Foreign Affairs: What Heidegger Was Hiding, by Gregory Fried

What Heidegger Was Hiding

What Heidegger Was Hiding
Unearthing the Philosopher’s Anti-Semitism
By Gregory Fried

Scholars have long known that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi, but many doubted that his philosophy had anything to do with Hitler’s ideology. Now Peter Trawny, drawing on Heidegger’s hidden notebooks, argues that the philosopher’s anti-Semitism was deeply entwined with his

Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy). BY PETER TRAWNY. Klostermann, 2014, 124 pp. €15.80.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger died in 1976, yet scholars are still plowing through his life’s work today — some of it for the very first time. Indeed, few modern thinkers have been as productive: once published in their entirety, his complete works will comprise over 100 volumes. Fewer still have rivaled his reach: Heidegger deeply influenced some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, among them Leo Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Derrida. And although Heidegger’s work is most firmly entrenched in the Western tradition, his readership is global, with serious followings in Latin America, China, Japan, and even Iran.

But Heidegger’s legacy also bears a dark stain, one that his influence has never quite managed to wash out. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in the spring of 1933, ran the University of Freiburg on behalf of the regime, and gave impassioned speeches in support of Adolf Hitler at key moments, including during the plebiscites in the fall of 1933, which solidified popular support for Nazi policies.

Nevertheless, Heidegger managed to emerge from World War II with his reputation mostly intact. The Allies’ denazification program, which aimed to rid German society of Nazi ideology, targeted regime supporters just like him. Freiburg came under French control, and the new authorities there forced Heidegger into retirement and forbade him from teaching. But in 1950, the now-independent university revoked the ban. This resulted in large part from Heidegger’s outreach campaign to French intellectuals with anti-Nazi credentials, including Sartre and the resistance fighter Jean Beaufret. In short order, Heidegger won over a wide following in France. Once his international reputation was secure, the university gave him emeritus status and allowed him to resume teaching.

To his new champions, Heidegger portrayed himself as the typical unworldly philosopher, claiming that he had joined the Nazi Party and accepted Freiburg’s rectorate primarily to defend higher education from the worst excesses of the regime. He insisted that he had quickly realized his mistake, which led him to resign as rector less than a year into his term and start including veiled critiques of the Nazis in his subsequent lectures and writings.

Among European and American intellectuals friendly to Heidegger, this exculpatory narrative quickly became the conventional wisdom. If the philosopher had betrayed a touch of anti-Semitism, the logic went, it was only of the kind that had been ubiquitous in Germany (and most of Europe) before the war: a conservative, cultural reflex that was nothing like Hitler’s viciously ideological racism. Moreover, Heidegger had many Jewish students, one of whom, Arendt, was also his lover. After the war and long after their passions had waned, Arendt resumed contact with Heidegger and helped get his work translated into English. Would an inveterate opponent of the Nazis really have assisted an unrepentant anti-Semite? Not everyone was convinced of Heidegger’s innocence, but his defenders worked hard to protect the philosophical work from its author’s scandal. And until recently, the strategy largely worked.

The official story began to wear thin in the 1980s, however, when two scholars, Hugo Ott and Victor Farías, using newly uncovered documents, each challenged Heidegger’s claim that his brush with Nazism had been a form of reluctant accommodation. More recently, in 2005, the French philosopher Emmanuel Faye drew on newly discovered seminar transcripts from the Nazi period to argue that Heidegger’s thinking was inherently fascist even before Hitler’s rise to power. Faye accused the French Heideggerians of having orchestrated a cover-up of Heidegger’s political extremism and advocated banishing Heidegger’s work from the field of philosophy; no one, Faye said, should associate the greatest barbarism of the twentieth century with the West’s most exalted tradition of reason and enlightenment. In response, Heidegger’s defenders labeled Faye’s textual interpretations tendentious and resorted to a variation on Heidegger’s old argument: that he had quickly grasped his error and realized that Nazism was nothing more than hubristic nihilism. Still, it was hard to explain away the depth of commitment that Faye had uncovered.

