Security Studies Program Seminar

The American Nation-Building Creed: Lessons and Legacies From Two Centuries of Experience

Jeremy Suri
University of Wisconsin

September 29, 2010


On September 29, 2010, Professor Jeremi Suri of UWI-Madison gave a presentation discussing the unique nation-building creed that has consistently influenced United States foreign policy since George Washington's presidency.  In his talk, Professor Suri described the creed, chronicled its development, and extracted historical lessons to improve prospects of success for policies pursuant to it.    

The "American nation-building creed" is characterized by the United States' inclination to shape states into self-governing bodies with representative institutions, espousing the principle of popular sovereignty -- in short, to create states in its own image.  Specifically, the creed advocates the building of states by means of shaping their institutions.  According to Suri, this creed has its roots in President George Washington's farewell address, which warns against involvement in "entangling foreign alliances" while also presuming that the fledgling nation will indeed become an international actor.  Consequently, Americans, responsible for the articulation of the principle of popular sovereignty and sprung from the rare society formed self-consciously as a nation and state at the same time, seek to disseminate their ideology in the international system without either resorting to empire or passively yielding to international anarchy.

As Professor Suri clarifies, the unique American nation-building creed associates widespread modeling of American institutions with the development of a more stable world, the logic being that an international society of such states would eventually emerge.  The U.S. believes it can deal more readily with states that come to approximate it, and takes the growing number of nation-states in the international system as evidence that its creed is successfully creating this desired "society of states."  For the U.S., Suri asserts, power is defined in making more nation-states in its image.  In acting in accordance with the dictates of its expansive anti-empire ideology, Washington redefines war as consequence not of bad decisions, but bad political institutions.

This creed, Professor Suri argues, quickly became a core set of values to which Americans predictably return in times of crisis; they retreat into the creed as their safety zone, as it were.  This has been the case for more than two centuries, with the creed remaining largely unchanged in spite of differences in its implementation.  Suri identifies a number of key moments of learning for it, including the periods of reconstruction after the Civil War and the Communist Revolution, which in turn contributed to the creed's advancement.  He draws attention to three particular instances of policy influenced by this singular nation-building creed:  President Lincoln's establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau during post-Civil War Reconstruction, William Howard Taft's leadership of President McKinley's Second Philippine Commission in the early 1900s, and President Truman's initiation of the Marshall Plan after World War II.  In all three cases, Washington pursued policies of nation-building in which the primary method for creating modern and developed societies was the development of American-style institutions.  The focus, Suri emphasizes, was (re)construction, not destruction.  He contrasts this with the more recent, and less successful, creed-infused American interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan, where strategies favored destruction at the expense of construction of better institutions. 

Comparing the successes and failures of U.S. creed-influenced instances of nation-building, Suri extracts the following lessons for policymakers to consider: 

Following Professor Suri's presentation, the audience was particularly eager to understand recent policy developments in Iraq with respect to the creed he articulated.  Presenter and audience deliberated whether we've really built political processes in the latter country, the degree of path dependence of the initial creed-driven intervention, and how the objective and strategy of the American intervention differed in the degree to which they embodied the creed.  Suri was also questioned on his assertion that the creed remained consistent over time, despite so much variation in implementation strategy, as well as on the meaning of these "institutions" which Americans allegedly seek to shape.  On the latter point, his distinction between representation and democracy was called into question, with the observation that the representative institutions this creed would have the U.S. promote seem to add up to democracy, for which he claims the creed does not advocate.  Overall, Suri's identification of a unique American nation-building creed was taken as offering valuable insight to present and future policymakers.

Rapporteur: Deborah Berman

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2010