“Nation Building” and U.S. Politics

The phrase suffers from an accumulation of negative connotations. Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Iraq and Afghanistan. American soldiers under UN control. Open-ended, messy missions. Huge costs to American taxpayers. “Nation building” – or what scholars refer to as “state building” – will not be a hot topic in Tampa or Charlotte as the Republicans and Democrats gather for their national conventions. Even with huge budgetary strains and popular resistance to discussion of nation building, the two major political parties will likely miss an opportunity to lead in the arena of foreign policy.

In contrast, Ron Paul has at least staked out a clear, oft-discussed position on nation building abroad: the U.S. should mind its own business and let other societies rise or fall through their own internal processes. This position is at least consistent with Paul’s brand of libertarianism; as with domestic issues of governance, the U.S. government should hue to a minimalist position of activity. In truth, there are cases where the U.S. and the international community would do well to “do no harm” and let foreign societies sort out their own problems without support or interference. Isolationism, though, is a dangerous philosophy in a globalized era. To be deeply engaged in the economic realm and disengaged otherwise is profoundly unwise. It is possible to pursue a more humble internationalism – as candidate George W. Bush discussed in 2000 – without retreating into isolationism.

Though it will take some hard work, Americans could forge a new national consensus on nation building. Such a consensus would not be as strong as the bipartisan cooperation during the Cold War era, but it would enable our leaders and the public to better support inevitable nation building missions.

What principles would undergird a new American consensus on nation building? First, a solid bipartisan majority will need to recognize the high costs of rejecting nation building. Security, health, and economic threats will continue to emerge from critically weak and failed states whether we want them to or not. (Yes, support for nation building must primarily be generated through an argument of American self-interest. It is fine to also recognize humanitarian and human rights benefits, but those arguments will never win the day on their own.) Second, leaders and ordinary citizens must come to accept that nation building missions require long timelines. It is just not realistic to expect state reconstruction in a few years. Bipartisan support, which can sustain continuity of missions across changes in party control, will enable nation building across a decade or more. Third, both Republicans and Democrats can find common ground in supporting novel nation building approaches that are lower cost. This is a core task in bringing about a true national consensus on nation building abroad: proponents must refute the taken-for-granted perceptions that these missions will necessarily be a massive drain on the American treasury, or be an unsustainable burden on the U.S. military. As other posts on this blog (will) discuss, more creative responses to state decay could be much cheaper. Not least, a reconsideration of the rights and responsibilities of state sovereignty (i.e. membership in the United Nations) would go a long way towards reforming ineffective nation building. The U.S. must also abandon a go-it-alone mentality and embrace key aspects of multilateralism in nation-building. Let’s hope that Republican and Democratic leaders can begin to engage with “that vision thing.”

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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