Now, Peter Trawny, the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal, in Germany, has waded into this long-running controversy with a short but incisive new book, recently published in German. Trawny’s meticulous and sober work introduces an entirely new set of sources: a collection of black notebooks in which Heidegger regularly jotted down his thoughts, a practice he began in the early 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Trawny, who is also the editor of the published notebooks, calls them “fully developed philosophical writings.” That’s a bit strong for a collection of notes, but Heidegger clearly intended them to serve as the capstone to his published works, and they contain his unexpurgated reflections on this key period. Shortly before his death, Heidegger wrote up a schedule stipulating that the notebooks be published only after all his other writings were. That condition having been met, Trawny has so far released three volumes (totaling roughly 1,200 pages), with five more planned.

Trawny’s new book caused a sensation among Heidegger scholars even before it appeared in print, in large part because several inflammatory passages quoted from the notebooks, previously unpublished and containing clearly anti-Semitic content, were leaked from the page proofs. But with the book now released, Trawny’s novel line of analysis is creating its own stir. Drawing on the new material, Trawny makes two related arguments: first, that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was deeply entwined with his philosophical ideas and, second, that it was distinct from that of the Nazis. Trawny deals with the notebooks that Heidegger composed in 1931–41, which include the years after he resigned as rector of the University of Freiburg, in 1934. As the notebooks make clear, Heidegger was far from an unthinking Nazi sympathizer. Rather, he was deeply committed to his own philosophical form of anti-Semitism — one he felt the Nazis failed to live up to.

BEING MARTIN HEIDEGGER

It is hard to exaggerate just how ambitious Heidegger was in publishing his breakout work, Being and Time, in 1927. In that book, he sought nothing less than a redefinition of what it meant to be human, which amounted to declaring war on the entire philosophical tradition that preceded him. Western thought, Heidegger argued, had taken a wrong turn beginning with Plato, who had located the meaning of being in the timeless, unchanging realm of ideas. In Plato’s view, the world as humans knew it was like a cave; its human inhabitants could perceive only the shadows of true ideals that lay beyond. Plato was thus responsible for liberalism in the broadest sense: the notion that transcendent, eternal norms gave meaning to the mutable realm of human affairs. Today, modern liberals call those rules universal values, natural laws, or human rights.

But for Heidegger, there was no transcendence and no Platonic God — no escape, in effect, from the cave. Meaning lay not in serving abstract ideals but in confronting one’s place within the cave itself: in how individuals and peoples inhabited their finite existence through time. Heidegger’s conception of human being required belonging to a specific, shared historical context or national identity. Platonic universalism undermined such collective forms of contingent, historical identity. In the eyes of a transcendent God or natural law, all people — whether Germans, Russians, or Jews — were essentially the same. As Heidegger put it in a 1933 lecture at Freiburg: “If one interprets [Plato’s] ideas as representations and thoughts that contain a value, a norm, a law, a rule, such that ideas then become conceived of as norms, then the one subject to these norms is the human being — not the historical human being, but rather the human being in general.” It was against this rootless, “general” conception of humanity, Heidegger told his students, that “we must struggle.”

By “we,” Heidegger meant Germany under Hitler’s National Socialist regime, which he hoped would play a central role in such an effort. Heidegger followed in a long line of German intellectuals, going as far back as the eighteenth century, who believed that the country was destined to play a transformative role in human history — a kind of modern rejoinder to the creative glory of ancient Greece. For Heidegger, this meant replacing the old, Platonic order with one grounded in his vision of historical being. In the early 1930s, he came to see Hitler’s National Socialist movement, with its emphasis on German identity, as the best chance of bringing about such a revolutionary change. And in the Jews, he saw a shared enemy.

