by Celeste Ward Gventer

 The United States has outlasted at least five previous episodes of declinism and in the last hundred years has navigated the dangerous waters of international politics with surprising adroitness.  It has bested great power rivals, helped stamp out noxious ideologies, and built enduring global institutions. It has done this without sacrificing the legitimacy of its domestic system or crippling its economy by creating a garrison state.  While the country suffers from a variety of pathologies today – fiscal prodigality, declining educational standards and attainment, sclerotic politics, et al – the U.S. also possesses long term advantages compared to its challengers that may end up mattering most for national power in coming decades, as Francis Gavin has pointed out in this forum. If results are what count, America must be doing something right.

But extending America’s time on the broad, sunlit uplands requires not only that global forces outside of U.S. control break our way, but that the U.S. skillfully manages its power in the next few decades. Decline will come, but its timing may depend on choices that will either enhance or weaken the U.S. position.  If ever a time came for the U.S. to husband its power, this is it.

Unfortunately, there is a fiendishly – if curiously – persistent tendency in American foreign policy that risks the opposite: promiscuous military adventures in the name of nation building.  Exorbitantly expensive, improvident in the expenditure of American lives, strategically fraught with peril, and frequently attended by abject failure, incompetence, and waste, the U.S. has nonetheless sought to transform cultures and societies from the Philippines to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, and beyond.  The U.S. can little afford such missions in the coming decades.

This is not a call for isolationism or even offshore balancing.  The U.S. has succeeded when it has engaged with the world, and there are times when it has had strategically defensible reasons to intervene with force (though even these are not without controversy).  The benefits of fighting the Nazis or imperial Japan and even some counter-proliferation and humanitarian interventions, while controversial, have often justified the costs. The difference is that the objective in these engagements was not to transform societies but rather to address core American interests.  What about Germany and Japan, you ask?  Both countries had enormous head starts in terms of wealth, a highly educated workforce and relatively homogeneous societies.  More importantly, these successes were driven less by the desire to refashion societies than the larger, long-term effort to contain communism and Soviet expansion.

Yet America’s penchant for nation building reappears with determined frequency, the proverbial triumph of hope over experience. Iraq was an eight-year, trillion-dollar-plus project resulting in a still troubled, violent nation and ambivalent “ally.”  The United States remains mired in Afghanistan for an eleventh year and counting, and the future there looks grim under even generous assumptions. While arguably neither of these conflicts began with nation building as a core purpose, both soon devolved into such projects, with the attendant results.

Given the poor outcomes, risks, and expense, why is this (seemingly peculiarly American) tendency so tenacious? It is a puzzle, but one can venture a few possible answers.  At least in the last few decades, we intervene because we can. The U.S. military remains the most capable and powerful on earth and, crushing national debt notwithstanding, the country can continue to finance military action on credit.  Since the creation of an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, very few Americans experience any pain when the military is committed or are seemingly aware of what those forces are doing. Less than one percent of the nation serves, and the agony of repeated deployments and the horror of possible (or real) loss of a loved one are restricted to a tiny minority of families and friends. There are other possible reasons, such as a steadily expanding definition of American “interests” in the last twenty years, a growing consensus across the political spectrum for greater activism after September 11th, 2001, and a foreign policy cadre educated in similar institutions, using many of the same texts, and raised in a post Cold-War foreign policy era when the U.S. was at the height of its power.

But these possible explanations are of recent vintage; America’s recurring bouts of enthusiasm for nation building go back much farther.  Perhaps the American can-do spirit is a factor, as well as American hubris.

Whatever the reasons for the U.S.’s historical proclivity for nation building, the coming decades can and should be different.  After over a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, American policymakers should take this moment to reflect on the causes of this recurring folly, and seek ways to avoid, as a Russian expression would have it, stepping on the same rake.

Nation building risks draining the Treasury, distracting policymakers and analysts from long term global trends, expending lives on problems that are not central to maintaining U.S. power, and exposing the country to needless strategic risk.  The countries that are growing in significance and have seen the greatest advancements in their citizens’ quality of life – from Brazil to India and China – are often those who resisted American intrusions, built their own nations, and focused on growing their power while the U.S. fought its “Long War” in the Middle East and South Asia.  Decline may not be a choice, but the time of its arrival might; U.S. wisdom and prudence in its foreign policy may go a long way towards extending the nation’s predominance.

Celeste Ward Gventer is Associate Director at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin.  She previously served as  Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Capabilities.