Welcome Jeremi Suri, and Host Brian Balogh, (American History Guys)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

Host, Brian Balogh:

How has American nation-building changed the world? What can we learn from this history? How has this history been used and misused by American policy makers? And what makes nation-building work – what has undermined it?

These are just a few of the questions that Jermi Suri asks and answers in Liberty’s Surest Guardian. For the teacher’s guide to these answers, policy makers in particular, are likely to turn to the last chapter. There, Suri, a scholar’s scholar who has rocked the rarefied world of the history of international relations (what old white guys used to call diplomatic history), rolls up his sleeves. He enlists alliteration to promote the “five ‘P’s of nation-building:” Partners, Process, Problem-Solving, Purpose and People. However, to fully understand these prescriptions, all of his readers would do well to read the provocative history that Suri has crafted. Once they have, they will privilege a sixth “P” – Patience.

Not that reading Guardian requires much of that. Despite its impressive chronological and geographic scope, Suri distills the history of American nation-building into fewer than 300 pages of compelling text. Suri the scholar can be found in the impressive footnotes: they convey a fascinating history of the history of American foreign policy. Most readers, however, will choose to follow the plot line in the text, which surprisingly, begins at home, and returns there time and again. That sixth “P” – patience it turns out – was an essential ingredient in America’s own evolution as a union that combined the powerful resources tapped by national identity and a surprisingly powerful state that provided order, rules, and the capacity to deal with other states in an unruly world.

One of the many ironic insights that illuminate the nation-building path charted by Suri is that the creation and consolidation of the Union in America took a great deal of patience. Most of those other “P”s preach just how difficult and complex this process is. Yet due to the very success of their own experiment in nation-building at home, Americans tend to be impatient when it comes to their efforts abroad. “We did it, why can’t those Iraqi people get it?” Americans ask.

Suri seeks to instill patience by devoting the first two substantive chapters to nation-building within the United States – the founding period and Reconstruction after the Civil War. He explicates the American creed, its constitutional form, and the cultural contradictions it faced from the Constitutional Convention through the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau. As Americans painstakingly constructed their own union, they recognized that the future of that union was inextricably connected to a world organized into nation-states with similar creeds and perspectives towards relationships outside of their borders.

The strength and the challenge at the heart of the American union was a symbiotic relationship between the people and the institutions created by this populace. No people connected to national institutions that ordered their shared space? No state. But no state that these people could identify with across sectional, ethnic, and occupational divisions? No people. Some of Suri’s most powerful lessons from history flow from the tendency of Americans, when dealing with foreign states, to leave the people out of this formula. They favor dictators and seemingly strong states that in reality, are a pale substitute for unions that embody the support of the populace.

Suri also insists that the very nature of the union that Americans created was expansive and at times, intrusive when it came to relationships with the rest of the world. From the start, Americans conceived of the lands beyond their own constitutional reach as best served when they were divided into units that looked a lot like America. “Each state,” Suri writes, “should have a single coherent people; each people should have a single, united and effective state. (p.29) Sound familiar? It should, because that was the formula that worked inside America. Such a world, inhabited by peace-loving states (because the Kantian vision could not imagine any democratic state preferring war) would avoid the twin peril of anarchy and empire. Yet this society of states could only be maintained if the United States was prepared to violate its most sacred principle – the sanctity of state borders. “Internal interference” was justified time and again to ensure that the people were indeed represented by their leaders. Or that those states had the capacity to impose internal order and fulfill obligations.

After establishing the model for effective union, internally and abroad, Guardian proceeds to examine a series of case studies that travel from the Philippines, to post-World War II Germany and Japan, ending with the most recent challenges to nation-building in the Bush and Obama administrations. Having laid out the theory behind the American vision and explicated the way this theory unfolded within American borders, I braced for the predictable cookie cutter application of that theory and history. I should have known better. For this is where Suri, the master of historical context, contingency and personal agency, takes over. Rather than a litany of show fruit/rotten fruit dichotomies, Suri demonstrates the importance of historically informed policy for each of his cases. This is where his Five “P”s come into play, and where patience appears to be the most crucial variable. But it is also where Suri’s own predilection for “realistic idealism” (p. 32) comes into play.

Ultimately, it is Suri’s commitment to Kantian idealism and the author’s determination to tease out the very real American stake and interest in a world informed by that idealistic vision that makes this a powerful story that will appeal to history buffs, policy makers, and citizens alike.

101 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jeremi Suri, Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama”

BevW October 9th, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Jeremi Welcome back to the Lake.

Brian, Welcome to the Lake. Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Hello, Brian and Bev. I am looking forward to our discussion.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:01 pm

So am I Jeremi. If the president asked your advice on America’s reaction to the Arab Spring, would you recommend nation building and how would you go about it?

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:02 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 2

If the president asked your advice on America’s reaction to the Arab Spring, would you recommend nation building and how would you go about it?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Great question, Brian. I would recommend a form of cautious nation-building. In particular, that would involve small but targeted investments in institutions and processes that create governed, united, representative societies. Investing, for example, in transparency for Libyan oil and fair adjudication for criminal acts in Egypt would be wise.

