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Nation Building is a 20th Century idea and it’s time to move on. I’m speaking of course about what we’re trying to do in Iraq, but the discussion is much larger than that. The whole of the 20th century with all its fantastic advances in health, wealth, and happiness for the world’s wealthier nations has been a disaster defined by nothing so much as the – sometimes unintended -- consequences of our misguided attempts to bring our brand of success and values to the less successful and less powerful. The more I think about how this comes to be, the more I am sure that our mistake is thinking we can layer the entire structure of our system onto someone else’s society without paying any attention to how we ourselves got here. The most successful Governments did not spring into being as large centrally controlled structures with the confidence and trust of the governed. They came about as a gradual merger of power from the local community level, to the regional, and finally to a national representational level. Government is not formed from the top down.
As an American, I have of course studied our own history more than that of any other nation so I’ll use it here as the example. We are the United States because before that we were just individual “States”. Unification was not instant and was not all encompassing. The first attempts were successful only in so far as they led to the later ones. The “Articles of Confederation” were a loose affiliation by comparison with the Constitution which followed. Much of our history can be viewed as a slow but inexorable movement from local control toward central authority.
A clue as to the innate nature of a society’s resistance to larger, more distant control is found if you look at which aspects of life remain largely the provinces of local decisions in comparison to those which have been more readily seceded to the federal level. The schools, for example, remain closely held and controlled. Laws governing ‘moral’ decisions have also been kept as local as possible. Economic laws and the military have much more readily been centralized. We don’t care who prints the money we use, but if someone steals it we want local law enforcement to punish them. It is a matter of trust, and it stems from the most basic of human social units. Trust stems from the family.
We start learning trust at the family, and as we get older we learn to extend our definition of family to our neighbors. We trust our neighbors to make decisions like ours. As towns then, we made decisions but outside forces bring the need to expand still more. We band our town-families together and form regional governments. Regions form nation-states, and ultimately states form unions. The United States is literally a union of such nation-states.
The problem with so called “Nation Building” comes when it is imposed backward. In Iraq we are attempting to build a “coalition government” at the top by using representatives from the community but we have been too much ignoring the time consuming process of first rebuilding strong, viable, local governmental bodies. A national government is no good if it must impose its will using national forces. The latest reports are proving this out. Local villages report that they trust their local forces, but the national police force is terrifying to them. Are we so different? Do we not have a whole mythology in this country evident in our books and films of the “Federal” system being corrupt while our local police force must hold the line and do what is right?
We would do well in Iraq and elsewhere to focus less on the big national picture and more on supporting the growth of healthy units of local government gaining the confidence of their own people, and slowly growing together to shift only those issues of national significance up the chain to regional representation and ultimately to a national body. We must focus on helping to build a government from the bottom up.
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