Most Americans — the leaders and citizens — are strongly attached to the belief in “American exceptionalism”. According to it, America was created for a special purpose. Its purpose was to set an example — perhaps, even go beyond that and actively pursue the goal — for creating an inclusive state. Such a state will ensure the life, liberty and happiness of its citizens. However, America’s record in the area of ‘nation-building’ has at best been mixed.
The country’s great success came in the period soon after the end of the Second World War. Under the inspired leadership of President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall, Washington launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-ravaged Germany. The effort worked. In less than a decade, Germany had emerged as a major economic power in Europe and a vibrant democracy. Japan, the second defeated power, was helped even more. Its institutions were not as well developed as those of pre-war Germany. The Americans sat down with the Japanese and wrote their constitution. Two decades later, the Japanese economy had developed to such an extent that Ezra Vogel, an American social scientist wrote a book Japan as Number One, in which he predicted that the country will overtake the United States and become the world’s largest economy. That, of course, did not happen.
There were other successes as well. Working with other victors of the Second World War, America helped to devise the institutional structure that came to be known as the Bretton Woods system. Initially, there were two bodies in this structure — the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The IBRD later developed into the World Bank Group and spawned a number of regional development banks. Later still, the World Trade Organisation was added as the third leg of the institutional stool on which the new global institutional structure was to rest. This plan for managing the global economy brought peace and prosperity to the world for more than six decades.
However, some other forays into nation-building were failures, leading to disastrous consequences. America fought four wars — three of them long — all in Asia. Only one, that in the Korean Peninsula could be termed a success, in that, it achieved its objective of having the entire peninsula, not to fall under communist rule. The Vietnam War was fought to create a liberal and democratic state on the southern boundary of the expanding communist China. The Americans lost the war; the country, although moving towards an open economy with a large role for private enterprise, remains a one-part state under the control of the Communist Party. The second failed attempt was in October 2001 when, following the terrorist attacks on New York by a group located in Afghanistan, the United States invaded the host country. The war lasted for 13 years — the longest fought by the United States — but did not produce a nation-building success. The Afghan Taliban still occupy large tracts of land in Afghanistan and have begun to negotiate with the government in Kabul for a power-sharing arrangement.
The third nation-building experiment — that in Iraq — ended in an even greater disaster than those in Vietnam and Afghanistan. America went into the country pretending to eliminate weapons of mass destruction (WMD) it believed the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq possessed. The WMDs were not there; what was there were suppressed tensions between people belonging to different sects, which surfaced once the lid was removed by the American intervention. The way power was transferred between sects created an enormous amount of resentment and laid the basis for the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS leaders claim that they have established an Islamic caliphate that must have the allegiance of the entire Muslim Ummah of some 1.6 billion people. There is a consensus among military experts and political analysts that despite the use of a great deal of force, the extremism perpetrated by the ISIS will take a while to be brought under control.
President Barack Obama has gone through a deep process of on-the-job learning. This is quite apparent from a reading of his major speeches. In the speech given in June 2009 at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, he took note of the fact that he was meeting the audience in this place of Islamic learning “at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation but also conflicts and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims… Moreover, modernity and globalisation led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” He said that in his earlier statements, he had made clear that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. But that did not mean that it will not “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a great threat to security”.
How the effort to influence domestic political development in the Middle East pans out is hard to predict at this time. The rise of religious extremism will be checked only if the countries that are affected by it counter it in decisive ways.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2015.