Liberty's Surest Guardian

Liberty's Surest Guardian

American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

By Jeremi Suri

Free Press, Hardcover, 9781439119129, 358pp.

Publication Date: September 27, 2011


Americans are a nation-building people, and in Liberty’s Surest Guardian, Jeremi Suri—Nobel Fellow and leading light in the next generation of policy makers—looks to America’s history to see both what it has to offer failed states around the world and what it should avoid. Far from being cold imperialists, Americans have earnestly attempted to export their invention of representative government. We have had successes (Reconstruction after the American Civil War, the Philippines, Western Europe) and failures (Vietnam), and we can learn a good deal from both.

Nation-building is in America’s DNA. It dates back to the days of the American Revolution, when the founding fathers invented the concept of popular sovereignty—the idea that you cannot have a national government without a collective will. The framers of the Constitution initiated a policy of cautious nation-building, hoping not to conquer other countries, but to build a world of stable, self-governed societies that would support America’s way of life. Yetno other country has created more problems for itself and for others by intervening in distant lands and pursuing impractical changes.

Nation-building can work only when local citizens “own it,” and do not feel it is forced upon them. There is no one way to spread this idea successfully, but Suri has mined more than two hundred years of American policy in order to explain the five “P”s of nation-building:

PARTNERS: Nation-building always requires partners; there must be communication between people on the ground and people in distant government offices.

PROCESS: Human societies do not follow formulas. Nation-building is a process which does not produce clear, quick results.

PROBLEM-SOLVING: Leadership must start small, addressing basic problems. Public trust during a period of occupation emerges from the fulfillment of basic needs.

PURPOSE: Small beginnings must serve larger purposes. Citizens must see the value in what they’re doing.

PEOPLE: Nation-building is about people. Large forces do not move history. People move history.

Our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya will have a dramatic impact on international stability. Jeremi Suri, provocative historian and one of Smithsonian magazine’s “Top Young Innovators,” takes on the idea of American exceptionalism and turns it into a playbook for President Obama over the next, vital few years.

About the Author
Jeremi Suri is E. Gordon Fox Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Praise For Liberty's Surest Guardian

“’Nation-building can only work when the people own it.’ Jeremi Suri argues that the United States has too often forgotten this truth over the course of its nation-building history--including the American revolution and Reconstruction as well as efforts in the Philippines, Germany, Japan, and Vietnam--in which there have been both successes and failures. Suri draws lessons from all these efforts that are particularly valuable today, while making the provocative argument that as hard as we wish to deny it, nation-building is part of American DNA.”

--Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

Praise for Jeremi Suri's Henry Kissinger and the American Century

"This surely the best book yet published about Henry Kissinger..Suri actually makes an attempt to understand his subject in the appropriate historical context. I salute his scholarship.  Invaluable insight." --Niall Ferguson, author of The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

"This remarkable book is far more than a biography of Henry Kissinger. By probing Kissinger's personal background and intellectual formation as well as his often cunning and frequently controversial statecraft, Jeremi Suri brilliantly illuminates both the character of Kissinger the man and the nature of the turbulent and tension-racked age in which he lived and did so much--for better or worse--to shape."

--David M. Kennedy, author of Freedom from Fear

"This is a readable and provocative book that successfully explores the formation of its subject's worldview and rise to power. Suri is at his best when demonstrating the roots of Kissinger's distrust of mass democratic politics, his obsession with strong leaders, his emphasis on the limits of American power and his disdain for the 'insular self-righteousness' and 'utopianism' of reformers 'advocating a vision of global democracy'...[A] timely book."

--Eric Arnesen, Chicago Tribune

"Nobody will ever accuse Jeremi Suri of lacking style or insight. His study of Henry Kissinger's personality and place in history offers piercing originality--so much so that laying down Dallek for Suri feels rather like that moment in The Prince and the Showgirl when Laurence Olivier, after telling all and sundry that they have too little love in their life, meets his ex-mistress...and realizes that she has too much."

--David Frum, National Review

"The fact that even highly educated Americans are scarcely aware of this past has made it difficult for the United States to learn from its experiences. Suri hopes to correct this, and his brief historical sketches can be useful for policy makers and those who write about American foreign policy — if only to remind them that what Americans have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq has been done countless times by their predecessors in many other distant lands." –Robert Kagan, New York Times

"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." ­– Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

“The definitive one-volume historical account of Americans’ efforts to transform other societies.”–International Affairs