Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama
by Jeremi Suri
New York: Free Press, 2011
Jeremi Suri's study of America's experience with nation-building is an ambitious monograph that addresses a critical contemporary strategic and national security policy issue by putting it into historical perspective. In so doing, Suri makes an original, if not entirely satisfactory, contribution to the history of US diplomacy and foreign policy; to the scholarly debate on "the American way of war"; and to the policy debate over the usefulness and efficacy of nation-building as an element in US national security policy and practice.
Suri, who is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, took the title of his book from Washington's 1796 Farewell Address, which is a good place to start for this attempt to define what he considers America's most original and enduring contribution to "grand strategy." The author's thesis is that the Founders' great accomplishment was the first successful attempt to build a nation-state out of its preexisting raw materials--political, demographic, cultural, and economic. For Suri, the nation-building gene is the key strand in America's national DNA and the key to understanding America's engagement with the world since 1776. Nation-building created the new United States and dictated its policy of continental expansion, as territories became states of the Union across the continent. Nation-building has also characterized the US approach to solving international problems and promoting international stability, becoming in the process America's home-grown "grand strategy" in a dangerous world.
Suri tests and illustrates his thesis by examining five American nation-building experiences. In "Reconstruction after Civil War," he describes the national effort to reconstruct a single and more perfect union as "the most intensive and aggressive nation-building endeavor of the nineteenth century." The author focuses on the work of a unique institution, the Freedmen's Bureau, that was the main civilian engine of the Northern effort to bring political, economic, and social development to the backward, "failed state" that was the post-helium South. He emphasizes that Abraham Lincoln "looked back to ... the American founding to articulate Union aims in the Civil War." Most historians would not consider reconstruction of the former Confederacy as successful as Suri.
In "Reconstruction after Empire," Suri examines how the United States refused after the Spanish-American War to make the Philippines the first piece of a traditional colonial empire and opted instead to create a new, democratic nation-state and American ally in the Far Pacific, "navigating as Americans always do between opposition to empire and fear of chaos. …