Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man, has a fascinating preview of his new book on nation-building in this month’s Atlantic. He notes that one of the most crucial yet underanalyzed political transformation in American history is the transformation of George W. Bush from someone who eschewed the idea of nation-building it its biggest proponent on the world stage.
The fact is that the chief threats to us and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Weak or absent government institutions in developing countries form the thread linking terrorism, refugees, AIDS, and global poverty. Before 9/11 the United States felt it could safely ignore chaos in a far-off place like Afghanistan; but the intersection of religious terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has meant that formerly peripheral areas are now of central concern.
Conservatives never approved of the so-called “humanitarian interventions” undertaken during the 1990s, including those in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Liberals, for their part, remain unconvinced by the Bush Administration’s rationale for its invasion of Iraq. But whether for reasons of human rights or of security, the United States has done a lot of intervening over the past fifteen years, and has taken on roughly one new nation-building commitment every other year since the end of the Cold War. We have been in denial about it, but we are in this business for the long haul. We’d better get used to it, and learn how to do it—because there will almost certainly be a next time.
Indeed Fukuyama is correct, the increased reliance on nation-building is a long-standing trend that existed long before the events of September 11 or the Bush Presidency. Fukuyama is correct, nation building is an indispensible tool of world politics, and despite the national dislike for foreign entanglement that dates back to the Washington Administration, the United States has both the opportunity and the duty to alter the political landscape of those failed states that represent the biggest threat to peace and stability worldwide.
Fukuyama notes that the idea that nation-building can merely be left to the UN and NGOs is also simply unacceptable. He notes the way in which Kosovo has become a virtual protectorate of NGOs and IGOs, a new “European Raj” which represents a kind of neo-colonialism with no exit strategy and little opportunity for self-sufficiency. Such a system is entirely untenable for a place with Iraq – the UN insistance on bureaucratic centralization and the way in which NGOs leech off of humanitarian crises in a largely unsupervised environment all lead to a degradation of the authority of the government that must emerge from the nation-building process.
Fukuyama ends with this clarion call:
A standing U.S. government office to manage nation-building will be a hard sell politically, because we are still unreconciled to the idea that we are in the nation-building business for the long haul. However, international relations is no longer just a game played between great powers but one in which what happens inside smaller countries can have a huge effect on the rest of the world. Our “empire” may be a transitional one grounded in democracy and human rights, but our interests dictate that we learn how better to teach other people to govern themselves.
America has never been an imperial nation, nor do we have any desire to be. Our experiments in colonialism have been short-lived and ended with independence for our former client states (see Japan, Germany, the Philippines) or a loose confederation (Puerto Rico). However, the needs of our time demand that the lone world superpower take the burden of ending the threat of failed states such as Iraq and contain dangerous dictatorships like Iran and North Korea. It is a great burden, but in great burdens are great opportunities as well. The values of democracy and freedom are not Western values, they are innate values of the human spirit. The light of civilization must be spread to the dark corners of the world, and only by encouraging and fostering the values of democracy and freedom can we end the threat of terrorism.