Afghanistan Debacle Aside, U.S. Isn’t Done With Nation-Building
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- America may say that it’s done with nation-building, but don’t believe it.
Following a disillusioning war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden declared an end to “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” It’s a familiar pledge, and one that the U.S. never sticks to for very long. For better or worse, nation-building is woven into America’s diplomatic DNA.
The effort to build functioning, legitimate states in troubled societies has been part of U.S. foreign policy since America has been a global power. U.S. officials sought to reform government and society in Cuba and the Philippines (while prosecuting a brutal counterinsurgency against nationalist rebels in the latter) after taking them from Spain in 1898. Washington tried to create better, if not quite good, governance in many of the Caribbean basin countries it occupied during the early 20th century.
These missions were dress rehearsals for the democratization of Japan and Germany after World War II, as well as Cold War nation-building efforts in countries as varied as South Korea, Vietnam and El Salvador. Then came military and political entanglements in Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, followed by far deeper embroilments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some of these missions have been historic successes: The democratization of Japan and Germany fundamentally changed the trajectory of the world. Some, such as the creation or rescue of fragile democracies in the Philippines and El Salvador, delivered good-enough outcomes. In some cases, it is too soon to tell: The Iraq war was a fiasco, but nearly 20 years later that country still, amazingly, has a shot at becoming a functioning democracy. And in other cases, namely Vietnam, nation-building failed catastrophically, creating a sense that the U.S. had squandered lives, money and time in quixotic efforts to transform countries it never understood.
The intervention in Afghanistan is now viewed through that lens. The U.S. mostly gave up on remaking Afghan society from 2011 onward, in favor of a narrower focus on counterterrorism and keeping the Taliban at bay. But much of what Washington did in the war’s first decade was classic nation-building: Building representative political institutions, a more modern economy and lots of roads and schools. That the Afghan government collapsed so quickly after U.S. forces withdrew, and that the Taliban now rule the country, has — not surprisingly — produced a backlash against nation-building. And not for the first time.
A century ago, the terrible coercion that accompanied U.S. involvement in the Philippines elicited similar disenchantment. The 1960s-era Alliance for Progress in Latin America aimed to catalyze prosperity and good governance, but ended in stagnation and dictatorship, leading to President Richard Nixon’s promise to discard “the illusion that we alone could remake continents.”
Vietnam then produced a far sharper revulsion. And even the limited interventions of the 1990s caused George W. Bush to declare, while running for president in 2000, that nation-building was a waste of U.S. resources — before he launched the era of ambitious intervention Biden has now ended.
There are good reasons why Americans tire of such endeavors. Crafting effective institutions in war-torn societies requires deep and sometimes deadly involvement in countries that Washington rarely knows very well. Nation-building involves dealing with spoilers, whether insurgents or hostile neighbors, that don’t share America’s vision. It occasionally results in quagmires, such as Vietnam, so costly and divisive that they destabilize the U.S. itself.
Yet America keeps coming back, whether a few years or a couple of decades down the line. It does so because nation-building draws on two long-running threads in the intellectual fabric of U.S. strategy.
One is a democratic moral sensibility. Americans have rarely been comfortable with intervening in a country and then handing it over to a brutal dictator as a matter of first resort (although they occasionally get there later), which creates a certain pressure to invest in a humane political order. A few policymakers may have favored installing a friendly strongman in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, for instance, but Bush chose to pursue — albeit incompetently — a democratic system instead.
Second is a belief that internal instability and external aggression flow from political illegitimacy. For generations, U.S. officials have argued that autocracies replicate internationally the violence they perpetrate against their own people. Thus, averred Woodrow Wilson in 1917, “a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.”
Wilson’s heirs also contended, in dealing with Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan more recently, that bad governance inevitably spurs disillusion, revolt and geopolitical dangers. Bush echoed this view in 2002, saying that victory over the Taliban must “be followed by a moral victory” that brings “better lives for individual human beings.”
That may or may not be a good thing: There are enduring academic debates about whether democracy is really essential to domestic stability and global peace. It has sometimes proved beyond America’s power or stamina to create stable, well-governed polities overseas. Yet the overall U.S. record in nation-building isn’t nearly as bad as some might believe — and the fact that America never really succeeds in quitting the endeavor shows the strength of its intellectual underpinnings. The U.S. may indeed be done with Afghanistan, but it’s only done with nation-building until the next time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
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