Breaking the Nation-Building Habit

The U.S. keeps indulging in something that it knows will end badly and will cause it and others harm, but it falls into the old habit again and again.

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Hal Brands makes a dubious assertion:

America may say that it’s done with nation-building, but don’t believe it.

Following a disillusioning war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden declared an end to “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” It’s a familiar pledge, and one that the US never sticks to for very long. For better or worse, nation-building is woven into America’s diplomatic DNA.

Whenever someone claims that something is woven into the nation’s DNA, you can pretty much guarantee that the thing he’s talking about is a bad policy that he supports and doesn’t want to abandon. Americans are not good at nation-building, at least when it comes to other nations, and we have conned ourselves into thinking that we know how to do because some nations have successfully rebuilt themselves after wars that the US fought. They did the work, and we claimed the credit. Then our government marched off to “repeat” these successes in countries we didn’t understand in the slightest.

Germany and Japan succeeded as much as they did because they had already been prosperous, unified nation-states long before the war and both had even had experience with their own democratic institutions. South Korea developed into the thriving democracy that it has become largely in spite of US backing for local dictators. It is laughable to think that we have the first clue how to reproduce the success of South Korea anywhere else. To the extent that the US gets any credit for these successes, it is that the US helped to keep these countries secure while they did the work of rebuilding and flourishing.

Because many interventionists bought into our own propaganda about how we rebuilt those countries, they mistakenly believed that “we” could do it again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the total failure of the earlier attempt in Somalia, interventionists concluded that the problem was simply lack of political will and time. Given enough time and resources, they assumed that the US would be able to make it work. Now that these policies have once again proven to be costly failures after spending trillions over two decades, there are not many that still think the US can succeed at this.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.