FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jeremi Suri, Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

Welcome Jeremi Suri, and Host Brian Balogh, (American History Guys)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

Host, Brian Balogh:

How has American nation-building changed the world? What can we learn from this history? How has this history been used and misused by American policy makers? And what makes nation-building work – what has undermined it?

These are just a few of the questions that Jermi Suri asks and answers in Liberty’s Surest Guardian. For the teacher’s guide to these answers, policy makers in particular, are likely to turn to the last chapter. There, Suri, a scholar’s scholar who has rocked the rarefied world of the history of international relations (what old white guys used to call diplomatic history), rolls up his sleeves. He enlists alliteration to promote the “five ‘P’s of nation-building:” Partners, Process, Problem-Solving, Purpose and People. However, to fully understand these prescriptions, all of his readers would do well to read the provocative history that Suri has crafted. Once they have, they will privilege a sixth “P” – Patience.

Not that reading Guardian requires much of that. Despite its impressive chronological and geographic scope, Suri distills the history of American nation-building into fewer than 300 pages of compelling text. Suri the scholar can be found in the impressive footnotes: they convey a fascinating history of the history of American foreign policy. Most readers, however, will choose to follow the plot line in the text, which surprisingly, begins at home, and returns there time and again. That sixth “P” – patience it turns out – was an essential ingredient in America’s own evolution as a union that combined the powerful resources tapped by national identity and a surprisingly powerful state that provided order, rules, and the capacity to deal with other states in an unruly world. [cont’d.]

One of the many ironic insights that illuminate the nation-building path charted by Suri is that the creation and consolidation of the Union in America took a great deal of patience. Most of those other “P”s preach just how difficult and complex this process is. Yet due to the very success of their own experiment in nation-building at home, Americans tend to be impatient when it comes to their efforts abroad. “We did it, why can’t those Iraqi people get it?” Americans ask.

Suri seeks to instill patience by devoting the first two substantive chapters to nation-building within the United States – the founding period and Reconstruction after the Civil War. He explicates the American creed, its constitutional form, and the cultural contradictions it faced from the Constitutional Convention through the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau. As Americans painstakingly constructed their own union, they recognized that the future of that union was inextricably connected to a world organized into nation-states with similar creeds and perspectives towards relationships outside of their borders.

The strength and the challenge at the heart of the American union was a symbiotic relationship between the people and the institutions created by this populace. No people connected to national institutions that ordered their shared space? No state. But no state that these people could identify with across sectional, ethnic, and occupational divisions? No people. Some of Suri’s most powerful lessons from history flow from the tendency of Americans, when dealing with foreign states, to leave the people out of this formula. They favor dictators and seemingly strong states that in reality, are a pale substitute for unions that embody the support of the populace.

Suri also insists that the very nature of the union that Americans created was expansive and at times, intrusive when it came to relationships with the rest of the world. From the start, Americans conceived of the lands beyond their own constitutional reach as best served when they were divided into units that looked a lot like America. “Each state,” Suri writes, “should have a single coherent people; each people should have a single, united and effective state. (p.29) Sound familiar? It should, because that was the formula that worked inside America. Such a world, inhabited by peace-loving states (because the Kantian vision could not imagine any democratic state preferring war) would avoid the twin peril of anarchy and empire. Yet this society of states could only be maintained if the United States was prepared to violate its most sacred principle – the sanctity of state borders. “Internal interference” was justified time and again to ensure that the people were indeed represented by their leaders. Or that those states had the capacity to impose internal order and fulfill obligations.

After establishing the model for effective union, internally and abroad, Guardian proceeds to examine a series of case studies that travel from the Philippines, to post-World War II Germany and Japan, ending with the most recent challenges to nation-building in the Bush and Obama administrations. Having laid out the theory behind the American vision and explicated the way this theory unfolded within American borders, I braced for the predictable cookie cutter application of that theory and history. I should have known better. For this is where Suri, the master of historical context, contingency and personal agency, takes over. Rather than a litany of show fruit/rotten fruit dichotomies, Suri demonstrates the importance of historically informed policy for each of his cases. This is where his Five “P”s come into play, and where patience appears to be the most crucial variable. But it is also where Suri’s own predilection for “realistic idealism” (p. 32) comes into play.

Ultimately, it is Suri’s commitment to Kantian idealism and the author’s determination to tease out the very real American stake and interest in a world informed by that idealistic vision that makes this a powerful story that will appeal to history buffs, policy makers, and citizens alike.