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From the Ground Up
William Rogel • A conservative case for nation building in Afghanistan • January 2002

We have won the war with Afghanistan.  The Taliban has been removed from power, and bin Laden, if he is still alive, is on the run.  Bush’s approval ratings are sky-high.  And yet, buried in this victory, is a philosophical problem for Bush and for American conservatives.

The cornerstone of President Bush’s foreign policy, indeed, the thing which most distinguished his foreign policy objectives from those of Al Gore, was supposed to be an opposition to “nation-building.” As the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, the President seems to be changing his tune, as he is actively involved in determining the future of the former international pariah.  Bush’s opponents may accuse him of waffling on this position, while others seek to use the case of Afghanistan to argue for globalism and interventionist policies.  But while the problem is, in some sense, a new one, it is also based on one of the most obvious tensions in conservative political philosophy—that between respect for tradition and belief in the absolute.

It would be impossible to give a full sketch of these two principles in this space.  At the very least, it seems clear that these two trends exist within conservatism as it is understood today.  Traditionalism demands a respect for the culture and customs of the various nations around the world, both as bearers of some level of truth and as crucial in the maintenance of the sort of stability necessary for the flourishing of individuals.  This does not, however, translate into cultural relativism.  Rather, traditionalism arises from the simultaneous belief in an absolute truth and humility regarding a single man’s ability to know this truth.
It was out of a desire for humility in foreign relations that Bush and other conservatives have spoken against so-called “nation-building.”  In fact, many conservatives faulted the Clinton administration’s interventionist policies for sparking much of the hatred for the United States that exists in the world.  Recently, the assertion that American intervention is wrong and prideful has come to be challenged by the argument that the people in other countries want America to help eliminate oppressive regimes.  Supporters of this view argue that the unwillingness of the American government to force its political system on states that do not respect freedom is the true source of hatred of America.  Isolationists seem unwilling to address this problem.  If it is true that the people of the world want American help to secure freedom, then to withhold that help is in stark contrast to a foreign policy based on humility.  To refuse to fight for the rights of foreigners is to elevate Americans over them in a very troubling way.  It sends the message that just Americans, not all people, deserve to be free.  To argue that the United States ought only to protect the rights of its citizens, as isolationists often do, is to be motivated by the same hubris that the intervention conservatives criticize.

This dilemma becomes immediately clear in the case of Afghanistan.  It would be incredibly problematic for the U.S. to destroy the current government of Afghanistan and then simply walk away.  It would, naturally enough, breed resentment, because destruction without rebuilding implies that the nation and people of Afghanistan are not worthy of our concern.  What could be more emblematic of narcissistic self-love than a nation that takes it upon itself to militarily attack another but would not deign to take part in the rebuilding effort?  Clearly, such a position makes the war with Afghanistan solely about American interests.  Even if one believes the war to be only about preserving the interests of the United States, it is obvious that such a view conflicts with the President’s rhetoric about justice.  This explains the apparent flip-flop in Bush’s policy in the case of Afghanistan.  “Nation-building” after destroying a nation in a war is wholly different from the interventionist policies generally associated with this phrase.

At the same time, it would be wrong to pretend Afghanistan should not make conservatives rethink their stance on “nation-building”.  For while it is possible simply to make an exception for war, this exception would not help aid an understanding of the problems that made the war necessary in the first place.  It seems likely that our inability to anticipate the terrorist attacks is evidence of a failing that must be addressed.  

It is naïve for a conservative to propose that a lack of political involvement will prevent the encroachment of American culture into other nations.  We cannot hope to stop the spread of our ideas that goes with technological advances, nor should we.  There is a difference between respecting tradition and expecting everything to be completely static.  All cultures change and develop, and today this change is even more rapid than it used to be.  The fact that the U.S., despite efforts to show humility to the Middle East and elsewhere, has continued and will continue to be an object for attack, speaks to the permanence of our influence.  Similarly, the fact that those who hate America are often driven underground attests to the fact that mainstream culture is fairly sympathetic to the American way of life.  To expose other cultures to our ideas and then to try to take those ideas away will naturally bring about some bitterness on the part of those who have come to appreciate American influence.  Furthermore, if we believe in our own culture and ideology, conservatives should welcome an opportunity to convince others of this absolute good.  Cultural relativism is a rejection of culture itself, as it presents any absolutist pretensions as noble lies.  Given all this, conservatives should seek to ensure that the influence of America is integrated into the societies that exist now.  They need not and should not oppose the spread of our own culture per se, but they should try to keep change as conducive to stability as possible.

Bush and other conservatives, then, were too hasty to conclude that humility demands further withdrawal from the world.  On the contrary, it is possible that derided words like “engagement” might actually hold some modicum of wisdom.  As has been said, if change seems inevitable, then we should make sure that change happens gradually, not simply assume that it will be gradual without American intervention.  Also, on an individual level, respect for others often means being willing to argue with them (as “agreeing to disagree” is dismissive), and the same is true in the international realm.  Communism is not the only evil worth fighting, and conservatives would do well to recognize this.  
At the same time, it is important that while we are engaging with the world we remain open to the possibility that we may have something to learn as well.  This openness is not easy–it is hard to know which things should be learned and which things are wrong.  But this is no different from the difficulty faced by every individual in every real conversation.  There can be no general rule that will eliminate uncertainty about the merits of political ideas or will alleviate the need for careful judgment concerning them.

There are two prescriptions that can be made for dealing with the uncertainty that arises with a properly humble view of ourselves.  First, gradual change seems to lessen the impact of change, preserve the wisdom of the past, and maintain a tie to the past.  These ties can be a valuable resource in correcting any changes that prove to be bad.  Second, systems based on freedom are more malleable than others.  Thus, though there is very real change involved in the spread of American freedom, that change is comparatively easy to reverse and adaptable to disparate cultures.  And so, systems based on freedom and individuality can impose themselves more strongly than those that are not.
To return briefly to the case of Afghanistan, there is clearly an imperative to take part in the rebuilding of a government that we have destroyed.  Throughout history, nations have always demanded something in a peace treaty, and in so doing they have entered into a relationship with the defeated opponent.  We should have some terms and guiding principles to impose on the eventual government of Afghanistan.  To do so dignifies, not diminishes, the nation, because it treats them as an equal worthy of our concern.  And though we should be wary of bringing about change that is too drastic, we must recognize that change is real and constant, take heart in the increased safety of our system, and slowly begin westernizing Afghanistan.  For just as Japan, without sacrificing its own identity, is now a western power in many ways, the United States can bring western civilization to everyone without destroying the individuality of the nations of the world.  This is the correct goal for conservatives in the aftermath of the war, and it is the best defense.

William Rogel is a junior in Berkeley College.  

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