World Politics

Review Article

Can America Nation-Build?

Jason Brownleea1*

a1 University of Texas, Austin,

Alexander Cooley. Logics of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States, and Military Occupation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005, 191 pp.

James Dobbins, John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Rollie Lal, Andrew Rathmell, Rachel Swanger, and Anga Timilsina. America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. Santa Monica: Rand, 2003, 244 pp.

Noah Feldman. What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation-Building. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, 154 pp.

Francis Fukuyama, ed. Nation-Building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, 262 pp.

Greg Grandin. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006, 286 pp.


Post-9/11 security concerns and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have renewed scholarly interest in nation-building as a form of externally fostered democratization. The selected works assess Iraq and its precursors, seeking general lessons for establishing new democracies. They principally conclude that successful nation-building depends on sustained commitments of time, materiel, and manpower. Although this thesis improves upon earlier studies of democracy promotion, which often treated intentions as determinative, it does not fully reckon with the effect of antecedent conditions on external intervention. As this review addresses, American efforts at nation-building have historically been enabled or constrained by local political institutions. Rather than autonomously reengineering the target society, nation-builders have buttressed bureaucracies and parliaments where they were already available (Germany, Japan) and foundered in countries that lacked such institutions (Somalia, Haiti). In sum, nation-building has been most effective when pursued least ambitiously, amid functioning states with prior experience in constitutional government.

Jason Brownlee is an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization (2007). His current research addresses domestic and international attempts at democratization. He can be reached at

* The author thanks Daniel Chirot, Patrick McDonald, Robert Vitalis, Kurt Weyland, and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on a prior version of this article.