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 2:05 pm

1. When did the U.S. ever do anything other than evil anytime it interfered in another nation?

2. If you added up all the deaths & casualties the U.S. did (military & other mucking about) in its history, would they exceed any other country? Plz include attempted ethnic cleansing of Amerindians, African deaths on slave ships, largest proportional refugee creation in recorded history (Revolutionary War, 1/3 of pop loyalists who had to leave), etc.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:08 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 6

1. US has done good and bad things — a share of both. Good things include providing refuge for hundreds of thousands of immigrants (like my grandparents), rebuilding Europe after WWII, saving South Korea from communist tyranny, saving Bosnians and Kosovars from extinction at Milosevic’s hands, etc.

2. Oh my gosh, the deaths caused by the US are high, but nowhere near so many other regimes: Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Why even go down this road…

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Jermi, when you answer that one, could you next tell me what the most surprising thing you discovered writing this book?

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Jeremi, is your response to Brian’s question re the Arab Spring really about nation building, or is it about more targeted actions for addressing potentially important but relatively narrow needs?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:11 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 9

The actions I suggested for the Arab Spring are indeed targeted and limited, but I think they fit within a paradigm of nation-building. Instead of trying to merely create stability, we should look toward the creation of functioning, representative, self-governing states in the Middle East. The region has lacked real nation-states for too long. A Middle East filled with nation-states will probably prove more peaceful and prosperous for everyone.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:13 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 8

Writing this book created many surprises, Brian. I initially planned to write only about the 20th century. As I did the research, I found the origins of American ideas and perceptions went farther back than I expected. First I went back to Reconstruction after the Civil War. Then I found I had to go back to the Founding. I was surprised at the continuity of AMerican thought and action across 2 centuries, up to the present. There is something to an “American creed.”

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 2:17 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 7

Dispute your comments.

1. Treatment of immigrants anything but generous. Many have gone & are now going back to their own countries bc U.S. so ucky.

2. Why go down this road? Accountability. I know it’s a “quaint” concept in O era, but I live in the reality based world, not the reality creation world. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot only destroyed lives for a short period. The colony/U.S. has been at it for 500 years. (Remember short-stopped 5C Columbus ‘celebration’.)

3. Rebuilding Europe after WWII is usual myth advanced by nation building enthusiasts. I’d argue Europeans did it for themselves. No tens of millions of Marshall plan aid, starting 4 years AFTER the war ended, could have made more than a marginal diff.

4. Don’t mention saving peeps from Milosovic, without first telling me how many peeps U.S. bombs killed, and how the point of the exercise was to est U.S. military bases in the area.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:17 pm

This does raise the question, Jeremi, of the line between “nation-building” and other kinds of foreign policy. historically, were there any instances that you examined that shaped, foreign govenrments, yet fell short of the nation-building threshold? Where do you draw the line?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:19 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 11

Another surprise in writing this book: How difficult it is to define American nation-building efforts, in most cases, as “successes” or “failures.” WIth a few exceptions, most efforts at nation-building produce very mixed results. Southern Reconstruction and the Philippines are great examples — a mix of achievements and disappointments. You are surely correct, Brian, to point to the need for patience above all.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:20 pm

There’s an element in international development and political science thinking that argues or at least admits the possibility that relatively benign dictatorships can sometimes stabilize their societies and bring about economic progress better than fractious, immature democracies can. Perhaps the best examples of this phenomenon are South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore (with democracy emerging after the growth of a large middle class). More current versions could include China and Cambodia. Not to at all excuse the repression, abuses and corruption of such regimes, but do you think there’s a case to be made for this perspective, albeit as it might apply to specific countries? And if so, what are the ramifications for US efforts to support nation building?

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:20 pm


Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

jeremi, one of the fascinating points you raised in the book was the degree to which efforts to reshape foreign countries, ended up reshaping the U.S.. Can you share one or two examples with us?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:22 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 13

Yes, it is sometimes hard to draw the line between nation-building and foreign policy actions that are more reactive and targeted for short-term purposes. One point I try to make in the book is that many foreign policy actions start out as reactive and limited, but then evolve into nation-building because this is so central to American thinking, especially during times of crisis. Our mutual friend, Mel Leffler, has made a similar point about hyper-idealism when Americans feel most threatened.

I think we can identify nation-building when the target of American action involves the transformation of societies — as in the cases of the book and in the Arab Spring today, I believe. Russian, CHinese, and Israeli efforts to contain the Arab Spring look to me like anti-nation-building in the MIddle East today.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:25 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 15

Yes, benign dictatorships sometimes look better because they are orderly and they can enforce unpopular decisions for the national good. Nation-building does not necessarily run against this. Often, Americans have supported dictators for just this reason. The problem is creating a PROCESS where the good acts of a particular dictator are institutionalized and less dependent on a “good guy” in power. If you rely on an individual and not institutions, that is not nation-building. Strong leaders are necessary for nation-building, but they must invest in processes that are larger than themselves.