FOLLOWING PROTOCOL

As Trawny’s title suggests, both Hitler’s and Heidegger’s view of the Jews grew out of a particular form of German anti-Semitism that was rampant after World War I. This strain of thinking, which saw Jews as part of a monolithic, transnational conspiracy, was crystallized in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a forged document that first appeared in Russia in 1903 and made its way to Germany in 1920. Originally published by Russian monarchists to scapegoat the Jews for the tsar’s military defeats and the subsequent upheaval, the protocols purported to be minutes from a series of meetings held by Jewish leaders bent on world domination. According to the alleged transcript, the plotters sought to manipulate international finance, culture, and media; promote extreme ideas and radical political movements; and foment war to destabilize existing powers. Hitler devoured the tract, which he swiftly employed as Nazi propaganda. It hit a nerve in Germany, still traumatized by World War I, beset by economic chaos, and subject to extreme political instability — all of which could now be attributed to the Jews.

Trawny does not argue that Heidegger read the protocols or agreed with all their contentions. Rather, he suggests that like so many other Germans, Heidegger accepted their basic premise, which Hitler hammered home in his speeches and in Nazi propaganda. As evidence, Trawny cites the German philosopher and Heidegger colleague Karl Jaspers, who recalled in his memoir a conversation he had with Heidegger in 1933. When Jaspers brought up “the vicious nonsense about the Elders of Zion,” Heidegger reportedly expressed his genuine concern: “But there is a dangerous international alliance of the Jews,” he replied.

Yet Hitler and Heidegger embraced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for different reasons. Whereas the former argued that the Jews posed a racial threat (a fear for which the protocols offered evidence), the latter saw them as a philosophical one. The Jews, as uprooted nomads serving a transcendent God — albeit sometimes through their secular activities — embodied the very tradition that Heidegger wanted to overturn. Moreover, as Trawny points out, Heidegger found race deeply problematic. He did not dismiss the concept altogether; if understood as a biological feature of a particular people, race might well inform that people’s historical trajectory. But he rejected using race as the primary determinant of identity. For Heidegger, racism was itself a function of misguided metaphysical thinking, because it presumed a biological, rather than historical, interpretation of what it meant to be human. By “fastening” people into “equally divided arrangement,” he wrote in the notebooks, racism went “hand in hand with a self-alienation of peoples — the loss of history.” Instead of obsessing over racial distinctions, Germans needed to confront their identity as an ongoing philosophical question. Heidegger overtly criticized the Nazis for their fixation on biological identity, but he also lambasted the Jews for the same sin. “The Jews,” he wrote in the notebooks, “have already been ‘living’ for the longest time according to the principle of race.”

Heidegger’s anti-Semitism differed from that of the typical Nazi in other important ways. To many of Hitler’s supporters, for example, the protocols reinforced the view that the Jews were essentially un-German, incapable of properly integrating with Germany’s way of life or even understanding its spirit. But Heidegger took this notion further, arguing that the Jews belonged truly nowhere. “For a Slavic people, the nature of our German space would definitely be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to us,” Heidegger told his students in a 1934 seminar. “To Semitic nomads, it will perhaps never be revealed at all.” Moreover, Heidegger said, history had shown that “nomads have also often left wastelands behind them where they found fruitful and cultivated land.” By this logic, the Jews were rootless; lacking a proper home, all they had was allegiance to one another.

Another anxiety reflected in the protocols and in Hitler’s propaganda concerned the perceived power of this stateless, conspiratorial Jewry — be it in banking, finance, or academia. But for Heidegger, the success of Europe’s Jews was a symptom of a broader philosophical problem. Playing on the tired cliché of Jews as clever with abstractions and calculation, the notebooks make a more general critique of modern society: “The temporary increase in the power of Jewry has its basis in the fact that the metaphysics of the West, especially in its modern development, served as the hub for the spread of an otherwise empty rationality and calculative skill, which in this way lodged itself in the ‘spirit.’”

