Academic journal article Policy Review

Bottom-Up Nation Building

Academic journal article Policy Review

Bottom-Up Nation Building

Article excerpt

THE TIRED DEBATE between those who believe in nation-building and those who scoff at it glosses over a major difference between top-down and bottom-up society-building. The starting point for a bottom-up approach is the communitarian recognition that societies--even modern, so-called "mass" societies--are not composed of just millions upon millions of individual citizens. Instead, most societies are communities of communities. Most people come in social packages. They are greatly influenced by the communities of which they are members and by their natural leaders. These communities are not necessarily residential--the traditional village--but may be ethnic, religious, or based on national origin.

This is not to suggest that individuals do not have degrees of freedom or that their behavior is determined in full by their communities. It merely points out that communities have a profound effect on what seem like individual choices, from voting to purchasing to eating and beyond. Moreover, American national society was formed to a significant extent only after the Civil War. Before that, most Americans' prime loyalty was to the colony, state, or region in which they lived. When asked overseas, "Where are you from?" Americans used to answer, "I am Virginian" or "I am Bostonian." Only after the 1870s did more and more Americans respond, "I am American." Only during the Reconstruction period did the Supreme Court stop referring to the United States as a plurality ("The United States are") and start referring to the nation as a singular entity ("The United States is"). It took a very bloody war and a generation of society-building afterwards to make the South and the North into one political community--a process that is still ongoing. Many other countries we now know as nations were similarly cobbled together, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.

I point to these familiar pieces of sociological history because we tend to ignore them when we deal with countries that have not yet made much progress along these society-building, communitarian lines--whether or not they are called nations or have flags, seats at the United Nations, and diplomatic representatives in the capitals of the world. For instance: Iraq, Pakistan, and above all, Afghanistan.

Think tribes, not a nation

GIVEN THE POWER and import of communities (often referred to as "tribes"), the issue here is not whether we can or should avoid engaging in nation building, but how we proceed. Do we make our starting point the notion that there is a central national government, whose troops and police we can train as a national force and whose administration of justice and social services we can improve? Or, do we realize that such a center-to-periphery approach is unworkable, and that we need to build from the periphery to the center? This does not mean that we should go find individual citizens to "empower" and work with them. Instead, we should look at places like Afghanistan as lands in which several tribes lie next to each other. (I use the term "tribes" loosely, referring to ethnic and confessional communities whose members have tribe-like ties to one another, ties they do not have to members of other communities.) In other words, there are many societies in which nation building cannot start from the center--and those who insist otherwise pay a heavy price.

Howard Hart, a member of the CIA clandestine service for 25 years and former CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, observes that "Afghan" is purely a geographic distinction and that "there is not, and never has been, anything remotely approaching a shared national identity." He finds that tribal loyalties in the region are paramount, and "warlords" (or tribal chiefs) are loath to subordinate themselves to a higher authority, especially one fostered by foreign powers. I would temper this argument a bit and suggest that these tribal leaders have some sense of national citizenship. …

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