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America's Flawed State-Building Enterprise

After its Cold War victory, the US began to engage in liberal interventionism with great relish. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is just the latest example showing why this approach has never worked – and never will.

TEL AVIV – “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission,” former US President George W. Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir. “We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” There is nothing surprising about this logic: colonial enterprises have always been described as “civilizing missions.” And, as in Afghanistan, they have consistently failed. In fact, the only way to build a nation-state is from the inside.

To be sure, the United States has engaged in successful state-building. After World War II, it implemented the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. But this was more “re-building” than construction from scratch, and it was undertaken in countries with histories of state capacity, functioning market economies, and traditions of national cohesion. Moreover, the details of the reconstruction were left almost entirely to locals.

In the wake of WWII, the US also pursued successful democratization. But, again, it wasn’t “exporting democracy” to countries with no such traditions. Rather, it was building on the latent values of the Weimar Republic in occupied Germany and Taishō democracy in Japan.

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