University News

Janus Forum debates nation building

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010

Both speakers introduced themselves as the “underdog,” but neither stepped back from his stance regarding nation building in Afghanistan during Thursday’s lecture at Salomon Hall.

Harvard Professor of International Affairs Stephen Walt began his lecture by quoting the Marxist maxim — Groucho Marx, that is — that “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Walt used this theme throughout much of the night. He referenced historical cases of nation building, including failed attempts by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France, saying that “no matter who’s doing it, nation building fails more often than they succeed.”

Walt went on to say that he understands the U.S. is very keen to help suffering countries, but was quick to warn that “the costs often outweigh the benefits.”

Walt argued that the U.S. government is engaged in “a massive social engineering project” with a nation completely different from America. U.S. troops go into Afghanistan with very little knowledge of the people’s culture and beliefs and expect to be able to change their political system, Walt said.

“This is the very definition of hubris,” he added.

James Dobbins, former United States ambassador to the European Union, emphasized the good that has come from the United States’ nine-year stay in Afghanistan. The country has seen economic growth, a higher life expectancy, a lower infant mortality rate and an increase in education, Dobbins said.

But while these signs show the country is stepping in the right direction, the initial goals have not been reached, Dobbins argued. According to Dobbins, the U.S. doesn’t try to intervene to make poor countries rich, but rather to try to make violent countries more peaceful.

“In the end, the only way it will end is through some negotiated accommodation,” he said.

Walt mentioned that though he is not against trying to help nations succeed, the lack of manpower, the incompetence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the weak security force make the U.S. government’s goals regarding Afghanistan difficult to reach.  Walt finished by quoting a Chinese official who said, “You’ve spent the last 10 years spending a trillion dollars on Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve spent the last 10 years building our future.” Walt added on to this reference, saying, “I think we ought to be mindful of that.”

The lecture, titled “Nine Years Later: Nation Building in Afghanistan,” was sponsored by the Janus Forum.

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