Americans used to have a wise skepticism about nation building. As recently as the 1990s, conservatives, especially, opposed the Clinton administration’s social-engineering projects in Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans: They doubted that the U.S. military should, or could, become a tool for creating modern states where none existed. After 9/11, however, as the U.S. military drifted into nation-building operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, even previously skeptical observers found themselves endorsing the expanded missions. Today, support for Barack Obama’s nation-building project in Afghanistan is widespread, even among conservatives.
Despite this new consensus, nation building remains expensive, unnecessary, and unwise. In a literal sense, nations, unlike cars or computers, aren’t built: They develop organically. As Charles Tilly observed in his 1990 book Coercion, Capital, and European States, when the foundation of the modern nation-state was laid in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was a natural outgrowth of changes in military technology and resulted from the economic requirements of fielding a national army. It was the farthest thing imaginable from what goes today by the name of “nation building” — i.e., an external effort (usually by the United States) to create a viable national government where one does not currently exist. In general, such efforts have been undertaken amid political violence, as in the case of the Clinton administration’s endeavors in the Balkans and today’s efforts in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.