The implications of nation-building are huge for the US;
1. Results take more time than electoral cycles
2. Investments can be modest, but they must be consistent
3. Institutions matter more than short-term outcomes

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:28 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 17

Great point, Brian. Too often foreign policy people think they are only talking about stuff that happens “over there.” On the contrary, foreign policy deeply affects who we are at home. Two examples:

1. The reconstruction of Europe after WWII emboldened a more activist and engaged American public with the wider world, despite the end of the war. It contributed to the death of isolationism and fiscal conservatism — symbolized by Eisenhower, not Robert Taft, taking the leadership of the Republican party.

2. The Vietnam War and the failure of American nation-building efforts delegitimized the post-WWII US government in many ways, contributing to some of the debates we continue to have today, even among the Tea Party.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I’d like to get back to your thoughtful reply re the Arab Spring. Pardon my splitting definitional hairs, but, e.g., to the extent that the US can help make the Libyan oil industry transparent and accountable, is it overly ambitious to say we’re nation building? Might it be more accurate to say that we’re making a contribution to a much larger endeavor that involves many actors and factors beyond international donors/change agents such as the US.

Here’s what I’m really trying to get at in admittedly sort of repeating my previous question. I wonder if it’s a kind of development hubris to characterize what we’re doing as nation building. The term seems to imply much more influence over a much wider (and often unanticipated) set of international and local dynamics than we can ever control. And I wonder it it’s accordingly counterproductive to use this term, in that it makes the US and other countries aim for goals (e.g., a stable, vibrant, prosperous democracy) that are far too ambitious, to the detriment of more modest but still important progress (e.g., greater gender equity, a more honest/less dishonest oil sector, better treatment of criminal defendants). If we define our goals too loftily, we’re bound to fail.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

In your answer to thunderroad, you suggest that Institutions are central. But are institutions able to respond to changing circumstances in a timely fashion, and don’t they begin to reinforce their own agendas? whether you agree or not, I would love to hear your prescription for institutional change.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:31 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 12

I am all for accountability. Your point is well taken. But, accountability is more than vicious and condemning labels. Accountability requires weighing evidence and effects carefully. If you do that, American actions in Western Europe after WWII look pretty good, especially in comparison to feasible alternatives. Same is true for East Asia and even the Middle East for the decades after WWII. Same is true for former Yugoslavia. This does not negate many American misdeeds, but it does demand balance and more mixed verdicts than you offer in the name of accountability.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:35 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 21

I must admit that I largely agree with the thrust of your wonderful comment. Too much ambition and hubris insures defeat and disillusion. On the other hand, however, aiming too low might mean that we underrate what we can do. The trick is to find the right balance. I like the term nation-building because it implies that we are trying to do more than solve a single “problem,” but we are also empowering people (a “nation”) rather than a person or a party or a single institution.

Helping to build institutions for transparent management of Libyan oil is nation-building for me because it affirms that:
1. The Libyan people own the oil
2. The Libyans should monitor and manage their own resources
3. There are procedures, technologies, and experiences that we can help to share and support in this endeavor

If Libyan oil transparency works, that could be model for other forms of self-governance: tax revenue, policing, education, etc.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Thanks for the replies to my Arab Spring queries. Switching gears, what role(s) do you see for civil society, and to what extent (and in what ways) should the US and other nations provide financial and political support to NGOs and related nongovernmental forces (perhaps including media) in the context of nation building?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:39 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 22

Yes, Brian, institutions develop their own routines and incentives that often depart from larger mission. Your books have taught me that, among many other things. Institutional rigidity is a big problem. I think that nation-building requires institution-building, but also firm attention to the PURPOSES institutions are designed to serve. Nation-building involved constant institution building and rebuilding. I chose some of the examples in my book because I thought they manifested this phenomenon. My two favorite examples:

1. The evolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau from military appendage to Southern educator
2. The evolution of civil government in the Philippines from counter-insurgency to political representation of various groups in the islands

tw3k October 9th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Greetings All,

Jeremi, any thoughts on Private enterprise, at home and abroad, in nation-building?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:43 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 25

Thanks for another great question. Civil society is crucial, otherwise you do not have a “people” in Madison’s terms, or a “nation” in Washington’s terms. Civil society is what brings groups together as one, without oppressive conformity.

