Breaking the Nation-Building Habit

The U.S. keeps indulging in something that it knows will end badly and will cause it and others harm, but it falls into the old habit again and again.

Hal Brands makes a dubious assertion:

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.

Whenever someone claims that something is woven into the nation’s DNA, you can pretty much guarantee that the thing he’s talking about is a bad policy that he supports and doesn’t want to abandon. Americans are not good at nation-building, at least when it comes to other nations, and we have conned ourselves into thinking that we know how to do because some nations have successfully rebuilt themselves after wars that the U.S. fought. They did the work, and we claimed the credit. Then our government marched off to “repeat” these successes in countries we didn’t understand in the slightest.

Germany and Japan succeeded as much as they did because they had already been prosperous, unified nation-states long before the war and both had even had experience with their own democratic institutions. South Korea developed into the thriving democracy that it has become largely in spite of U.S. backing for local dictators. It is laughable to think that we have the first clue how to reproduce the success of South Korea anywhere else. To the extent that the U.S. gets any credit for these successes, it is that the U.S. helped to keep these countries secure while they did the work of rebuilding and flourishing.

Because many interventionists bought into our own propaganda about how we rebuilt those countries, they mistakenly believed that “we” could do it again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the total failure of the earlier attempt in Somalia, interventionists concluded that the problem was simply lack of political will and time. Given enough time and resources, they assumed that the U.S. would be able to make it work. Now that these policies have once again proven to be costly failures after spending trillions over two decades, there are not many that still think the U.S. can succeed at this.

Incredibly, Brands cites “the creation or rescue of fragile democracies in the Philippines and El Salvador” as examples of success when the former involved forcibly depriving the Philippines of self-determination for half a century and the latter involved backing a government guilty of mass atrocities against civilians. He writes, “Washington tried to create better, if not quite good, governance in many of the Caribbean basin countries it occupied during the early 20th century,” as if these were not heavy-handed imperial interventions that exploited the countries in question for decades and did tremendous damage to their societies.

Brands says that “the fact that America never really succeeds in quitting the endeavor shows the strength of its intellectual underpinnings,” but this is far too generous. If the U.S. keeps coming back to misguided nation-building, it is because policymakers refuse to learn the right lessons from the previous failures. It is also because they insist on fighting unnecessary, peripheral wars that end up turning into nation-building projects. If the U.S. weren’t in a position to create or prop up a client state, it would have no need of nation-building. The only reason that it keeps finding itself in this position is that our government chooses to go to war in distant lands that have little or nothing to do with our vital interests.

The behavior that Brands describes is that of addiction. The U.S. keeps indulging in something that it knows will end badly and will cause it and others harm, but it falls into the old habit again and again. The reason that it keeps falling into this habit is that it keeps putting itself in bad situations where it is easy to resume the old behavior. If the U.S. wants to avoid nation-building in the future, and I believe most Americans want this, it will need to change its role in the world. As I’ve said before, restraint is rehab for the conflict-addicted hegemon. Americans need to reject the junk that people like Brands are trying to sell us and embrace restraint instead.