Capital Commentary: The Fallacy of Nation Building  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

Eight years ago today the United States was viciously attacked from within as the result of an international conspiracy. Part of our response was to reenergize a thread in American history that goes back to the founding of the country. A military response was launched not only for defense but also to try to destroy the root causes of the attack.

For most of our history we have assumed that we have the responsibility—even the obligation—to secure human and democratic rights for others. For those who see history this way the United States has succeeded Israel as God’s benighted, exceptional nation and we are required by our Creator to bring his and our civilizing message to the rest of the world.

Over the past 200 years, this peculiar form of connecting the divine to human history has melded into a powerful secular religion of the state. Over time, our secular religion has been the driving force behind much of American foreign policy, justifying and rationalizing our expansion to the Pacific Ocean and many of our overseas adventures and acquisitions.

Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, this idea of American exceptionalism, with its civilizing mission, has been manifest primarily in a determination to build Western-styled nations (i.e. states) where they have “failed” or have not previously existed. The underlying rationale is that a world of democratic states, supported by a free-enterprise system, will establish peace, because other democracies will not attack us or tolerate terrorists and will live at peace with each other.

Unfortunately, this has not worked. There are four major reasons for this. First, in the rapidly globalizing world, the state is becoming less important as the only vehicle of political and economic organization and success. Although still very important, the state is now merely one among several major global actors. Second, building a nation takes enormous resources and the US does not have the talent, resolve, or money to accomplish the task in regions of the world that we think need fixing. Third, it is the height of arrogance to assume that everyone wants our model, and this is demonstrated on a daily basis as various groups fight back. Finally, despite our claims, there is no necessary connection between terrorism and particular types of political community. Terrorism can grow in successful as well as in “failed” states.

Over the past two decades we have tried and failed (or are failing) in several critical places to achieve nation building. In the early 1990s, a state-building effort in Somalia collapsed and the effort has never recovered. Shortly thereafter, we tried to build a state in Bosnia and after 15 agonizing years Bosnia is on the verge of collapse. Despite the general reduction in violence in Iraq, the desired goal of a modern, unified, multiethnic, free-enterprise state is not taking hold and there are growing signs that the progress which has been made is likely to unravel once the US departs. Finally, like Somalia, Afghanistan has never been a state in the Western sense of the term and the sacrifice in human life and material resources is not worth the pursuit of a goal that cannot be reached.

While it is certainly legitimate to oppose those who would try to harm us, and while it is appropriate to offer advice and help to those who ask for it, it is a fool’s errand to try to build political communities in our image around the world. It would be much better to heed the advice of John Quincy Adams, offered in 1821: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science, National Defense University

(The views expressed here are the author's alone.)

The Capital Commentary may be photocopied or retransmitted in its entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center but are intended to help advance discussion.

Copyright Center for Public Justice 2009.

This piece was issued originally as the Capital Commentary for September 11, 2009.

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