Foreign Policy Blogs

Casual Friday: Roughing It–First US nation-building was domestic

Nation-buildingUS diplomacy in the developing world has often failed to capitalize on its full array of experience with national development.  State and nation-building literature focuses upon the present, but the past reveals how the US accomplished its own nation-building–and how supremely difficult this 200-plus year project has been. 

I’m talking about the Wild West. 

Go ahead and laugh, because a. this will probably be the only time you see cowboys and bucking broncos in a Central Asia blog, and b. I’m giving you the great satirist Mark Twain's view of the State Department.  I put Twain right up there with Kafka Satirist Twainfor use in international relations, and I am not the first:  Joel Johnson recently wrote an article on Mark Twain's satiric view of imperialism, using A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  These passages come from Ch. 25 of Roughing It, when Mr. Twain's brother assumed a federal post in the new state of Nevada:

“The people were glad to have a legitimately constituted government, but did not particularly enjoy having strangers from distant States put in authority over them–a sentiment that was natural enough.  They thought the officials should have been chosen from among themselves–from among prominent citizens who had earned a right to such promotion, and who would be in sympathy with the populace and likewise thoroughly acquainted with the needs of the Territory.  (. . . . .)

The new government was received with considerable coolness.  It was not only a foreign intruder, but a poor one.  It was not even worth plucking–except by the smallest of small fry office-seekers and such.  Everybody knew that Congress had appropriated only twenty thousand dollars a year in greenbacks for its support–about money enough to run a quartz mill a month.  And everybody knew, also, that the first years’ money was still in Washington, and that the getting hold of it would be a tedious and difficult process.  (. . . .)

The Organic Act and the “instructions” from the State Department commanded that a legislature should be elected at such-and-such a time, and its sittings inaugurated at such-and-such a date.  It was easy to get legislators, even at three dollars a day, although board was four dollars and fifty cents, for distinction has its charm in Nevada as well as elsewhere, and there were plenty of patriotic souls out of employment; but to get a legislative hall for them to meet in was another matter altogether.  Carson blandly declined to give a room rent-free, or let one to the government on credit.   ( . . . . )  But when [Old Abe Curry] heard of the difficulty, he came forward, solitary and alone, and shouldered the Ship of State over the bar and got her afloat again.  But for him the legislature would have been obliged to sit in the desert.

Stagecoach ride in underwearWell, you can just imagine that collection of rogues, free-wheeling businessmen, silver miners, and road agents that made up Twain's observations, or the conflict over one chair in the state office when more than one person was around (see illustration below), as opposed to the conflict between the chairless Nevada bureaucrats and those who sat in relative DC opulence, disapproving expenses. 

It may be that accessing the past means examining unhappy examples: the humanitarian record with indigenous Native American people, or the corruption involved in setting up certain economic or governmental arrangements such as land reform, or the ecological travesties that occurred when entire species (e.g, tallgrass, buffalo, homing pigeons) were wiped out.  At the same time, US growth from thirteen states to fifty is part of US mythology, its grand history, and for international state and nation-building, its institutional knowledge.  

Only one chair in State OfficeThe US should be able to enjoy its myths as a lexicon of significant deeds and relationships that point to both triumph and tragedy. Reflecting upon the American record is also one way that US citizens can judge their government's forays into international affairs.

By continuing to present to developing states in Central Asia (and elsewhere) our Lessons Learned without acknowledging Pitfalls Narrowly Missed and sharing reflections upon Bad Ideas Implemented & Still Unresolved, the US gives a skewed picture of its self-image and its ambitions for its allies.

What the US wants for developing states is that they obtain certain capacities-democracy, rule of law, a vigorous economy-but without having to blunder through the errors that it has made.  Why is this so hard to say?

Twain, Mark (Clemens, S.L.)  (1871;1996).  Roughing It.  The Oxford Mark Twain.  Series editor: S. Fishkin.  New York: Oxford Press.
Johnson, J. (2007, March).  A Connecticut Yankee in Saddam's court? : Mark Twain on benevolent imperialism.  APSA's Perspectives on Politics 5 (1), 49-62. 

Illustrations:;; & Library of Congress from Twain's text