NGOs and non-government forces (especially a free press) are crucial because they contribute to civil society. We must recognize, however, that they still operate within a state-system. They are part of that system, not alternatives. This means the US should support them, as it has done in the past. It also means these groups should learn to interact more effectively with state institutions. Human rights activists, for example, should embrace national courts and national law enforcement. I am much more skeptical about international tribunals.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

i very much like the discussion between thunderroad and Jeremi, but cause I am an historian, I have to press jeremi on his relatively rosy vision of American union. I take your points about the need for patience by Americans. But how do you respond to scholars like Rogers Smith, who pose a parallel set of influences that shape american national identity — a set of ascriptive characteristics like race and gender. your treatment of the founding and early republic travels with Gordon Wood down the “promise not realized,’but promise nonetheless path. Plus, we were ahead of other nation-states when it came to the priveleges that those citizens who did get a full set of rights got. But what if Smith and others were correct, that the ascriptive limitations on citizenship were not simply a default category — rather, a powerful strain in both nation AND state that endured for centuries. How does that influence your thesis about the conception of union that shaped a foreign policy that sought to replicate unions across territories, and as the broadest organizing form for intl. relations. Sorry,there is a lot there.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:45 pm
In response to tw3k @ 27

Ahh. What a great question for our present out-sourcing world. Nation-building always requires help from private groups and industries with specialized knowledge and economic incentives to help. That is true in every case of my good, going back to the Founding. Nonetheless, as Brian pointed out in his opening introduction, nation-building always requires a major role for government. Private industry requires regulation and control to assure that it serves nation-building goals. Unregulated industry is like unregulated college kids — talented, but entirely self-serving!

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I notice you and Brian discussing institutions. But what do you mean by this term. There is the everyday sense of institution as organization. But, to the limited extent I understand institutional economics, it defines institutions more usefully as rules of the game, the relationships between different actors and forces.

Going beyond more definitional hair splitting on my part, the distinction has important conceptual and especially practical implications for foreign and development policy. If institutions as organizations are so central to nation building, we focus our resources on parliaments, judiciaries, oil ministries, etc. If what we’re instead trying to do is take more of a political economy approach, affecting the rules of the game, it may well place greater weight on building up civil society, media, etc. as vehicles for service delivery, pressing for government accountability, advancing poverty alleviation, advocating human rights, etc.

What do you think?

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 2:46 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 26

Excellent examples of pretty radical institutional change. Thanks

norecovery October 9th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

It seems to me, based on the apparent domination of Corporate Fascism, that “nation building” has really come to represent extracting more from the world for the few and often leaving a mess behind.

DWBartoo October 9th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Good evening, Jeremi.

You speak well of certain American acts in the past.

Do you see America as empire today, and to you consider America as friendly to immigrants as it once was?

Do you think the wars America are now engaged upon are good things or reflections of American hegemony – a policy which my studies suggest America began to pursue with a vengence after WWII.

Are you concerned with America’s use of armed drones to kill anyone,anywhere and at any time, even American citizens, without due process of law?

Are you concerned that the rule of law is regarded as essentially quaint, especially in light of Obama’s policy of “looking forward” … of not prosecuting those who developed toture as “policy?

Does Bush v. Gore suggest that both the Constitution and the rule of law are tossed when those who really have power, the extremely wealthy, dictate their peferred outcomes and a compliant Supreme Court goes along,as we see in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, and Obama’s contention that the Banksters did nothing “illegal’ … when, in point of fact a complicit Congress and Bill Clinton deliberately gutted Glass Stegal?

Lots of questions, I realize, Jeremi.


Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:52 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 29

Great question, Brian. My view of American “union” emphasizes inclusion and promise, yes. There were, of course, many limitations on who benefited and who was included. These limitations, however, were increasingly deemed illegitimate and requiring of special justification. I think that is the clear trajectory of American history, despite Rogers contrary argument. Events like the Civil War allowed inequality and exclusion to linger, but they were now on the defensive. The “union” as I see it, does not imply equality or even democracy. It does imply a certain openness that has, in moments of heated conflict, benefited those arguing for inclusion over those defending exclusion.

I think this trajectory continues today. Despite the hateful rhetoric of the Tea Party, gays and minorities are more included in American society than ever before, especially in national institutions like the military.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:53 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 31

Yes — I (and Brian too) are deeply influenced by institutional economics. I think of institutions as rule, routines, and expectations with bodies that assure enforcement and accountability. The neighborhood association is an institution, as is the American Medical Association.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 2:55 pm
In response to norecovery @ 33

I think that happens a lot, but that is not nation-building. That is usually called “free market capitalism” by its advocates. “Nation-building” involves capitalism for sure, but also governing institutions and protections to empower citizens.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Human rights activists, for example, should embrace national courts and national law enforcement. I am much more skeptical about international tribunals.

Good point, especially re emphasizing international human rights law and tribunals. But I want to press you on this. For instance, there is a wide array of unproductive or occasionally even counterproductive efforts to improve judicial performance across the globe…and very little of positive experience except in the narrowest technical ways. Judicial reform typically falls victim to corruption, repression, favoritism, patronage, gender bias and even indifference on the part of judges and lawyers. Thus, to pick a society that is far from the most problematic, court reform in post-Mubarak Egypt will be severely hampered by, inter alia, the judiciary there being a self-interested guild that will jealously protest its perks and privileges, both official an unofficial.

If in fact my read on this is correct, might it be a waste of resources to invest in building state institutions in many contexts? Of course, they’re vitally important, or at least they should be. But if at at a given point in time they are a black hole for financial and political support, might we be better off investing in “second-best” options, such as civil society support for justice-oriented work, or gradually trying to help modify traditional justice systems (as problematic as they are) since they represent the actual legal systems for the rural poor in many countries?

