October 15, 2011

INEVITABLE IS DIFFERENT THAN IMMEDIATE:

Nation-Building, Our National Pastime: a review of LIBERTY'S SUREST GUARDIAN: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama By Jeremi Suri (ROBERT KAGAN, 10/15/11, NY Times Book Review)

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.

Pretty hard to still argue that the results are mixed.  Rather, Reconstruction reminds us that even amongst Americans the process of Americanization took over 100 years.
 
Posted by at October 15, 2011 7:41 AM
  

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