There is a popular joke in academia about the ‘imperialism’ of economics. Just about any topic and field has been covered by economists in one way or another, and with Chris Coyne’s After War: the Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, nation building can now fill the list. While economists can always benefit from an extra dose of humility, they are right to suggest that the economic way of thinking can help analyze and understand the world around us. For Coyne, why nation building fails is the issue he hopes to help explain.
Why I chose it
I met Coyne my junior year of high school at a Foundation for Economic Education seminar, and I mean it when I say the man is brilliant. Reading one of his books has been a goal of mine for some time, so I took this as an opportunity. Also, it is no coincidence that the book involves institutional economics.
Despite years of failures, the western world, under the guidance of the U.S., has repeatedly attempted to export liberal democracy to developing nations. While political scientists have offered countless theories as to why and why not these attempts work, there has been little input by economists on the issue directly. In steps Coyne, who uses theories from public choice, new institutional, and behavioral economics to analyze the inner workings of nation building, and why some nations (Japan and Germany) were successes while most nations (Haiti, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc) were failures.
Coyne breaks his book into two major sections. In the first portion, he introduces to the reader the various ideas from economics that can be applied to nation building. This is where topics such as political economy, institutions, game theory, and expectations are introduced. Coyne explains how underlying preferences, cultural norms, and ‘meta-games’ can predict the difficulty/probability of nation building and sustaining a liberal democracy in a developing country.
A great example would be the sectarian groups within Iraq that Coyne analyzes with his mesh of theory. Iraq can be broken into four overarching groups (but there are many others), Kurds, Arabs, Shi’a Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. Under the Hussein regime, both the Kurds, regardless of religion, and Shi’a majority were persecuted under the Sunni Arab minority. Hussein was able to hold Iraq together because of his authoritarian rule and a strong, militarized state that responded to Hussein’s orders. Kurds and Shi’a alike are skeptical of a centralized state, and understandably are wary of a liberal democracy. Simultaneously, Sunnis are afraid of Kurds and Shi’a Muslims, who if create a strong coalition, could exact revenge for years of oppression under Hussein. In this scenario, we see underlying preferences (distrust of government), game theory (interactions between groups), and norms (sectarian society) all interact to determine the success of reconstruction efforts.
The next section of the book is Coyne’s analysis of successful and unsuccessful reconstruction efforts, the (then) current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his alternative to foreign interventionism (free trade and non-interventionism). Coyne points out accurately how Germany and Japan, prior to reconstruction, had all the foundations for a liberal democratic society. Each nation was heavily industrialized, had prior democratic institutions, and was devoid of sectarian conflicts. Adding to the situation, each nation was utterly emotionally and physically devastated from the worst wars the world had seen. The other examples, Somalia and Haiti, were almost exactly the opposite, with histories rife with corruption, sectarian conflict, and no industrial base.
My main criticism comes in two forms, one more subjective than the other. Overall, I believe Coyne simplified his analysis a little too much, and more in depth analysis would have benefited the book. More critically, however, is his alternative and his defense of it. While I agree whole heartedly with Coyne’s alternative of non-interventionist foreign policy and absolute free trade, his defense leaves you wanting more. Coyne was right to emphasize the failed record of other alternatives, but he should have provided something more (I’m not sure what) to cement his argument.
Great book, fascinating read, and something quick and easy to fly through. Coyne is a good writer, does not repeat himself too much (a severe problem with most economists), and was able to explain terms as plainly as possible. I agree with his analysis, and I believe anyone in policy, especially military or foreign, should read his work. 4/5.