strong states

The US and Afghanistan: the weakness of ‘strong’ states

Nation-building has never been induced by an external state.

The failure to change the domestic political scene in Afghanistan, in spite of twenty years of American presence, has surprised many commentators. Fintan O’Toole recently remarked that “democratic values were [possibly not] strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away”. One could descend a step further down by arguing that there is simply no experience or any example of a foreign power imposing ‘nation-building’ on another state. Failure is obvious. When I advanced this statement in a symposium of academic and military representatives on the Dutch military contribution to the NATO presence in Uruzgan (2010), the response was flat. The need for a positive story overrules all facts to the contrary which also lies at the root of the endless chain of actions and self-delusion that characterized the American involvement with Afghanistan.

Much earlier I presented another perspective in a forum on the Iraq war of 2003 (The Arab World Geographer). It compared the task of  keeping international order with domestic policing.  There are two varieties of domestic policing: community policing which involves the community and takes advantage of  intelligence in the community, and pro-active law enforcement which pursues criminals with autonomous (police-)information systems and is based on common laws. Community policing in the context of international order keeping demands some reserve because of the difference in values between an external actor and the local society.  Pro-active law enforcement like pursuing terrorists, Al-Qaeda etc., may count on some global legitimacy but may locally be experienced as a disproportionate level of violence that does not touch on dominant injustices felt by the local people.

The American intervention seems to have been hopelessly mixed up with these constraints. On the one hand it seemed to embrace the argument of culture in order not to be bothered by local  injustices (like the kidnapping and rape of boys). On the other hand its campaign against ‘terrorists’ accepted the rule of warlords that divided and oppressed the Afghan people.

Fintan O’Toole, 2021, The Lie of Nation Building. New York Review of Books October 7.

Gertjan Dijkink, 2003, World police, Unilateralism and the Future of a Country. Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq. The Arab World Geographer 6 (19-23)


Does the American mind mesh with democracy?

The unruly relationship between democracy and individual freedom

Communal fight in Bologna

The scorched earth tactics of Donald Trump in the twilight of his career as president, is a blow to many people who have a high opinion of the United States as cradle of democracy. In history it rather mirrors the violent struggle for power between two political groups in the Italian city-states around 1300 to which we owe the Divina Commedia. Dante was a city official and victim of these political wars in which the truth had been subordinated to power. In his exile Dante longed for a higher and more just authority which, as in the case of the US, was sadly absent.

The higher authority in the modern democracy is a system of justice based on facts. But precisely facts are liable to erosion in the world of internet and social media. The one who succeeds in reproducing a lie a millionfold controls the facts. That requires, of course, also some social tools like a flock of loyal followers and a ritual that suggests infallibility. It is not improper to characterize Trump as cult-leader as many commentators are now doing. Trump does not represent the GOP but a group of people that believe in him and that go into ecstasy with the rituals or the rallies in which Trump plays the role of visionary leader. This group and these events are in their turn intimidating for the more moderate Republican rank and file.

Those who consider these antics un-American pass over the multiple sects and religious groups who have found a fertile soil in the US. The specific history and geography of the US has shaped a mental climate for which two experiences were dominant: the absence of an exterior territorial force that could resist expansion and the freedom to create whatever you want.  The first has induced a lack of interest in and knowledge of the motives of people outside the American continent and the second a contempt for people who fail because they have themselves to blame and not the world outside.  

The freedom to make what you want has a perverse effect on the valuing of facts. After the Iraq war an aide to President George W. Bush boasted to be glad not to belong to the ‘reality-based community’ (the critical journalists) because ‘We are an Empire now and create our own reality’. Conversely, this has also led to a broadly shared distrust against bureaucracy, at least where it touches the citizen. No wonder that it is easy to believe in fraud at the elections.

All this does not alter the fact that the average American holds democracy in high esteem, also as a matter of national pride. This attitude conceives of democracy as the guard of individual freedom. As soon as collective interests are at stake – as in the case of Covid-19 control – unbridgeable gaps open between the parties. In this respect democracy is not facilitated by a two-party system.