Observations of an Expat: Nation Building

To nation build or not to nation build? That is the question vexing Western capitals in the wake of humiliating defeat and failure in Afghanistan.

Is it nobler to continue to attempt to export/impose Western political and cultural values to the rest of the world or does Afghanistan spell the end of a policy which has dominated foreign affairs since the end of World War Two?

When NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 they had clear goal: Remove the ruling Taliban from power so that the country ceased to be a base for international terrorism.

But then the policy changed to nation building for two reasons.

First of all, the Taliban was never completely defeated. It merely retreated to their caves, waged a guerrilla war and waited for NATO to tire and withdraw. Secondly, it was decided that the best way to insure that the Taliban did not return to power was to establish political structures that created a human rights environment that offered a better alternative to life under Islamic fundamentalism.

This was never going to be an easy job in a country who’s social and political structures were closely tied to religious beliefs inimical to the West. It was made impossible by the fact that the task of nation building was being constantly undermined by the war.

There are examples of successful nation building. Germany and Japan are the two best. But in each of those cases the country was totally laid to waste, the government unconditionally surrendered, there was a long period of demilitarisation, the political system was imposed, and the countries were occupied— are still occupied—by Western forces. This was considered essential to prevent the return of militarism in Germany and Japan.

Other examples of nation building applied mainly to decolonisation and generally speaking did not fare so well. The main exception was India which had its ups and downs with partition, Mrs Gandhi’s emergency, and constant battles between the states and Delhi over language and religion. India is currently suffering another democratic glitch with Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism. But its parliamentary structures are intact, widely valued by Indian voters and well-entrenched.

That is not the case in most of the rest of the former colonies. The leadership pays lip service to the principles of democracy, but Western political tenets have fallen victim to tribalism, corruption, religion, cultural differences, language, endemic warfare, and exploitation by Western companies, neo-colonialism and a host of other problems.

They are looking for an alternative. And it exists in the form of China. The Western—in particular American model—appealed too many around the world because the West was politically stable and economically successful, especially in the 30-40 years following World War Two. The only real alternative was Soviet-style communism, and that was clearly flawed and eventually collapsed.

Face it, most people everywhere in the world are concerned almost exclusively with how much they have in their pockets and the health and security of their loved ones. They looked towards America and saw big houses, big cars, and big plates of food and wanted a slice of the good life. America told them, follow our political lead and you can have it. In almost all cases it has not worked.

China, on the other hand, is urging the developing world to adopt and adapt their style of communism. The Soviet-style failed because it ignored basic human instincts. The Chinese communist model has married the craving for individual reward to a highly centralised one-party state. It allows individuals to amass huge fortunes, as long as they agree to work within the parameters established by the party. The result– so far– is political stability and economic growth.

On top of that, the Chinese have made it clear that as far as other countries are concerned, their primary interest is trade. Unlike the West, they say that they do not want to export their political system as a condition of that trade. This has a strong appeal to the leadership of third countries.

At the same time, the West is appearing less attractive. Riots, unilateralism, climate change, the response to the pandemic and the failure in Afghanistan have undermined their claim to a moral and political supremacy. As have Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the failure of the EU to successfully develop political structures or deal with recalcitrant East European members and refugees.

There has always been a clear link between domestic and foreign policy. If the West wants to continue its long-standing policy of nation-building then it must first ensure that their nations are worthy of emulation. If it fails to do so, then other countries will inevitably look elsewhere, and the West can look forward to an inevitable decline.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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15 Comments

  • Peter Martin 5th Sep '21 - 9:12am

    I’m not totally sure what the Western allies were trying to do in Afghanistan were trying to do. As far as recent US Presidents were concerned it was little more than hanging on until their term of office was over and after which it was someone else’s problem.

    Nation building? That’s a bit of a stretch. To build a nation you have to have a functioning economy which provided a reasonable standard of living for all. $2000 pa. per capita isn’t quite enough.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita

  • John Marriott 5th Sep '21 - 9:31am

    The Taliban were not defeated first time round. In fact, they more or less handed the keys to the business (aka governing Afghanistan) over as they realised what a mess they had created. In came the allies, mainly ourselves and the USA, thinking we could build a modern state on western lines, just as the Soviet Union, a few years before, reckoned it could introduce a socialist model.

    Quite frankly, I look around and I see what a mess the so called democracies have got themselves into. They would do better to put their own houses in order before they tried again to influence others, whom they view as underdeveloped politically.

  • James Fowler 5th Sep '21 - 10:03am

    I’m glad you mentioned Germany and Japan. I think they, and the war that preceded their reconstruction, have shaped so many of assumptions about the moral and material feasibility of interventions that it’s difficult to know where to start. Essentially, what we want is a war against obviously morally debased opponents which ends in their unambiguous surrender. Following that, we want to spend large sums of money (though preferably as little as possible) re-building that society in our image where the inhabitants then reject a negative past and embrace prosperity, initially guaranteed by us, but quite quickly independently sustained. I think we forget just how much Germany and Japan were already built in our image, and more importantly how many western assumptions their populations had already inculcated. The story of South Korea may be instructive.