In forgetting what it meant to be finite and historical, in other words, the West had become obsessed with mastering and controlling beings — a tendency Heidegger called “machination,” or the will to dominate nature in all its forms, ranging from raw materials to human beings themselves. And with their “calculative skill,” the Jews had thrived in this distorted “spirit” of the modern age.

At the same time, the Jews were not, in Heidegger’s view, merely passive beneficiaries of Western society’s “empty rationality” and liberal ideology; they were active proponents of them. “The role of world Jewry,” Heidegger wrote in the notebooks, was a “metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical ‘task.’” Even if the Jews could not be blamed for the introduction of Platonism or for its hold over Western society, they were the chief carriers of its “task.” By asserting liberal rights to demand inclusion in such nations as Germany, the Jews were estranging those countries’ citizens from their humanity — the shared historical identity that made them distinct from other peoples. This reasoning formed the basis for a truly poisonous hostility toward the Jews, and it was perhaps Heidegger’s most damning judgment of them. Now that the notebooks have come into the light, however, such passages constitute the most damning evidence against the philosopher himself.

So what did Heidegger think should be done about the Jews? Did he agree with the Nazi policies? The notebooks give readers little to go on; Heidegger seems to have had no taste for detailed policy discussions. Nevertheless, the philosopher spoke through his silence. Despite his criticism of the Nazis and their crude biological racism, he wrote nothing against Hitler’s laws targeting the Jews. Although Heidegger resigned as rector of Freiburg before Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, which classified German citizens according to race, he had assumed the role in 1933, just after the Nazis enacted their first anti-Jewish codes, which excluded Jews from civil service and university posts (and which Heidegger helped implement). During a lecture in the winter of 1933–34, he warned a hall full of students that “the enemy can have attached itself to the innermost roots” of the people and that they, the German students, must be prepared to attack such an enemy “with the goal of total annihilation.” Heidegger did not specify “the enemy,” but for the Nazis, they included Germany’s communists; its Roma, or Gypsies; and, above all, its Jews. This chilling prefiguration of Hitler’s Final Solution is unmistakable, and Heidegger never explained, let alone apologized for, such horrendous statements.

DEATH OF A PHILOSOPHER

Trawny ends his analysis by arguing that the anti-Semitism of the notebooks will require a thorough reevaluation of Heidegger’s thought, and he is right. Even if, as Trawny is at pains to remind his readers, the notebooks show that Heidegger became increasingly critical of the Nazis as early as 1933, they also demonstrate just how firmly his anti-Semitism was rooted in his philosophical ideas.

Scholars now need to answer new questions about Heidegger’s motivations. For one thing, how could he have been so hostile to the Jews if he had so many Jewish students and a Jewish mistress? Trawny offers some insight into this puzzle by pointing to the notion of the so-called exceptional Jew, an idea that circulated among even the most virulent anti-Semites, including top Nazis. According to this view, in spite of the baleful impact of the Jewish people as a whole, rare Jewish individuals could stand out. Trawny cites Arendt herself, who reminded readers inEichmann in Jerusalem that Hitler himself was thought to have lent personal protection to 340 “first-rate Jews” by awarding them German or half-Jewish status. In deeming these Jews exceptions, such practices actually reinforced the general rule by allowing anti-Semites to explain away as anomalies those Jews with whom they felt some personal connection.

Another open question concerns Heidegger’s intentions in prescribing, much less allowing, that the notebooks be published. Initially, of course, Heidegger kept them hidden to conceal their critique of the Nazis, and after the war, given his experience with the denazification process, he must have feared they would harm his reputation. So why release the notebooks at all, and as the capstone to his collected works? A charitable answer is that Heidegger wanted to set the record straight, to submit all the facts to public scrutiny. A more sinister explanation is that he remained loyal to his own understanding of the National Socialist revolution, even if he believed that the movement had betrayed him. In either case, he clearly didn’t want to be around to deal with the fallout.

