Since the days of the American Revolution, nation-building has been deeply embedded in America’s DNA. Yet no other country has created more problems for itself and for others by pursuing impractical reconstruction efforts in war-torn nations, argues Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
In his new book “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama,” Suri examines more than 200 years of U.S. policy to explain the successes and failures of nation-building operations. From Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, to Japan and Germany after World War II, to the ongoing rebuilding of Iraq, he draws lessons from past mistakes and offers a plan for moving forward.
According to his analysis, the key to successful nation-building is to follow five principles:
• Partners: Nation-building always requires partners; there must be communication between people on the ground and people in distant government offices.
• Process: Human societies do not follow formulas. Nation-building is a process which does not produce clear, quick results.
• Problem-solving: Leadership must start small, addressing basic problems. Public trust during a period of occupation emerges from the fulfillment of basic needs.
• Purpose: Small beginnings must serve larger purposes. Citizens must see the value in what they’re doing.
• People: Nation-building is about people. Large forces do not move history. People move history.
Suri recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss the book and its implications for American politics at home and abroad.
Why is nation-building a part of American DNA?
The founding of the United States in the late 18th century was a radical nation-building project. A small group of people living in British North America sought to create a new kind of government in a vast territory that was representative, free and unified. Their success became the expectation for all American politics at home and abroad to this day. Americans continue to assume that others want to live with a similar kind of government. Americans continue to believe that a world with similar governments will be safer and more prosperous. From the late 18th century to the present, the basic American vision of change is nation-building on the American model.
In your book, you provide examples of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. What do you hope your readers will take away from the concept of starting small to serve a larger purpose?
In a time of deep partisanship and difficult economic circumstances, too many people (especially students) believe that change is impossible. Too many people think they have to accept the world as it is. That is wrong! The record of history shows that people, especially young people, can improve the world by bringing diverse citizens together to work on common problems. This has been the American experience with nation-building, when it has worked best. We need serious nation-building at home and abroad today. I remain optimistic that our young citizens are poised to become another generation of nation-builders.
Could you give me an example of a mistake that is often repeated in America’s history of nation-building? And what we are getting right?
A common mistake is to seek simple shortcuts to nation-building. This often involves empowering a “good dictator” who Americans hope will push a society to change. That almost never works. “Good dictators” are quickly corrupted, they inspire resistance, and they always lose touch with the world of their citizens. Nation-building is a slow process, it requires the kinds of patience and institution-building that Americans often neglect.
Americans are idealists about cultural cooperation. Almost alone, Americans tend to assume that culture is not destiny; that diverse citizens can work together. Most other societies assume otherwise. Americans have consistently sought to build pluralistic nations of diverse peoples at home and abroad. That is the positive side of nation-building. It is the best alternative to cultural ghettoization.
In your book, you examine the failures of American nation-building in Vietnam during the Cold War. Which of the “Five Ps” (the five principles of nation-building) went missing during this turning point in history?
Many scholars, especially at The University of Texas at Austin, have written great books on Vietnam. I draw on their work to argue that Americans were intoxicated with their perceived power in the 1950s and 1960s. They thought they could change societies unilaterally. American efforts in Vietnam failed because Americans neglected the needs, desires and capabilities of the Vietnamese living in both the North and the South. This was nation-building doomed to failure.
As one of your “Five Ps,” you state that problem solving is an essential part of nation-building. How does this principle factor into the United State’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
In Afghanistan and Iraq the United States was not prepared to solve the problems that dominated the lives of most citizens. The people of both societies wanted security and an improved standard of living. The United States overthrew the oppressive governing regimes, but it did not improve security or living standards in the first years of both occupations. In fact, things initially got worse for most citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Which principle do you think President Barack Obama should focus on as he works to extricate U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan?
As the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan it must build productive partnerships with local groups and regional powers in both areas. The United States must re-double its efforts to support institutions that will contribute to stable, participatory and uncorrupt government. The United States must support nation-building, led by local and regional actors.
Watch a video on YouTube about the concepts explored in Suri’s new book “Liberty’s Surest Guardian.”
About the Author: A leading scholar of international history and global affairs, Suri is the first holder of the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. “Liberty’s Surest Guardian” is his fourth book.