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:00 pm

few historians seek to address policy makers. I would like to inject a bit more history into this good discussion of policy and ask Jeremi to review each of his cases — Founding, Civil War, Philippines, post-WW II and reconstruction after 9/11 — to tell us specifically what policy makers might learn from each?

tw3k October 9th, 2011 at 3:01 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 30

heh, thank you for the reasonable and humorous reply.

It’s American Excusionism!

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:02 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 34

Yes, lots of good and thoughtful questions, DW. Thank you. I fear I cannot do them all justice. Let me take two:
1. Is America an empire and as friendly to immigrants as in the past?
2. Drones?

1. I think America is a powerful world actor, with few parallels, even with the current economic difficulties. Americans often do not realize the effects of their actions, and the fears and resentments they create. You might say this is “empire” behavior, but I think it departs from other empires and that is not necessarily good:

a. Americans are unprepared to understand all the things they do around the world — they don’t even speak foreign languages!! Every empire I have studies nurtured foreign language fluency, above all.

b. Americans do not invest in long-term occupations. Just the opposite. The American vision is intervention, reform, and then leave. We love nation-building because we hope to help other societies govern themselves in ways that are compatible with our interests, but do not require empire.

2. Drones — I support their use in Pakistan to eliminate Al Qaeda operatives (even American citizens) who we know, in their own words, are trying to kill Americans. I do NOT support their frequent use elsewhere, unless we are willing to make a public case of organized and threatening anti-American groups in those regions. We have not made that case yet. We must show the world and ourselves that we are only using this technology with care and with attention to extremely threatening and high level targets.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:03 pm

You note that even though we are a nation of nation-builders, each major initiative has faced its share of opposition. The exception you point out is WWII. Why?

norecovery October 9th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I would like to add one more to Brian’s question — Haiti, which has been and continues to be a dismal failure.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:06 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 38

I agree that judiciaries and other state institutions are often black holes and hideouts for corruption. But, I don’t think civil society is necessarily better. Many groups operating in that space serve questionable masters and interests. I think investing in state institutions is difficult and complicated. That is why we need more attention, training, and commitment in this area. The US has an enormous opportunity because of its wealth and influence to exert pressure if it is focused and consistent. Foreign state institutions can obfuscate, but they cannot escape accountability entirely if the US and others remain focused. Returning to the Arab Spring, I think a process along these lines is possible in places like Egypt and Tunisia.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Gotta go. Thanks very much Jeremy and Brian!

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Is the key to squaring your understanding of the nation-building tendencies baked into American history with your prescriptions at the end of the book is an appreciation of the elected officials and policy makers who adapt to conditions on the ground? Who adapted most effectively? Who screwed up? Feel free to name names

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:10 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 39

Thanks, Brian. It is perilous to connect history with current policy too directly. As you know, however, I like doing this. In addition to the “5 Ps” in my book, here are some lessons from the specific cases:

1. Founding — effective institutions can create a new “people,” as happened in the late 18c
2. Civil War Reconstruction — Investments in newly empowered local groups, through state institutions, can pay real dividends.
3. Philippines — civilian governance and cooperation with local elites can work.
4. Post-WWII — investment, political adjustment, and security must go hand-in-hand
5. Vietnam — the US must work with the most credible and effective local nation-builder, even if he/she is a communist or an Islamist
6. Afghanistan/Iraq — nation-building requires real US commitment. Half measures are disastrous

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:13 pm
In response to norecovery @ 43

Yes, the record in Haiti is horrible. The US shares a lot of the blame. Nation-building has never worked there because even when foreigners have tried to help, they have never invested locally. They have also refused to partner with key local actors. Haiti has suffered from a combination of intermittent indifference and then repressive efforts by foreigners, including the US.

norecovery October 9th, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Mr. Suri, when you speak of “enormous opportunity because of wealth and influence to exert pressure…” I see mainly the overwhelming use of military intervention, sales of arms, and coercion rather than diplomacy. Sorry to be so negative, but the U.S. has been extremely aggressive in expanding its Military Industrial Complex, and often has this brought instability and repression rather than peace and freedom to those areas. I think your analysis of U.S. roles may be too generous.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:17 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 46

Great question. One of my points in the book is that “great” leadership requires adaptation, flexibility, even a willingness to backtrack and admit mistakes. Moral clairvoyance is over-rated.

The great adapters to local conditions and international circumstances are the heroes of my book:

James Madison and George Washington
Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Otis Howard
William Howard Taft
Herbert Hoover (after WWII) and Harry Truman

The “failures” are those who cannot adapt, especially JFK and LBJ in Vietnam, Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:19 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 42

jeremi, want to ask the WW II question again. Why was that the exception, re opposition? Thanks

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:21 pm
In response to norecovery @ 49

I share your criticism of the US military-industrial complex. We have indeed become much too overmilitarized in the ways we allocate resources and exert our national power. The military is too large and too powerful in our society. My hope is that a fuller vision of nation-building, at home and abroad, will help shake us out of this terrible situation. We have so much latent power in other areas that received insufficient attention and support. I see this with undergraduates every day. They really want to change the world through non-military means. Even after 9/11, we have offered them too few opportunities. ROTC is still the only major government program that offers scholarships and assured employment on behalf of the “national interest.” Why don’t we have an ROTC for diplomats, for educators, for agrarian specialists, etc.?