Whatever the philosopher’s motivations, the notebooks will almost certainly spell the end of Heidegger as an intellectual cult figure, and that is a welcome development. Richard Wolin, an intellectual historian and longtime critic of Heidegger’s politics, leaves open the possibility of a qualified philosophical engagement with Heidegger’s work but argues that scholars will have to tread carefully. As he wrote in the Jewish Review of Books last summer, “Any discussion of Heidegger’s legacy that downplays or diminishes the extent of his political folly stands guilty, by extension, of perpetuating the philosophical betrayal initiated by the Master himself.”

But Heidegger might well have wanted the cultish obsession with his persona to die in order for his philosophical questions to live on. He wanted his readers to feel the full force of his questions on their own terms, not to fixate on his or any other particular responses to them. The motto Heidegger chose for his collected writings was therefore fitting: “Ways, not works.”

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The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm

The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm

Requiem for a Decade of Distraction
A broken globe in an abandoned school in Ukraine.

A broken globe in an abandoned school in Ukraine. (Fiona McAllister / Flickr)

For a decade and a half, from the mid-1990s through about 2010, the dominant national security narrative in the United States stressed the dangers posed by weak or failing states. These were seen to breed terrorism, regional chaos, crime, disease, and environmental catastrophe. To deal with such problems at their roots, the argument ran, the United States had to reach out and help stabilize the countries in question, engaging in state building on a neo-imperial scale. And reach out the United States did — most obviously during the protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of conflict and effort with precious little to show for it, however, the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building is drawing to a close. And although there are practical reasons for this shift — the United States can no longer afford such missions, and the public has tired of them — the decline of the state-building narrative reflects a more profound underlying truth: the obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine. Its passing will not leave the United States more isolationist and vulnerable but rather free the country to focus on its more important global roles.

THE BIRTH OF A PARADIGM

In the wake of the Cold War, contemplating a largely benign security environment, many U.S. national security strategists and practitioners concluded that the most important risks were posed by the fragility of state structures and recommended profound shifts in U.S. foreign and defense policy as a result. In an interconnected world, they argued, chaos, violence, and grievances anywhere had the potential to affect U.S. interests, and weak states were factories of such volatility. Experiences in Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia helped fuel the concern, and by 1994, the CIA was funding a state-failure task force to get a handle on the problem.

In 1997, the Clinton administration released Presidential Decision Directive 56, “Managing Complex Contingency Operations,” which began with the assertion that “in the wake of the Cold War, attention has focused on a rising number of territorial disputes, armed ethnic conflicts, and civil wars that pose threats to regional and international peace.” A new focus of U.S. policy, accordingly, would be responding to such situations with “multi-dimensional operations composed of such components as political/diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence, economic development, and security.”

Critics of a realist persuasion objected to the emerging narrative, arguing that the Clinton administration’s forays into state building in peripheral areas represented a strategic folly. And during his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush ran as the candidate of foreign policy humility, arguing in part that nation building was a dangerous distraction. His adviser Condoleezza Rice grumbled that U.S. troops should not be asked to escort toddlers to school; his vice presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, suggested that a Bush administration would end U.S. participation in Balkan operations; and the day before the election, Bush himself declared, “Let me tell you what else I’m worried about: I’m worried about an opponent who uses ‘nation building’ and ‘the military’ in the same sentence.”

But the 9/11 attacks swept these hesitations aside, as the practical implications of an interventionist “war on terror” became apparent. The first page of the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy argued that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.”

