Indeed, the growing drumbeat for programs of internal renewal, to be led by major, national efforts, recall some of the most spectacularly failed elements of modern foreign policy. When people utter noxious phrases such as “nation building here at home,” they commit a double error. First, they confuse nation building for capacity building. Nation building is not just about investing in education or social spending, but using it to forge a coherent national identity. It is also about the use of violence and force, which is why nation building is so often associated with conflict and post-conflict situations.
This is right, and it is something that gets completely lost in foreign policy debates. I suspect that one reason for this is that skeptics and opponents of nation/state-building often frame their criticism of this kind of policy in terms of opposition to domestic government activism and social engineering. These skeptics intentionally minimize the differences between nation-building overseas and domestic government activism to rally opposition to the former. This confuses the two, which creates the misleading impression that nation-building is something that is potentially desirable if it is done in the right place (i.e., here in the U.S.). While education and social spending may be part of a nation-building project, Trombly is right to emphasize the coercive nature of nation-building. What matters much more for “successful” nation-building is the suppression of rival sources of loyalty and authority inside the nation-state and the crushing of opposition to the nation-state. Nation-building is usually unsuccessful in other countries because the U.S. has neither the resources, the patience, nor the competence to carry out such a policy in lands that Americans understood superficially at best. This use of coercion is not what Haass or any other “nation-building at home” advocates propose, which is why they need to describe their agenda using very different terms.
The inattention to a country’s political landscape and local political culture is a common feature of both advocates of nation-building and
“nation-building at home.” Trombly continues:
The second, and more practically important error in that phrase, is that nation building attempts so often fail because those prescribing and administering the treatment have insufficient understanding of local politics. We have seen the failure of aspiring nation builders and the associated commentators to grasp the complexities and contradictions of the politics of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and now Libya.
A basic assumption of the “nation-building at home” view is that the U.S. could better attend to its domestic problems if only it weren’t devoting so many resources and so much attention overseas. This neglects the problem that the solutions to all domestic problems are contested, and there is no consensus on how to cope with the country’s decaying infrastructure, shrinking industrial capacity, and unreformed entitlements. Those would seem to be Haass’ priorities in his “restoration” doctrine, as he writes:
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.’s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions.
Haass’ proposals on how the U.S. should bring its fiscal house into order are all reasonable enough, but they are also bound to be wildly unpopular with large constituencies in both parties. The first thing that needs to be understood is that the erosion of the “the fiscal foundations of American power” is itself a product of the “complexities and contradictions” of domestic American politics, and calls for restoring those foundations that do not account for the many varied interest groups that have contributed to the erosion are bound to go nowhere.