Nation-Building – Another Look
From the Cato Institute: “Our greatest challenge today is to extend the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity to those who are still denied it, in our own country, and around the world.”
Recently in the news I found the assertion by U.S. government officials that success in Afghanistan requires the building of a government and a country that will prevent the return of the Taliban.
Nation building, known as “peace building” prior to the Clinton years, has long been an element of American foreign policy. Beginning with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, it has continued until now and includes efforts in Cuba, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Germany, Japan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In American foreign policy this process has always included democratization. We could say we’re being nice guys, bringing personal and political freedom to the world, but we’re definitely attempting to create allies by building stable countries that operate according to our values. The theory is that we will benefit from this, and that unrest, even in small, remote countries, has an effect on us.
The September 11, 2001, attack certainly lends credence to this idea. We are not safe, even as distant and protected by large oceans as we are. We can be impacted in a large way by relatively under-funded zealots in remote and backward countries.
History tells the tale, though. We’ve tried nation building many times. We’ve been completely successful twice, in Germany and Japan. These were countries with strong national governments, banking systems, and functional economies in spite of their devastation at the end of World War II. They were also ripe for change.
The payoff for us was the transformation of these nations into reasonable allies. The price? Untold billions of dollars and the establishment of a permanent U.S. military presence in both countries.
The outcome of other efforts has ranged from complete failure to partial, uncertain, and limited success, supported still by continued American military presence, again after untold expense in both American lives and money.
Now, we’ve gone from producing 70% of the GDP to 22%. We’re in debt up to our ears. Our capacity to produce our own products and independently meet our own energy needs is very limited. We’re in debt and financially dependent, much more than is comfortable, on countries whose commitment to our values is more than uncertain.
Yet we propose, again, to build two countries, completely different from ours, into America-friendly, stable, peaceful democracies.
It reminds me of a story from my work in an emergency department. A young Salvadoran man, newly in the U.S., crushed some fingers, actually popping the ends off of two of them, between two pallets, while processing trash. In El Salvador, he would have received a good cleaning, some sutures and some bandages, or maybe just toughed it out at home. Just imagine the look on his face when I explained to him in Spanish that he would be flying in his own private helicopter to Baltimore to have those fingertips attached!
When we started in Afghanistan, we found a country, like my Salvadoran, living in the 18th century. There was no security, no national army, with a population divided into tribes ruled by armed warlords. A national economy was nonexistent; there was no banking system or reliable currency; and the primary revenue-producing commodity of the country was poppies grown for illegal use elsewhere!
I’m sure that many of the citizens of Afghanistan want change, and I want it for them, as many of them are suffering under the present system. I’m quite sure, however, that they are generally clueless at to what we have in mind. Any effort to turn them into a friendly, stable, westernized democracy without what we consider bribery or corruption or mistreatment of women, will be a long, slow, expensive effort with a very uncertain outcome.
Things are different now at home, too. We’re broke. Our own infrastructure is in sorry shape. Our laws need cleaning up to prevent the fraud that contributed so much to our, and the world’s, economic collapse. Our governing bodies can’t even manage a bailout or write a bill that we can read and make sense of, in spite of our new president’s promises of transparency.
Our news media wails day and night about poverty, joblessness, stress and ideology-based violence, while many of our students are performing at levels below those of other countries. We have a lot to fix here, and letting our country go to hell in a hand basket, spending money we don’t have, and trying to fix the world when we’re without a solid base of our own puts us at intolerable risk, not to mention bankrupting our children and setting a poor example for the world.
We could, along with our allies, provide a measure of safety and some financial support for re-building infrastructure destroyed by war, giving new governments some space to develop as they choose.
We could consolidate our forces into a powerful strike force backed by effective intelligence, based here, and ready to defend and counterattack anyone who thinks of attacking us.
We should be out there, communicating with other nations, supporting personal freedom and safety, providing focused help where it will really do some good, and keeping an eye on things. There’s more we can do than spend money we don’t have in an attempt to transform other people’s cultures.
Our nation building, or re-building in this case, should start at home.