  • Helen Dudden 5th Sep '21 - 10:32am

    I’m not sure what is trying to be achieved in Afghanistan either.
    Perhaps my view, that countries have their own culture is not the correct way. We visit other countries because they are different.
    I can’t agree with one section of the population driving out another. For Afghanistan to survive there needs to be change, some things will need to happen.
    The British once controlled area’s of the world.
    I’m part French and I love France, my great grandmother left a legacy. As with Spain, I have a Spanish family.
    Not every thing I can agree with in the different cultures.

  • @ John Marriott: John, it is a good to see that you and I appear to be in basic agreement. Of course, you may want to dispute that.
    @James Fowler: I accept your point about Germany but not Japan. With Germany we share a centuries-old common European history and Judaeo-Christian culture. We do not with Japan. In the second half of the 19th century it adopted Western economic methods but not Western political philosophy. I also accept your comment about South Korea. It wasn’t until 1998 when Kim Dae-jung came to power that South Korea had anything approaching a democratic system. Prior to that date it was one long succession of dictators. The political instability in South Korea can probably be attributed to the division of the Korean Peninsula.

  • Thomas Macaulay was perhaps the pioneer of modern nation building. In a speech in 1833 Macaulaylaid out his vision for the government of India
    “… It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not… To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own. The sceptre may pass away from us. Unforeseen accidents may derange our most profound schemes of policy. Victory may be inconstant to our arms. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverse. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.”
    The speech articulated a cogent, authoritative and highly persuasive ideological basis for what was to become a distinctively British sense of imperial mission. Two centuries later, though never acknowledged, its underlying principles remain the Bible of Anglo-American nation-building in the world’s trouble-spots.
    Tom Writes “The Chinese communist model has married the craving for individual reward to a highly centralised one-party state. It allows individuals to amass huge fortunes, as long as they agree to work within the parameters established by the party.”
    This is reminiscent of the how the British East India company transitioned from a trading company to the sovereign power in India and ultimately the British Raj.
    The days of nation building by military conquest and occupation are largely over. it is globalisation and trade and command of International markets that will drive the culture of the future. If youth around the world are all wearing jeans and T-shirts, reading the same books and watching the same films, listening to to the same popular music, communicating on the internet, drinking cappuccino and eating Pizza or Curry from Sydney to London what need of military adventures for nation building.

  • Brad Barrows 5th Sep '21 - 2:46pm

    @Martin
    Yes, Keynes stating, ‘in the long run we are all dead’ was a very powerful point against the views of neo-classical economists who argued that government intervention in the economy would make no difference in the long run – his point was that short term benefits are still benefits and, as mortals, we don’t necessarily have a ‘long run’. That logic can be applied to other situations where intervention can postpone something negative, though the opportunity cost of intervening (ie, what could have been done with those resources if not used on the intervention) has to be considered. The West’s involvement in Afghanistan may have made no long run difference: the question is whether the costs were justified considering the short run benefits that may have been experienced but also the benefits that could have been realised had the vast cost of the intervention been used for other purposes.

  • Peter Martin 5th Sep '21 - 3:05pm

    I must admit I got it wrong in my earlier comment of 9.12 am. I’d misread the date as the dollar amount of GDP per capita. So it should have been $600 pa rather than $2000 pa!

  • Steve Trevethan 5th Sep '21 - 5:59pm

    Who recruited, funded and trained the Taliban so that they became so successful?

  • Who recruited, funded and trained the Taliban so that they became so successful? It was principally the Pakistani ISI that made possible the growth of the Taliban. But this piece gives a longer and more detailed assessment of the history https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/who-responsible-taliban

  • John Marriott 5th Sep '21 - 7:54pm

    There was an interesting US Professor on BBC NEWS yesterday. She certainly didn’t like Pakistan, whom she blamed for much that’s been going on in the area for some time.

  • Paul Fisher 6th Sep '21 - 8:39am

    The hand wringing goes on. The West has been defeated in Afghanistan and no amount of introspection will assauge that utter failure if strategy. Nation building is a flawed concept; indeed there is no cogent definition of this pipe dream! Metaphor intended; poppy production is at an all time high – the one spectacular success of this latest intervention!
    Before aspiring to democratise and liberalise elsewhere it would be more constructive to sort our own houses out! Accept that the UK is a de facto failed state on both counts. The way to construct robust democracies is from within i.e. within Europe. Our strategy should be to attract the brightest, most skilled, most industrious people from around the world and concentrate that at home – reverse the fascist anti immigration mantra and invert the model to our own self interest – a vibrant, wealthy, democratic and liberal society which will be the one to emulate worldwide. Self interest does not mean selfish interest it implies pragamatism and a whiff of reality.
    The lethal combination in Afghanistan has been corporate self interest harnessed with tree hugger faux do gooders!

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Sep '21 - 12:19pm

    Thanks for the attachment from “The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies”.

    It seems to omit the social and educational achievements of the P.D.P.A. government which resulted in 50% of university students, 40% of doctors, 70% of teachers and 30% of civil servants being women.
    https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2021/08/25/john-pilger-afghanistan-great-game-of-smashing-countries/

    It also seems to omit reference to “Operation Cyclone” which was one of the longest and most expensive of C.I.A operations.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cyclone

  • Peter Hirst 8th Sep '21 - 5:01pm

    Nation building is dead. We of all people should respect autonomy and local decision making. The best that can be achieved is preventing export of any doctrine that we don’t like. This is best done by global organisations such as the UN.

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