The new consensus was bipartisan. The Democratic foreign policy hand Susan Rice, for example, wrote in 2003 that Bush was “wise to draw attention to the significant threats to our national security posed by failed and failing states.” Where the right emphasized security and terrorism, the left added humanitarian concerns. Development specialists jumped on the bandwagon as well, thanks to new studies that highlighted the importance of institutions and good governance as requirements for sustained economic success. In his 2004 book, State-Building, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote, “Weak and failing states have arguably become the single most important problem for international order.” The Washington Posteditorialized the same year that “weak states can compromise security — most obviously by providing havens for terrorists but also by incubating organized crime, spurring waves of migrants, and undermining global efforts to control environmental threats and disease.” This argument, the paper concluded, “is no longer much contested.” A year later, the State Department’s director of policy planning, Stephen Krasner, and its newly minted coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, Carlos Pascual, argued in these pages that “in today’s increasingly interconnected world, weak and failed states pose an acute risk to U.S. and global security. Indeed, they present one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the contemporary era.”

From one angle, the concern with weak states could be seen as a response to actual conditions on the ground. Problems had always festered in disordered parts of the developing world. Without great- power conflict as an urgent national security priority, those problems were more clearly visible and harder to ignore. From another angle, it could be seen as a classic meme — a concept or intellectual fad riding to prominence through social diffusion, articles by prominent thinkers, a flurry of attention from the mainstream press, and a series of foundation grants, think-tank projects, roundtables, and conferences.

From a third angle, however, it could be seen as a solution to an unusual concern confronting U.S. policymakers in this era: what to do with a surplus of national power. The United States entered the 1990s with a dominant international position and no immediate threats. Embracing a substantially reduced U.S. global role would have required a fundamental reassessment of the prevailing consensus in favor of continued primacy, something few in or around the U.S. national security establishment were prepared to consider. Instead, therefore, whether consciously or not, that establishment generated a new rationale for global engagement, one involving the application of power and influence to issues that at any other time would have been seen as secondary or tertiary. Without a near-peer competitor (or several) to deter or a major war on the horizon, Washington found a new foreign policy calling: renovating weak or failing states.

THE DECLINE OF A STRATEGIC NARRATIVE

The practical challenges of state-building missions are now widely appreciated. They tend to be long, difficult, and expensive, with success demanding an open-ended commitment to a messy, violent, and confusing endeavor — something unlikely to be sustained in an era of budgetary austerity. But the last decade has driven home intellectual challenges to the concept as well.

The threat posed by weak and fragile states, for example, turned out to be both less urgent and more complex and diffuse than was originally suggested. Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index for 2013 is not exactly a roster of national security priorities; of its top 20 weak states, very few (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan) boast geostrategic significance, and they do so mostly because of their connection to terrorism. But even the threat of terrorism isn’t highly correlated with the current roster of weak states; only one of the top 20, Sudan, appears on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and most other weak states have only a marginal connection to terrorism at best.

A lack of definitional rigor posed a second problem. There has never been a coherent set of factors that define failed states: As the political scientist Charles Call argued in a powerful 2008 corrective, the concept resulted in the “agglomeration of diverse criteria” that worked to “throw a monolithic cloak over disparate problems that require tailored solutions.” This basic methodological flaw would distort state-building missions for years, as outside powers forced generic, universal solutions onto very distinct contexts.

The specified dangers were never unique to weak states, moreover, nor would state-building campaigns necessarily have mitigated them. Take terrorism. The most effective terrorists tend to be products of the middle class, often from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, not impoverished citizens of failed states. And terrorist groups operating in weak states can shift their bases of operations: if Afghanistan becomes too risky, they can uproot themselves and move to Somalia, Yemen, or even Europe. As a result, “stabilizing” three or four sources of extremist violence would not render the United States secure. The same could be said of threats such as organized crime, which finds comfortable homes in functioning but troubled states in Asia, eastern Europe, and Latin America.

As the scholar Stewart Patrick noted in a 2006 examination of the purported threats issuing from weak states, “What is striking is how little empirical evidence underpins these assertions and policy developments. Analysts and policymakers alike have simply presumed the existence of a blanket connection between state weakness and threats to the national security of developed countries and have begun to recommend and implement policy responses.”

