The Foreign Service Journal, November 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2023 67 James Dobbins, as U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a conference in Berlin, Germany, in May 2013. DPA PICTURE ALLIANCE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO IMAGO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO James Dobbins (seated, at center), then U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, poses with Minister of the Chinese Embassy to the U.S. Lu Kang (on Dobbins’ left), Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Eklil Ahmad Hakimi (on Dobbins’ right), and young Afghan diplomats during a ceremony at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2013. comparative and historical approach. His many articles and op-eds invariably held up these two lenses. Thus, for instance, he would compare a country’s progress to its neighbors of similar characteristics or, using both lenses at once, to its own earlier situation. Often, though not in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, he would conclude that nation-building in a particular country was not perfect but not bad, and certainly not without its achievements. Another hallmark of his, engraved in his thinking from work in the field: a realistic yardstick for progress, a feel for constraints, a disdain for utopian standards. Consider, for example, his censure of the “democratic evangelism” in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. As a diplomat, as a seasoned practitioner of nation-building, Dobbins excelled in part because of his exquisite grasp of the specific evolution of a policy—for example, on the U.N. resolutions pertaining to the status of Kosovo. His legal mind could retain multitudinous details. This was useful for foiling attempts—for instance, from mischievous opposite numbers— to use obscure aspects of old documents to argue, sometimes speciously, on the issue at hand. The Sergey Lavrovs of the world had met their match. Dobbins’ magnum opus was the RAND series he coauthored on nation-building, a formidable structure of input– output analysis. Here I can speak from personal experience. When the first volume appeared in 2003, America’s Role in Nation-Building, I was struck by the comparative and historical treatment and dazzled by the chart in the executive summary, a little graphic masterpiece of analysis involving seven countries, laid out on a time frame, from Germany to Afghanistan. After finishing the book, I resolved to spend the rest of my career in the principal countries of our nation-building: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. (N.B.—And so it came to pass.)