The Era of Nation Cultivation
Nation building has cost the United States trillions of dollars in the last decade. Beyond the well-known cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has continued dispatching funds to a number of places around the world that aren’t in the headlines every day. A dysfunctional Bosnian state is propped up by the largesse of the Euro-Atlantic powers, while in Somalia, Western funds pay the bills for the ineffectual transitional government and the African Union troops sent to protect it in Mogadishu.
A few weeks ago, at a session of the Asan Plenum held in Seoul on “Leadership and the Legacies of the Arab Spring,” political-science professor Michael Hudson made the argument for reconsidering the whole idea of nation building. Perhaps it is time to recognize that outside intervening powers cannot “build” a state or nation, certainly not in a matter of weeks or months.
As someone who himself has often used the term “nation building,” Hudson’s critique is compelling. When we speak of nation building, we fall into an engineering mindset. After all, one successfully constructs a building by following steps in sequence (pouring a foundation, raising a superstructure, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, putting in the roofs and floors, and so on)—as each step is marked complete on the checklist, one moves on to the next one. Significantly, one can even lay out a schedule for when the project will be completed—and one can accelerate that schedule to meet the demands of the calendar.