And although interconnectedness and interdependence may create risks, the dangers in such a world are more likely to come from strong, well-governed states with imperfect regulations than weak ones with governance deficiencies. Financial volatility that can shake the foundations of leading nations and cyberattacks that could destabilize energy or information networks pose more immediate and persistent risks than, say, terrorism.

A third problem was misplaced confidence about the possibility of the mission’s feasibility. The last decade has offered an extended, tragic reminder of the fact that forcible state building simply cannot be accomplished by outsiders in any sustainable or authentic way. When a social order has become maladapted to the globalizing world — when governing institutions are weak, personalized, or kleptocratic; corruption is rampant; and the rule of law is noticeable by its absence — there are simply no proven methods for generating major social, political, economic, or cultural change relatively quickly.

As the Australian political scientist Michael Wesley argued in a brilliant 2008 essay, state weakness is primarily a political problem, and yet state building is often conceived and executed as if it were an apolitical exercise. “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic,” he wrote. “Even seemingly technocratic tasks confront international administrators with essentially political decisions: the nature and basis of elections; which pressure groups to consult; the reintegration or de facto separation of ethnic communities; school curricula; degrees of public ownership of enterprises; the status of women; and so on. However technocratic their intention, state-building missions inevitably find themselves factored into local rivalries.”

In trying to force change on recalcitrant governments and societies, moreover, outside interventions undermine internal motives for reform by transferring responsibility for a better future from local leaders to external actors. The outside power needs cooperation from its local clients more than they need its sponsorship. The result is a dependency paradox that impedes reform. As success stories from South Korea to Chile show, the path from state weakness to strength has to be traveled by the states themselves, gradually and fitfully, most often under the influence of strong, decisive leadership from visionary architects of governance. It is an organic, grass-roots process that must respect the unique social, cultural, economic, political, and religious contexts of each country. And although it can be encouraged and even modestly shaped by outside contributions and pressure, it cannot be imposed.

A fourth problem with the state-building obsession was that it distorted the United States’ sense of its central purpose and role in global politics. Ever since World War II, the United States has labored mightily to underwrite the stability of the international system. It has done this by assembling military alliances to protect its friends and deter its enemies, by helping construct a global architecture of trade and finance, and by policing the global commons. These actions have helped buttress an interdependent system of states that see their dominant interests in stability rather than conquest.

Playing this role well demands sustained attention at all levels of government, in part to nurture the relationships essential to crisis management, diplomacy, and multilateral cooperation of all kinds. Indeed, the leading danger in the international system today is the peril that, assaulted by a dozen causes of rivalry and mistrust, the system will fragment into geopolitical chaos. The U.S. experience since the 1990s, and growing evidence from Northeast Asia, suggests that if the relatively stable post–Cold War era devolves into interstate rivalry, it will be not the result of weak states but that of the escalating regional ambitions, bitter historical memories, and flourishing nationalisms of increasingly competitive states. The U.S. role in counteracting the broader trends of systemic disintegration is therefore critical. The United States is the linchpin of a number of key alliances and networks; it provides the leadership and attractive force for many global diplomatic endeavors, and its dominant military position helps rule out thoughts of aggression in many quarters.

The weak-state obsession has drawn attention away from such pursuits and made a resurgence of traditional threats more likely. Focusing on two seemingly endless wars and half a dozen other potential “stability operations” has eroded U.S. global engagement, diminished U.S. diplomatic creativity, and distracted U.S. officials from responding appropriately to changes in the global landscape.

When one reads the memoirs of Bush administration officials, the dozen or more leading global issues beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “war on terror” begin to sound like background noise. Top U.S. officials appear to have spent far more time between 2003 and 2011, for example, managing the fractious mess of Iraqi politics than tending to relationships with key global powers. As a consequence, senior U.S. officials have had less time to cultivate the leaders of rising regional powers, from Brazil to India to Turkey. Sometimes, U.S. actions or demands in state-building adventures have directly undermined other important relationships or diplomatic initiatives, as when Washington faced the global political reaction to the Iraq war.

