In Defense of Nation Building

If there’s anything that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, MAGA hat-wearers and BLM tee shirt wearers agree on it’s that America should not be in the business of nation building.

I think they’re all wrong.

A common trope is that the quick collapse of the Afghan military and government is proof positive that trying to build a liberal democracy half-way around the world is a fool’s errand. I’ll stipulate that it’s hard and it’s slow, but I believe it’s very much worth the attempt.

It’s worth it because America is safer and more secure when there are more countries that share our values and form of government. Afghanistan was the training ground for those who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 because the Taliban allowed it. For all the flaws and corruption of the government we supported that replaced them they helped us fight jihadist terrorism.

So, it’s in America’s clear self-interest to have more friendly countries around the world — and particularly in those far-flung parts of the world where the reach of our military gets strained without places to put down air bases and establish ports for our navy. In addition, we want secure access to resources, most notably oil. That reality has forced us to make nice with, or even install in power, some pretty awful people — the Shah in Iran, the Marcos’ in the Philippines and, even today, the Saudi Arabian monarchy, just to name a few.

The Taliban take over the presidential palace. This is bad for the U.S., for the people of Afghanistan and for the world.

But wouldn’t it be better if we did both? Both encourage friendly governments and also promote Western-style liberal democracy? That’s exactly what we tried to do in Afghanistan.

And, all recent evidence to the contrary, we did not fail.

For one thing, millions of Afghans and an entire new generation, enjoyed two decades of freedom. Not perfect freedom, but a whole lot more freedom than they would have found under the Taliban. Even if that all goes to hell tomorrow, what is it worth to have millions of women and young girls get the idea that they can go to school and be or become anything they want? Can the Taliban ever really suppress that, despite what we know will be brutal efforts to do so? What’s certain is that the educations those young women have already received cannot be taken away or undone.

Here’s my main point: Liberal democracy is a good thing in itself. It isn’t just some other form of government; it is the best form of government. It is the end of history. It is worth fighting for and it is worth trying to spread everywhere. There is no place on earth that isn’t appropriate for it, that isn’t ready for it. Any single year in which millions of people get to live in freedom is not a lost year.

But it also isn’t permanent — anywhere. We need only look at Donald Trump and the January 6th insurrection to realize that it’s not even all that secure here. Liberal democracy is like a garden that needs constant tending because the natural state of things is to regress. Things fall apart. It takes energy to keep them together.

And it takes time. The idea that Afghanistan had become a “forever war” misses the point. It’s true that we had made little progress in establishing a society in our own image, but we had made more progress than the doubters will admit. Think again of that generation of young women who cannot and will not join the Taliban in turning back centuries. Still, it may well have taken another 20 years before liberal values took hold in a more permanent (but nothing is ever really permanent) way.

Here’s Paul Wolfowitz, assistant Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, in a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal:

No one should have expected Afghanistan to become a modern democracy overnight. There may well have been overly ambitious hopes for our mission in the past, but a small presence of 3,500 U.S. troops, which could have made an important difference for the Afghan army, would have no such mandate. Instead, like a gardener who pulls up weeds to allow plants to grow, keeping the Taliban off the backs of the Afghan people would have enabled them to continue some of their impressive successes, particularly in educating girls and women, successes that are being extinguished under the Taliban’s medieval tyranny. 

Nations aren’t built by outsiders; they need to grow organically. But that growth requires the kind of secure environment that the U.S. helped to provide South Korea. As late as the 1960s, South Korea was described by knowledgeable observers as a hopeless basket case with no natural resources, riddled with corruption and burdened with a Confucian ethic that teaches that gentlemen don’t work. Half a century of American support helped the South Korean army defend the country from the North while South Koreans transformed their country into a modern state.

Is our 70-year investment in South Korea with roughly ten times the number of troops we had in Afghanistan worth the investment? Of course it is.

What’s most disturbing about what I readily acknowledge are my slim minority views on nation building is how the consensus against it reveals our own ambivalence toward liberal democracy. Almost half the country voted last November to keep the country in the hands of a would-be strong man who had no appreciation, much less basic understanding, of liberal democracy. And even some portion of those who voted against him think that liberal democracy is just “a tool of the oppressors.”

If so many of us hold classical liberal values in such low esteem at home, why should we want to pay any price at all to encourage them abroad?

Welcome to the 194th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Nation Building

  1. Interesting point Dave but I think you probably need to define “nation building” a bit better. I’m all in favor of using economics, trade negotiations, sanctions, group action with other nations to promote and encourage liberal democracy. But I do not think our past practice, as you note, of putting odious dictators in power (Guatemala, Iran, etc.) helps the cause of liberal democracy. Nor do I think invading a sovereign country and establishing a government more to our liking reflects our democratic values. Let me put it this way: if you accept that, what specifically is it that separates us from Russia and their efforts to establish governments that they like? Or China? Or, for that matter, North Korea? I do think forming coalitions with other democratic governments makes sense. But unilateral military action by the US simply confirms our colonial and imperialist past. And I don’t think that’s a positive image for us to project to the rest of the world.

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  2. The last paragraph sums it up.

    Sure, I’m all in favor of promoting democracy, but we barely have it here, Jan. 6 notwithstanding. And I definitely don’t care to bring it at the point of a gun.

    I’d be happy to give up access to cheap consumer goods in the name of promoting democracy. Let’s start by aligning our economic policy with our supposed values. No trade unless with a democracy with good human and environmental rights. After we accomplish that task let me know and we can talk about the next steps…

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      1. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and dozens of other places impose non-democratic will through violence.

        I’d like for us to achieve some level of consistency in this foreign relations arena. Are we to send our military to any county that lacks democracy? We went to Afghanistan because of the 911 attacks – should that be the standard: attack us and we’ll send our military to your country to build a stable democratic government? Where should the line be?

        Since I’d prefer it if the US acted to promote democracy economically rather than militarily I’d be happy to have that line be quite near the democracy-side in the economic context. Regardless it would be easier to address these issues if we had a functioning UN where a broader consensus could guide world affairs. Under a multilateral scheme I could be agreeable to drawing the lines differently.

        This is somewhat different today in that we were already there – the fundamental poor decisions had been made, so now the question was if we stay longer or not. I’m open minded to various angles on that topic, but not to the theoretical future of military-backed nation building.

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      2. Thoughtful comments as always, Rollie. I very much appreciate your perspective. i’m a realist. I just accept the fact that the U.S. will act in its economic and strategic military self-interest, like any other nation. What we can offer is that, in addition to acting in our own interests as any nation would, we can also — sometimes — also act to promote liberal democracy. You might see that as a pretty low bar, but I would argue that it is a higher bar than any other powerful nation in history has set for itself.

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  3. Yes, thanks for this conversation. I’m not so much a realist probably, but on that note another thought to consider: it took our country a really long time to give women rights, and we have religious communities still that, if given the chance, would rule in a way not that different than the Taliban. With that in mind, I don’t know that this mission was realistic.

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