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 50

I take it that you think JFK had the time to chart a different course. Do you think he was on his way to that a decision to change direction?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 51

Thanks for reminding me of this great questions, Brian. WWII sparked minimal domestic opposition because I think the enemies were so clearly odious and their threat to core American interests was so obvious after December 7, 1941. FDR used those elements to steer the American people into a collective enterprise that the prior 9 years of the New Deal had prepared them for, at least psychologically. I really like Mike Sherry’s book on this topic, _In the Shadow of War_.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:27 pm
In response to RevBev @ 53

Yes, I think JFK could have charted a different course, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am skeptical, however, that he would have done things differently if he had lived past November 1963. JFK had strong interests in selling an activist, militaristic, development agenda. He had made too many rhetorical commitments to a “New Frontier.” He was also very anxious of growing Chinese communist influence. I think JFK would have followed a path similar to LBJ’s in Vietnam. JFK would have done far less for civil rights and other issues inside the US. For all his failures abroad, LBJ was a great nation-builder at home.

thunderroad October 9th, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I’m back. Jeremi, having spent six years funding governance-oriented projects in the Philippines, I have to question your conclusion that US cooperation with local elites worked there. Perhaps the most enduring problem faced by the country is the dominance by self-concerned elites to the detriment of both the business climate and poverty alleviation. And I (and others) would argue that the greatest error the US made in its time building that nation (beyond violently taking it over to begin with) was to focus on formal democratic superstructure to the relative neglect of agrarian reform and other steps that might have improved the socioeconomic infrastructure. The upshot is, to quote one popular book on the subject, we did our best to make that country in our image, and more than a century down the line it is in worse economic shape than many of its neighbors, with ongoing problematic politics.

Don’t get me wrong: I do think that democracy is often worth pursuing, but cooperation with local elites to the detriment of the broader population is often to the detriment of a society’s economic and political progress.

Certainly more of a statement than a question here, but I’d welcome your thoughts.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Yes, the cooperation with local elites in the Philippines surely stunted many forms of social and economic development. It surely set back land reform, as you say.

My question is, what were the better alternatives? The Philippines has failed to grow and develop as many might have hoped, but it has come a long way (I think) from under the Spanish, and it has avoided the far worse alternatives seen in many other developing nations — Burma, Cambodia, Algeria, etc. The elites have helped to create a functioning Filipino nation, as I see it, but one with many of the limitations that you so rightly articulated.

By the way, I think many of the problems with Filipino nation-building are evident in other cases — India, South Korea, etc.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Hello. Our infrastructure seems to have been neglected over the past years. Do you see a second or third Reconstruction happening in the USA ever? The waste from “wars” abroad and nation building abroad over the past 10 years seem to have also been a war on American life at home. Thanks.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:34 pm
In response to thunderroad @ 56

Thunderroad, I will let Jeremi answer for himself, but when you read the book, you will see that he advocates less reading history back, i.e. top-down first in order to create a “people” and more grass roots up is what he advocates, based on his reading of the overall history. I do agree that the Philippines poses an exception to that rule and one that did not work out all that well at times. So I await his answer.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:36 pm
In response to potsdam602 @ 58

Yes, our infrastructure stinks. In some places (including the Northeast) it looks “3rd world.” Then we have local leaders, like Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who reject federal money for high-speed trains. This is the opposite of nation-building.

I think we might have a second (or third) reconstruction for international infrastructure (“internal improvements” as they were called in the 19c), IF:
1. The economy does not improve and joblessness remains high
2. The erratic weather from early global warming begins to scare more people
3. Business leaders begin to make a case that they need better infrastructure for efficiency
4. Gas prices rise above $4.50 a gallon

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 59

Yes, as Brian says, I believe that nation-building must start at the grass-roots, but leaders and elites have a major role to play. Another way of putting it: nation-building involves top-down support for grass-roots mobilization.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to potsdam602 @ 58

Potsdam makes an excellent point. to what extent has the quest for nation-building changed the causality arrow, from inside out to outside in. i.e. are there instances where the quest for reconstruction of the world order has actually led to nation building back here? I would argue that this was the case after the Civil War, especially because of the growth of civil society, the professions, and corporate reach directly or indirectly stimulated by the CW and Reconstruction. But ultimately, that all did take place within one nation. Are we on the verge of nation building at home because of the accumulated legacies and very real costs of nation building abroad?

Phoenix Woman October 9th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 30

Jeremi, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the blog “Baghdad Burning” by Riverbend, a native of Baghdad who lived through the war and occupation and watched as her Westernized nation got dragged back into a theocracy when the Shiite clerics rushed in to fill the power vacuum. (She went from being able to riding the bus to work wearing jeans and listening to her Sony Walkman to not being able to leave without a burqa and two male relatives, much less have a job to go to.)

