Is Nation Building Possible?

Is Nation Building Possible?

How did things in Afghanistan change so dramatically, seemingly overnight? How did a decades-long, frustrating stalemate become the greatest American foreign policy debacle in 50 years? A nation is left asking, “What went wrong?”

The most immediate explanation is the way the withdrawal was handled, from pulling out troops before evacuating citizens and allies, to abandoning the Bagram Air Base. These details and others are hard to explain.

A common, longer-view explanation is that the War in Afghanistan ultimately failed because the United States shifted focus from fighting terrorism to nation-building. Nation-building can be formally defined as “the process through which the boundaries of the modern state and those of the national community become congruent.” In practice, nation-building is far more complicated. Attempting to rebuild essential cultural and institutional elements of another country rarely goes well.

America’s view of nation-building tends to change. In defending his recent decisions, President Biden has spoken derisively of nation-building, even saying that it “never made sense” to him. Yet, that claim was fact-checked by the Washington Post: apparently, he was for it until he was against it.

Many condemn nation-building, not so much because it’s wrong as because it’s impossible. Cultures run too deep, they say, to change from the outside. No weapon or army is stronger than a people’s will to resist. Just consider Afghanistan (twice), Vietnam, or the collapse of European empires.

On the other hand, it’s also true that national borders can change, languages do shift, religions reform, and whole civilizations rise and fall. In recent years, powerhouses like Germany and Japan each went from global menace to responsible neighbor. India, Korea, Taiwan, Dubai, and Singapore have changed dramatically in just a few generations. Cultures do change. Not always and not easily, but they can and do change.

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