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Five Principles Critical to Successful Nation-Building, Finds History and Global Affairs Scholar

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posted: Monday September 26, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — The United States must follow five fundamental principles in order to successfully build strong, self-sufficient nations in post-conflict situations, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, mined more than 200 years of U.S. policy to explain the successes and failures of nation-building operations and offer a plan for how to move forward. He defines nation-building as an effort to build institutions and practices that allow a people to govern themselves in peaceful and prosperous ways.

Jeremi Suri

The findings are detailed in his new book, "Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama" (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 27 2011).

According to his research, successful nation-building efforts must incorporate five principles:

  • Partners: Nation-building always requires partners; there must be communication between people on the ground and people in distant government offices.
  • Process: Human societies do not follow formulas. Nation-building is a process which does not produce clear, quick results.
  • Problem-solving: Leadership must start small, addressing basic problems. Public trust during a period of occupation emerges from the fulfillment of basic needs.
  • Purpose: Small beginnings must serve larger purposes. Citizens must see the value in what they're doing.
  • People: Nation-building is about people. Large forces do not move history. People move history.

From the successes of Reconstruction after the American Civil War to the failures of Vietnam, Suri describes how the five principles played into the most pivotal nation-building operations in history. According to Suri's analysis, the problem-solving principle is an essential part of nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"In Afghanistan and Iraq the United States was not prepared to solve the problems that dominated the lives of most citizens," Suri says. "The people of both societies wanted security and an improved standard of living. The United States overthrew the oppressive governing regimes, but it did not improve security or living standards in the first years of both occupations. In fact, things initially got worse for most citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq."

According to Suri, as the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, President Barack Obama should focus on building productive partnerships with local groups and regional powers in both areas.

"The United States must re-double its efforts to support institutions that will contribute to stable, participatory, and uncorrupt government," Suri says. "The United States must support nation-building, led by local and regional actors."

Using examples of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things, Suri illustrates how starting small leads to progress and change.

"In a time of deep partisanship and difficult economic circumstances, too many people believe that change is impossible," Suri says. "The record of history shows that people, especially young people, can improve the world by bringing diverse citizens together to work on common problems. This has been the American experience with nation-building, when it has worked best. We need serious nation-building at home and abroad today. I remain optimistic that our young citizens are poised to become another generation of nation-builders.”

A leading scholar of international history and global affairs, Suri is the first holder of the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Watch a video on YouTube about the concepts explored in Suri's new book "Liberty's Surest Guardian."

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