One of the things that told her early on that the neocons behind the invasion didn’t have the Iraqis’ best interests at heart was the fact that the reconstruction contracts were all parceled out to non-Iraqi firms, particularly those who were financial backers of neocon Republicans like Bush. If the contracts had gone to Iraqi firms, it would have gone a long way towards making Iraqis happier with regime change imposed from outside.

Phoenix Woman October 9th, 2011 at 3:43 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 55

True. We wouldn’t have Medicare or Medicaid without a President LBJ. And Johnson did actually support the Paris Peace Talks, which Nixon worked to sabotage through Anna Chan Chennault.

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:43 pm

we have not discussed the alternatives to nation building American style. Jeremi, what were the competing models over the course of history and what are the competing models today?

norecovery October 9th, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I wonder, Mr. Suri, if you think China’s mixture of capitalism and authoritarian state control is sustainable socio-economically and politically. I think this is an unprecedented style of nation-building that arose from a unique set of problems and opportunities. This makes me think that every “failed state” or underdeveloped country has to be viewed differently, in order to arrive at solutions that will work within the existing culture and social order. The U.S. has to be very careful not to try to mold them to our standards. I would like to see our system set an example of human rights justice rather than to exert influence by accusing others of violations.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 63

Yes, I agree 100%. I have heard many stories like this. The problem was that the neocons wanted nation-building on the cheap, and for the enrichment of their friends. They violated all 5 Ps that I advocate in my book:
1. Partners — they rejected them
2. Process — they had formulas and simple answers, no process
3. Problem-solving — they didn’t care
4. Purpose — they never got locals to invest in a common purpose
5. People — they disdained the very people they claimed to save

We have to be careful not throw the baby out with the bath water. Nation-building is still a worthwhile and practical cause when we choose our cases carefully and we follow some of the “lessons” from our long history of doing this. Those are the reasons I wrote this book. I hope this discussion helps prevent a replay of the horrors exhibited by our society in Iraq.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Bombing the hell out of nations then doing nation building in the same nations seems like a bad psycho relationship. Trust is gone.

US taxpayers pay for structures in other nations while getting dumped on at home AND getting less useful structures here at home. Will this always be the case? Thanks.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:46 pm
In response to norecovery @ 66

I am certain that Vladimir Putin in Russia and other authoritarians look to China today as a model. I think that is a mirage. The Chinese model will only work so long as the regime can promise continued economic growth on unprecedented scales. Beyond that, the communist leadership has no legitimacy. All regimes face economic difficulties, particularly when the world economy is so weak. In a time of economic slowdown, how will the Chinese people react? How will the government maintain legitimacy? I would NOT bet on China. I would bet on India, where you have a strong nation-state in formation.

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 3:48 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 67

So well-said. Is that Iraq analysis set out in the book?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:49 pm
In response to potsdam602 @ 68

Yes, absolutely. Bombing civilians is a terrible way to build trust and partnership. If we are committed to nation-building in a particular place, we need boots on the ground. Bombing, especially with drones, must be kept to a minimum.

I am not sure that it is because of nation-building that we get dumped on at home. We would be better off at home if we said there are key governing institutions and experiences that are worth investing in — at home and abroad. We should invest good government where we need it most — our cities and our foreign counterparts who matter most to our safety, prosperity, and security. This was the calculation in Western Europe after WWII. That was a good calculation.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to RevBev @ 70

Yes, I try to elucidate the neocon short-sightedness about nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:53 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 65

Competing models for American-style nation-building:
1. Traditional empire – eg. British in India
2. Isolationism — focus only within our own borders
3. World government
4. Intervention for short-term economic gain — China today
5. Balance of power — Bismarck in late 19c Europe
6. Regionalism — focus only on particular areas of interest

BevW October 9th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Jeremi, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and Nation-Building.

Brian, Thank you very much for Hosting a great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Jeremi’s website and book

Brian’s website and BackStory radio show

Thanks all, have a great evening.

Next week:
Saturday – Bill McKibben / The Global Warming Reader; Hosted by Josh Nelson

Sunday – Aaron Belkin / How We Won: Inside Stories from the 17-Year Struggle to Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; Hosted by Dan Choi

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon, FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 3:54 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 71

Do you see any signs that we will reverse course?

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:54 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 73

There is something to be said for many of these competing models, but I think US nation-building stands up pretty well in comparison. Instead of rejecting it, my book tries to examine how we can do it better (for ourselves and others) based on historical experience.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:56 pm
In response to RevBev @ 75

Yes, in these difficult economic times I think we are reversing course. This will save us from another Iraq. It might, however, mean that we will not support major positive openings, like the Arab Spring. Foreign policy is always about balance. We must avoid over-reactions of nation-building everywhere, or nation-building nowhere. I believe in the golden mean.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Other Americans elect politicians who decide not to invest at home. There’s a bit of a problem with other voters who don’t care to elect people who want to rebuild America. And, one can not always think that once elected, politician X will do as the candidate X promised.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to potsdam602 @ 78

Yes, that is why I think we need to think more about how we are educating the citizens who vote in our elections. I am sorry, but I see too much ignorance and fear in our electorate. I also see too many efforts to limit participation by young people who are often well educated and much more willing to invest in our country.

