In recent years, I've subscribed to the view that the United States can shape overseas governments at least to be relatively stable and benign to our interests, if not actually free and democratic. I read how well we performed this task in postwar Japan and Germany, and dismissed our failures as special cases. I also endorsed recommendations to strengthen our civilian capacity to help in stabilization and reconstruction missions.
Now I'm having second thoughts. At best we seem only to have lucked out in Iraq, after years of trial and error. And while I want to believe that counterinsurgency theory will work in practice, the results so far in Afghanistan are far from encouraging. Then I came across a reference to an academic book review that looks at the literature on nation-building and raises further doubts in my mind. The author, Jason Brownlee, argues persuasively that the United States has succeeded in building viable states only where the right preconditions already existed, including well-functioning government at all levels and political institutions.
This isn't just an American problem, for the international community has also done a lousy job turning its interventions -- in Somalia, Congo, the Balkans -- into peaceful and viable entities.