Nation Building

I was one of the fools who believed in W’s grand “nation building” project in the Middle East.  I know more history than the average guy, and yet I was fooled, too — such is the power of wishcasting.

In reality, representative government is an Anglo-Saxon thing.  And given the problems we have with it — our current election is between a criminal narcissist and a narcissist criminal — it’s no surprise that cultures with no tradition other than the despotic can’t get the hang of it in just a few years, despite the best efforts of National Review and the Peace and/or Marine Corps.

India is the best case scenario.  Lots of Britons said, and some acted as if they sincerely believed, that the Raj was a “school of democracy” — at some indeterminate future time, Indians would be ready for self-government, at which point Great Britain would leave in peace.  Take that with as much salt as you require, because whether or not any of them would’ve actually accepted a hard date of departure, they still ran the place as if it were a sort of Junior England.  They had to — a subcontinental population in the hundreds of millions was held down by at most 100,000 white folks, commanding a native bureaucracy and army of maybe three times that.  Without significant native buy-in, the Raj was toast, as they found out in spectacular fashion in 1857.

The Indian Civil Service was open to natives almost from 1858, the Ilbert Bill put Englishmen (theoretically) under the jurisdiction of native judges, and the Morley-Minto Reforms provided for direct election of natives to the councils of state.  However it played out in practice — and “Subaltern Studies” people will of course tell you that it was all just a sham — the fact remains that India was about the only place not to go tits up (again, relatively speaking) at independence… and even the Postcolonialists must, however grudgingly, admit that the ICS, Morley-Minto, the Indian Army, etc. were major reasons for that.

Now, none of this should be taken for an argument that only white people can do democracy — as if the ability to mark a ballot is somehow genetic.  Again, see Presidential Election 2016, or any of the literally Caucasian countries surrounding the former USSR.  The point is that representative democracy is the result of a long, long, long history, a unique combination of circumstances stretching back to the Greek polis (and, again, if you want to maintain that white folks have a “government” gene, imagine what would happen if you time warped Demosthenes into modern America and told him that this is representative government.  The poor dude would stroke out).  Other cultures simply don’t have that history, and even the best-intentioned  attempts to impose a facsimile from above give you — at best — India.  Which bills itself as “the world’s largest democracy,” and it is…. sort of, if you add a list of qualifiers about the size of the Chicago phone book.

There’s no substitute for history.  Or, if you want a much prettier phrase, Edmund Burke said that “experience is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other.”  The best we can do is show ’em how it’s done.  A rational foreign policy starts by acknowledging that…. and best of all, showing ’em how it’s done entails a complete reform of our own system.

It’s either that, or admit that democracy itself is deeply unnatural, and just elect ourselves a despot.

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4 thoughts on “Nation Building

  1. Nate Winchester

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Japan.

    It all reminds me of the remodeling work going on around town. One can try and build something new and modern out of an existing structure, but it will take LOTS of work and (more importantly) time. Or one could knock down the building and build something new from scratch. Less time and work, but something of history and beauty is lost.

    We might have succeeded at the nation building, but it was going to take more time and effort than we could ever afford, and we weren’t willing to be harsh enough to break the country down to rebuild it from scratch. Was the best solution to just hit it and quit it? As always it seems to come down to trade-offs and what price you’re willing to pay. I remain undecided.

    But I am convinced that no matter what was picked, historians years later will talk about how it was the wrong choice. (assuming civilization is still standing enough for there to be historians)

  2. Severian

    As Derb says, “rubble don’t make trouble.” Bomb them back to the Stone Age and leave. There was no indication they ever wanted democracy, and they weren’t a credible military threat (the only reason we rebuilt Japan and Germany was that they were strategically vital, and their versions of militarism were credible threats).

    We need to go Roman style: “We’re here, you’re there. Should you want to taste the benefits of civilization, act as we act. If you don’t, that’s fine, but know that if you cross the Rhine under arms, we’ll slaughter you to the last man. Otherwise, go in peace.”

  3. ColoComment

    I am not a terribly competent student of history, but don’t we have to look back even farther than the birth of representative government, back to the basic concept of “nation” on which that government might be established?
    Looking to the ‘way back it sure does seem as though even the nascent nations of the Western world needed a “strong man” with vision to kick them into nationhood, before they ever reached a road to democracy/republic/representation. For example, I’m thinking of Alfred in England, Garibaldi in Italy, perhaps Charlemagne in core Europe. It was only after the concept of nation took hold that a country progressed toward governance refinements.
    And later, without the Treaty of Westphalia, would Europe have gone the way of a pre-Garibaldi fractured Italy, or Iraq, which was an artificial country created after WW I, lacking a common “nation” concept? Without Alfred, would the UK have survived only as a group of mini-kingdoms?
    If the Raj was in place for almost a century (and the Brits were a trading influence for ~100 years before that), that’s roughly 3-4 generations raised within the concept of unification, familiar with a strong central government, British customs and trade, and social & religious toleration expectations. I wonder what we might have achieved in Iraq, had we found and installed a charismatic leader with a vision, and had we also a century of our influence. I wonder what we might have seen in Iraq, had we even kept 10k-15k troops there for a generation to ensure security while the Iraqis figured it all out, and resolved (or at least figured how to accommodate) its competing religious factions.
    While double checking my history, I found this interesting bit of speculation on an India sans Raj.
    http://www.indiatimes.com/culture/who-we-are/if-the-british-had-never-ruled-our-country-this-would-be-india-today-243538.html

    1. ColoComment

      PS: I am not unmindful of the religious tensions felt even today in India, the split off of Islamic Pakistan, and the still ongoing Muslim-Hindu conflicts in India.
      Establishment religions have much to answer for….

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