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 76

Yes. For sure. The “chosen people” can teeeeeeech everyone else how to leach off their own citizens. USA! USA!

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 3:59 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 77

Good Luck, Do you do many public speaking engagements is or around Austin?

Brian Balogh October 9th, 2011 at 3:59 pm
In response to BevW @ 74

Bev and Jeremi, it has been a pleasure. Jeremi, congratulations on an important book that will reach citizens, history buffs and policy makers, and is sure to change the way they think about American nation building, and America as a nation.

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 3:59 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 79

Voting is like a pacifier: it infantilizes the peeps into thinking they have a choice betw 2 identical parties.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 4:00 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 80

I like to look at it as empowering people to make informed and thoughtful choices. Democracy should never be excuse for ignorance, hatred, and fear-mongering.

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 4:01 pm
In response to RevBev @ 81

Yes, I have had a number of events around UT in recent weeks. I will have more coming soon. (Next two weeks I am in DC and the midwest for book events.)

Please email for more info on Austin and other book events:

Jeremi Suri October 9th, 2011 at 4:02 pm
In response to Brian Balogh @ 82

Thank YOU, Brian and Bev. I have enjoyed this enormously. I thank you for your time, your wise comments, and your commitment to public dialogue. I am honored to be in your company.

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 4:03 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 85

Thank you. And thanks for a very interesting and helpful discussion.

DWBartoo October 9th, 2011 at 4:03 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 83

Were I to hazard a guess, eCAHN, I would suggest that Jeremi does not see things in quite the way that you, Howard Zinn, and I do.

I am ready, however, to be surprised …


potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 4:05 pm

So, if I understand correctly at #60, our economy needs to get worse in order to get new infrastructure at home in the USA? Just kidding, but not really. Still thinking, simply, how easy to pay contractors for work in America rather than for work in Iraq & Afghan. The needless “wars” seem to be gutting us. Thanks for any insight here. Really enjoy your answers to all here.

gigi3 October 9th, 2011 at 4:05 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 88


eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 4:05 pm
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 84

I recently decided that “enlightenment” was one of the most monstrous self-congratulatory arm-breaking pats-on-the-back that ever existed. Care to dispute?

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 4:07 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 88

As I typed on another FDL thread, I do this for mental masturbation only. It is otherwise a waste of my time & yours.

RevBev October 9th, 2011 at 4:10 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 92

Is that another name for your arrogant rudeness? That is a waste of our time.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 4:12 pm

My mother, who was born in ’29, never understood the reconstruction or nation-rebuilding in Japan after WWll.

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 4:12 pm
In response to RevBev @ 93

Not at all. Mental masturbation is sometimes as much fun as its physical counterpart.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Why the deterioration of a good discussion here?

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Oh, and RevBev, any time you would care to challenge my “rude” assertions on intellectual grounds rather than “manners”, I’d be delighted to respond.

eCAHNomics October 9th, 2011 at 4:31 pm
In response to potsdam602 @ 96

BC the U.S. only duz harm and any other defense of it is a sham.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

IMO, a few FDL reader or member comments were rude toward the end. (Yet, I would never want anyone to change or not to be themselves.) Learning still happens even when you don’t agree 100%. If you invite someone to your house to discuss, why be rude? Disagree, but don’t be a jerk. I learned here today. Thanks Jeremi and Brian.

potsdam602 October 9th, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I can’t think of anywhere the US military/ US gov’t/ US corporations have occupied and “built up”–then at the end–have not taken something for themselves, have not kept their fingers in the political/economic pie of the region, or left without continuing to occupy a base or two. The cultures and environments in the other “built up” nations seem to be left unnatural, dependent on others and thrown off balance. <–Original mission of nation building?

reader October 10th, 2011 at 9:08 am
In response to Jeremi Suri @ 67

Missed the party. Appreciate the salon and the author’s and moderator’s visit with us, as always.

I noted this with great interest:

1. Partners — they rejected them
2. Process — they had formulas and simple answers, no process
3. Problem-solving — they didn’t care
4. Purpose — they never got locals to invest in a common purpose
5. People — they disdained the very people they claimed to save

Yes. And even beyond the recent errors of the neocons that you are immediately addressing, this seems to me to be the pattern of all/most US interventionism. And, although I am no expert nor a historian, it seems to me that there are historical reasons why the neocon/conservative view is the American foreign policy view that endorses and perpetuates these errors that lead to disastrous human suffering around the globe, ALL in the name of “liberty.”

All of which endorses the content (if not the style) of eCAHN’s perspective, imho.

In sum, this is completely damning of US foreign actions. IF there has been benevolence of any kind in the past, there is surely none left now.

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