Why 21st century nation-building may be beyond America’s capability

‘Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.’ – President Biden, August 16.

Less than a year after the Intra-Afghan peace talk that took place in Doha, the Taliban successfully seized Kabul on August 15.

A hasty US embassy retreat evoked images of Saigon 1975.

Even though President Biden insisted that the United States achieved its objective to “degrade al Qaeda and to get Osama Bin Laden”, the scenes of panic and chaos in Kabul showed those lies to be nothing more than face-saving.

Twenty years of American Intervention had cost the lives of over 3,000 coalition soldiers, 60,000 dead Afghani soldiers, countless Afghani civilian deaths, and the spending of $2 trillion US.

And what has it achieved?

Afghanistan is firmly back at square one with the Taliban in control. A generation of women and youths empowered by democracy is now drawn back into the dark ages.

The US has left another battlefield with a damaged reputation and uncertain consequences for the region.

Central Asia now increasingly looks like Southeast Asia after the fall of South Vietnam.

A wall mural painted on the wall of US embassy in Kabul on July 30, 2021.

Things were not always this way.

After World War II, the US played an instrumental role in establishing a new world order based on diplomacy and international trade. America was hugely successful in nation-building campaigns in West Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Former enemies became friends through the new international order, the decolonized world looked to America for guidance.

The success of these nations was not the guaranteed success that we might now assume given their lofty international standing. Both Germany, Japan, and South Korea were shattered nations after the end of the Second World War. But through American money, trade, and the propping up of some puppet regimes, all three are now thriving, prosperous democracies.

Most importantly, they remain America’s staunchest allies.

The Washington Monument is reflected in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool during the “Celebrating America” event at the Lincoln Memorial after the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States in Washington, DC, January 20, 2021. (Photo by JOSHUA ROBERTS / POOL / AFP)

What went wrong

Why then did American nation-building go so wrong for the rest of the 20th century?

South Vietnam is the most obvious example. But there are others too including Iran, several Latin American countries, and Iraq.

In each case, the nation falls into a state of chaos in a relatively short period of time after the last US troop pulls out.

Afghanistan should not be viewed as an aberration but a norm. The question that must be asked then is why some countries succeeded in establishing democracy and embracing liberalism while others failed.

What is the difference between South Vietnam and South Korea or Japan? What is the difference between the third-world state of post-war Germany or Afghanistan today?

This photo taken on April 30, 1975 in Saigon shows a tank of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) smashing in the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, South Vietnamese government’s last stronghold.

Possible Explanations

Some would argue that the US government’s prioritization of American interests over actual nation-building is what has marred her later experiments in introducing democracy.

If America were to really engage in nation-building, critics say, it must respect the flow of democracy even if the vote goes against its interests in the short term. Instead, the US always has outside objectives which forces her to ally herself with corrupt local leaders and power-hungry despots.

Containing the spread of communism in Indochina was more important than Vietnam’s democracy. Removing the military junta was more important than Haiti’s democracy. Getting Osama Bin Laden was more important than Afghanistan’s democracy. As a result, the US never really backed ‘true democracy’ but unsavory allies in its need to have a democratic facade.

Those of us in Thailand who read history know this all too well.

But the American backing of despots to achieve its short-term aims is not the whole reason why its nation-building experiments fail.

After all, America backed despots in Taiwan and South Korea for decades and they are now thriving liberal democracies.

A pro-government activist holds a flag showing a portrait of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-Hee, father of President Park Geun-Hye, during a rally opposing impeachment of South Korea’s President near the Constitutional Court in Seoul on March 9, 2017.

Lacking willpower

Perhaps the fundamental problem with American nation-building is the lack of long-term willpower, something Afghanis are learning this month.

Because America’s long-term ambition and grand rhetoric often get tripped up by her messy domestic politics and her people’s ever-shifting willpower, there is little appetite for America to stay engaged for the decades needed to properly build up a nation.

As stated previously, it took decades of American troop presence and treasure to build up South Korea, Japan, and Germany to what it is today. Even now, the US has military bases in all three countries.

That kind of multi-decade staying-power no longer exists in the American ecosystem. The growing partisan divide in the US internal politics means that policies change every four to eight years. Just look at Washington’s North Korea policy over the past three decades as an example.

A picture taken on July 5, 2017 shows a souvenir kiosk offering among others a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby with the face of US President Donald Trump, based upon a propaganda poster showing late soviet leader Joseph Stalin holding a baby, in Moscow.

Introspection and reform

What the United States must do going forward is to ask itself tough questions. Can it afford more messy interventions in the future given that it will unlikely have the willpower to stay the course in the long term? Can it afford another blow to its reputation as China capitalizes on its every mistake and recognizes and funds governments that fill the void of America’s past failures? Can it stomach true democracy where voting results do not always go its way?

If the answer to these questions is no, then the American nation-building experiments must stop. In its place must be a new policy that seeks to engage the world in a less assertive, less brash, less “we are the shining city on the hill,” way. If it cannot do that, then it is on course for more embarrassment.

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