Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama

In This Review

Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama
By Jeremi Suri
Free Press, 2011
368 pp. $28.00

Nation building, perhaps the most complex task of statecraft, has gotten the best of many U.S. officials and thinkers over the years. And it seems that nation building is almost as hard to write about as it is to do. Suri’s book explores many of the complexities and ambiguities surrounding the task, examining a broad range of historical examples, including the Reconstruction era in the American South and recent U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suri does a decent job of identifying highlights, low points, and continuing dilemmas. But the ­historical complexity of each episode is given short shrift by superficial narrative summaries, and Suri’s analysis can be puzzling. The deepest confusion may result from his failure to distinguish sufficiently between nation building among consenting Americans, such as the creation of the American republic from the original 13 colonies, and attempts to build foreign nations around American values. Still, Suri’s core conclusion is sound: nation building is difficult, expensive, and unpleasant, and at best it can be only partially ­successful -- but it is often unavoidable.