States’ history in international state-building, and looked specifically at how failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq could have been avoided.

“Repeated failures of costly interventions show that something fundamental about democratic state-building has not been sufficiently understood,” the 2007 Nobel laureate wrote.

He argues that the most significant oversight in building foundations of democracy has been putting thoughtful consideration into the relationship between local and national politics, as evidenced by American state-building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Local communities, Myerson said, already have institutions and leaders upon which they rely. These institutions have even greater importance in countries with unreliable state governments. When the state government cannot guarantee safety or public services, it is the local leaders who are closest to the people and who respond to the community’s concerns.

When attempting to build up a new, stable central government, citizens may be apprehensive of new leaders – people they may not trust or may see as competing centers of influence.

“People could realistically fear that the new national leadership will not be responsive to their local concerns,” Myerson said. “An effective national government could forcefully suppress the institutions of local leadership on which they have relied.”

Myerson argues that the way to most effectively persuade the people to accept a new government is by understanding the operations of local communities. Policymakers must thoughtfully consider what the distribution of power throughout the state will look like.

Successful democratic states rely upon the balance between local and national institutions, Myerson says. It ensures individuals will have confidence that they can hold someone accountable to represent their concerns.

Preserving this balance also serves the state well. A good relationship between local and national institutions fights the threat of insurgency by motivating citizens to defend the state for the promise of honor and status in their community. It also ensures a competitive supply of leaders in public service: those individuals who prove their ability at a local level and can then grow to a suitable candidate at the national level.

Any mission, therefore, from a foreign agency intending to aid in building a central government must include the facilitation of these local and national relationships.

“The strategic direction should be informed by a detailed understanding of local political concerns as well as the views of the new national government’s prospective leaders,” Myerson writes. In order to understand those local political concerns, he suggests “a state-building mission needs a team of field officers who can monitor and respond to local political issues in every part of the country.”

This team of local stabilization officers would have the responsibility of directing foreign aid to support trusted local leaders’ efforts to build the new state.

The U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq provide powerful examples for Myerson’s argument about the necessity of these officers. He argues that the costly misdirection of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan from 2002 or in Iraq from 2003 might have been avoided if, from the very start of these interventions, US policymakers had relied on a team of local stabilization officers who could monitor and respond to local political challenges in every part of the country.

“Local political conditions are often difficult for anyone outside the country to assess. When strong nations undertake a foreign intervention to help rebuild a failed state, budgeted resources for the mission should be managed by a team of stabilization officers who can spend the money appropriately according to local conditions in the failed state,” Myerson suggests.

While intervention did eventually gain more direction from field officers, Myerson reports that the initial period of intervention without this information critically lost many people’s confidence.

Myerson shares another example of how the U.S. could have used information coming directly from local leaders to improve their intervention with Vietnam.

When supporting counterinsurgency efforts in South Vietnam, the U.S. created the Office of Rural Affairs. This agency was planted throughout South Vietnam in field offices that had the responsibility of encouraging cooperation between local and national officials. It decentralized spending authority and facilitated relationships with local leaders. This dynamic helped strengthen the foundation of the state government as a whole.

However, Washington policymakers failed to recognize and utilize the information and relationships cultivated by these officers. The program was reorganized and the Office was dismantled, partially resulting in the ultimate failure of the United States’ state-building project in South Vietnam.

Ultimately, moving forward in U.S. state-building intervention, Myerson urges focus be directed towards local politics, communal institutions, and familiar leaders. He draws a comparison to the American Revolution and the building of the United States government, saying “the people who formed the fundamental basis for the new nation were understood to be enfranchised inhabitants acting together in their local communities.”