Nation-Building, Our National Pastime

“Nation-building” is in bad odor these days, among the foreign policy cognoscenti and the general public alike. Weariness with the long struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq has produced a grand opposition alliance of isolationists, realists, populists and left-liberal anti-interventionists, who all agree it is past time to give up the hopeless dream. As Peggy Noonan recently put it, “We should not occupy their lands, run their governments or try to bribe them into bonhomie.” American soldiers should not be “social workers.” When she visited Afghanistan earlier this year, Noonan asked an American general how the war was going and was appalled to hear his answer: “Great. We just opened a new hospital.” Noonan lamented that the American soldier was no longer allowed to be “a warrior in a warrior army.”

The idea that nation-building is something new in American foreign policy, a departure from the good old days of simply killing the bastards, has been widespread for some time. Condoleezza Rice a decade ago also wanted to know why the 82nd Airborne was walking Bosnian kids to school. But in fact American soldiers have been walking kids to school for two centuries.

This is the point of Jeremi Suri’s useful new book, Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama. Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, argues not only that Americans have engaged in nation-building throughout their history, but that their impulse to do so springs naturally and inevitably from their character and experience as a people. Having built a single nation out of disparate parts themselves, having solved the problem of competing interests by channeling them through national representative institutions, Americans have continually sought to replicate this experience in foreign lands. They have “deployed their exceptional history in universalistic ways.” And while Suri acknowledges that these efforts have at times been quixotic, he insists that the American proclivity to engage in nation-building is smart. It is, he argues, the necessary compromise between isolationism and empire: a “society of states” that are independent, stable, capable of trading with one another and, above all, modeled after the United States. In response to realist critics, he writes that “the American pursuit of a society of states serves the deepest interests of a people forged in revolution.” Because “alternative forms of foreign government limit American influence, access and long-term trust,” the “spread of American-style nation-states, and the destruction of their challengers, matches the realistic interests of citizens in the United States.”

Suri concentrates on six episodes of nation-building in America’s history: the founding of our own nation; the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War; the long occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War; the occupation of Germany following the Second World War; the failed attempt at nation-building in Vietnam; and the continuing effort in Afghanistan.

Although not original, his inclusion of Reconstruction as an early exercise in nation-building is important. Historians of American foreign policy have badly neglected this critical period because they don’t consider it “foreign” policy. But the North’s efforts to reshape the South after the Civil War set a standard for future American occupations and attempted transformations, in the Philippines and Cuba as well as in Germany and Japan. Then as later, the United States Army took effective control of a conquered land, eradicated its leadership — the slaveholders — and attempted to empower others to take their place, including the formerly oppressed slaves. Then as later, this enormous undertaking was made almost impossible by inadequate resources and inadequate and faltering commitment. Then as later, the results were mixed.

The interesting thing is that the experience of Reconstruction lived on through generations of military leaders. Many of the generals who led the occupations in the Philippines and Cuba after 1898 had served as young officers in the South during Reconstruction, and men who led the occupations in Germany and Japan had served under those Civil War veterans in the Philippines and Cuba. The United States military has been in the business of nation-building a long time.

The fact that even highly educated Americans are scarcely aware of this past has made it difficult for the United States to learn from its experiences. Suri hopes to correct this, and his brief historical sketches can be useful for policy makers and those who write about American foreign policy — if only to remind them that what Americans have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq has been done countless times by their predecessors in many other distant lands. Suri’s own recommendations range from the sensible if obvious (be flexible and adaptable) to the banal (“Nation-building is all about people”).

Above all, he calls for patience. Suri must be in a distinct minority of modern American historians who consider both the rebuilding of the South and the occupation of the Philippines to be successes. Reconstruction took fully 80 years even to begin fulfilling the original goal of giving American blacks equal rights and opportunities. The American occupation of the Philippines lasted almost a half-century. By these standards, Iraq has been a blindingly fast success — and Suri is unstinting in his praise of Gen. David Petraeus for employing “the distilled wisdom of American nation-building over two centuries.” By these standards, too, nation-building in Afghanistan may be in an early stage.

Suri’s work is marred by some dreadful writing — repetitious, stilted, awkward. He may have tried to do too much, for the book is a bit of a hybrid: half history and half policy memo to the Obama administration. The cringe-inducing last paragraph of his introduction offers five “themes” of American nation-building: “partnerships, process, problem solving, purpose and people.” If that doesn’t grab you, Suri goes on: “I call these themes the five P’s. . . . The five P’s are the axes around which American politics spin. They are the basic material for what began as the early American nation-building creed.” It is only with the greatest effort that one turns the page after an opening like that. (Can anything spin around five axes?) Unfortunately, the awkwardness and inexactness of language continue throughout.

Another problem is selective history. Suri leaves out facts and narratives that would have made for a richer, more complicated story. In the case of the Philippines, for instance, he concentrates on the civilian efforts of William Howard Taft and almost entirely neglects the long, brutal war against the Filipino insurgency that made those efforts possible. In the case of Reconstruction, he focuses so heavily on the noble work of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard that he slights the powerful forces in both North and South that undermined those efforts. And does it really make sense to argue that the United States should have partnered with Ho Chi Minh in order to carry out successful nation-building in Vietnam? One senses that Suri’s ambitious aims, like those of his subjects, may have exceeded the available time and resources.

Nevertheless, Suri has performed a valuable service in reminding Americans that they have been here before. Had Peggy Noonan been around in 1899 to ask an American general in the Philippines how the war was going, he might well have told her: “Great. We just opened a new hospital.”