Nikolas Gvosdev recently proposed an alternative to nation-building:

Nation building is an inherently revolutionary proposition that believes it is both possible and desirable to sweep away the past and install new institutions by fiat. Nation cultivation, in contrast, rests on the observations of Edmund Burke that sustainable, evolutionary change is possible only by working within the existing frameworks bequeathed by tradition and experience.

The greater respect for existing institutions and traditions that this approach entails makes it sound preferable to the sort of upheaval and dislocation that nation-building involves, but “nation cultivation” suffers from a number of the same pitfalls as its more revolutionary counterpart. It still puts an outside government–in this case, ours–in the role of the “cultivator” of another nation, which implies that the outside government has both the right and responsibility to direct and shape the political development of another people. Whether an outside government approaches the task with an engineering or a gardening/farming mentality doesn’t change the reality that it is still an attempt to impose a new political order from outside. “Nation cultivation” might involve grafting new structures onto the old, but it is still an effort to remake another society for our purposes. As such, “nation cultivaton” runs into the same difficulties as nation-building: why should the U.S. be doing this, and why are Americans likely to support a “nation cultivation” project when most of them regard nation-building with disdain?

“Nation cultivation” may seem more realistic and more likely to “work,” but for the same reason it would likely command even less political support than nation-building does. As a concept, “nation cultivation” takes for granted that its success is far from guaranteed, and it assumes a much longer-term commitment than the recent and ongoing multi-year overseas projects that are already very unpopular. Gvosdev acknowledges that “nation cultivation” would require much more time:

But nation cultivation might force a new and more honest dialogue with the American people, asking them to commit to longer-term time horizons when it can be shown that nation cultivation is truly in the country’s interests, as it certainly proved to be the case in East Asia.

It might be more honest to tell the public that a given mission is going to last for twenty years instead of three or five, but voters don’t want to hear about 30-year plans to encourage institution-building and political reform in another country at their expense. Besides the public’s impatience and fickleness in its support for overseas missions, it isn’t at all clear that “nation cultivation” would serve the country’s interests in most cases. If the U.S. were to adopt “nation cultivation” in place of the nation-building that has been tried and found wanting in the last twenty years, which nations would the government be “cultivating” and why? The same temptation to throw endless resources at the problem will still be there, as it inevitably is in any large-scale public project, and once such a project gets started the government would have strong incentives to persist in trying to make it a success long after its failure was evident to all. Gvosdev cites the decades-long “nation cultivations” in Taiwan and South Korea as examples, but in both cases U.S. support for these states was directly tied to larger strategic goals in the Cold War. It is unclear what goals the U.S. would be advancing through “nation cultivation” today.