#Reviewing: State Building and War

Peter J. Munson, War, Welfare, & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013)

In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much ink has been spilled relating service member’s personal experiences or discussing the misapplication of American foreign policy. Few of them do both, let alone place such events in the greater context of history. In War, Welfare, & Democracy, Peter J. Munson does both by providing the reader a deep look into the driving factors in American foreign policy, punctuated by vivid images from his own personal travels. Readers will find this book both enlightening and engrossing.

The thesis of this book is that the major challenges in the world today stem from the same source — states’ struggle to manage the flows of economic activity driven by globalization and the sociopolitical modernization that comes with it. In seven quick chapters, Munson synthesizes international relations theory, history, and economics to describe how the modern international system has developed into one of stark inequality, driving the instability and conflict seen across the globe today. Wealth and power are distributed unequally, with Western states providing too many resources to their population through their welfare states and developing nations failing to provide enough.

In addition to economic disparity, Munson uses Fukuyama’s “end of history” frame to suggest that America’s belief in the inevitable triumph of western liberalism helps explain the last decade’s foreign policy choices. Munson describes how as a nation we have forgotten where, and the historical context in which, these concepts originated. His comparison of the morally dubious attempts at state building in medieval Europe to the attempt to build government in societies dominated by tribalism and corruption particularly resonates.

Quoting from, Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War, he suggests that modern insurgencies can be seen “as a process of competitive state building,”. In Munson’s view, our recent quest to drive foreign nations to speed the “end of history” through military adventurism, has stymied local attempts at state building, not supported them. America tried to spread Western values through force, mistaking the illusion of elections for good governance and modernization for progress.

Munson balances his pessimism with an optimism about the American propensity for change. In his view, instead of exporting their perceived success, Americans need to focus on re-creating the conditions at home that made our country great. In so doing we will act as an exemplar in foreign policy, not a crusader.

If these prescriptions sound both obvious and vague, you are not alone. While Munson does an outstanding job describing the historical narrative leading to today’s issues, as well as illustrating them with examples from his own travels around the world, his solutions are easier said than done. Many American Presidents have come into office focused on improving the economic standing of the country and reducing our commitments overseas. Both the complexity of the task and the complexity of the contemporary world make this a more difficult task than it seems.

Overall, War, Welfare, & Democracy is a well-researched and authoritative look at what drives us as a nation and how we arrived at where we are today. Munson’s fluency with international relations theory, contemporary history, and economic theory provides the reader with a clear picture of global trends and provides a useful framework that points the way into the future. While his solutions lack specificity, Munson’s framework is valuable for national security professionals to understand. This book is highly recommended.

This review first appeared in the US Army War College’s Parameters.

Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the the founder of The Bridge, founder andManaging Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, a member of the Infinity Journal's Editorial Advisory Board, a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, and a term member at theCouncil on Foreign Relations.  He tweets at @NKFinney. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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