Such tradeoffs reflect a hallmark of the era of state building: secondary issues became dominant ones. To be fair, this was partly the fault of globalization; around-the-clock media coverage now constantly shoves problems a world away onto the daily agendas of national leaders. Combined with the United States’ self-image as the indispensable nation, this intrusive awareness created political pressure to act on issues of limited significance to core U.S. interests. Yet this is precisely the problem: U.S. perceptions of global threats and of the country’s responsibility to address them have become badly and perhaps permanently skewed. A great power’s reservoir of strategic attention is not infinite. And the United States has become geopolitically hobbled, seemingly uninterested in grand strategic initiatives or transformative diplomacy, as its attention constantly dances from one crisis to another.

A fifth problem flowed directly from the fourth. To perform its global stabilizing role, the United States needs appropriately designed, trained, and equipped armed forces — forces that can provide a global presence, prevail in high-end conflict contingencies, enable quick long-range strike and interdiction capabilities, and build and support local partners’ capacities. The state-building mission has skewed the operations, training, equipping, and self-conception of the U.S. military in ways that detract from these responsibilities.

Much of the U.S. military has spent a decade focusing on state building and counterinsurgency (COIN), especially in its training and doctrine, to the partial neglect of more traditional tasks. Massive investments have gone into COIN-related equipment, such as the MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) vehicles built to protect U.S. troops from improvised explosive devices, draining billions of dollars from other national security resources. The result of these choices has been to weaken the U.S. military’s ability to play more geostrategic and, ultimately, more important roles. Between a demanding operational tempo, the requirements of refitting between deployments, and a shift in training to emphasize COIN, the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, lost much of its proficiency in full-spectrum combat operations. Simply put, the U.S. military would be far better positioned today — better aligned with the most important roles for U.S. power, better trained for its traditional missions, better equipped for an emerging period of austerity — had the state-building diversion never occurred.

AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL

None of this is meant to suggest that a concern for the problems posed by weak or failing states can or should disappear entirely from the U.S. foreign policy and national security agendas. Counterterrorism and its associated tasks will surely remain important, and across the greater Middle East — including Afghanistan after 2014 — internal turmoil may well have external consequences requiring some response from Washington. Effective local institutions do contribute to stability and growth, and the United States should do what it can to nurture them where possible. The difference is likely to be in the priority Washington accords such efforts. The January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, for example, reflected the judgment that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” and announced an intention to pursue “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches” to achieving objectives. Recently, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, went even further: “I simply don’t know where the security interests of our nation are threatened enough to cause us to lead a future major, extended COIN campaign.”

In the future, the United States is likely to rely less on power projection and more on domestic preparedness, replacing an urgent civilizing zeal with defensive self-protection. This makes sense, because the most appropriate answer to the dangers inherent in an era of interdependence and turbulence is domestic resilience: hardened and redundant networks of information and energy, an emphasis on local or regional self-sufficiency to reduce the cascading effects of systemic shocks, improved domestic emergency-response and cybersecurity capacities, sufficient investments in pandemic response, and so forth. Equally important is a resilient mindset, one that treats perturbations as inevitable rather than calamitous and resists the urge to overreact. In this sense, the global reaction to the recent surge in piracy — partly a product of poor governance in African states — should be taken as a model: no state-building missions, but arming and protecting the ships at risk.

When it does reach out into the world to deal with weak states, the United States should rely on gradual progress through patient, long-term advisory and aid relationships, based on such activities as direct economic assistance tailored to local needs; training, exchanges, and other human-capacity-development programs; military-to-military ties; trade and investment policies; and more. The watchwords should be patience, gradualism, and tailored responses: enhancing effective governance through a variety of models attuned to local patterns and needs, in advisory and supportive ways.

As weak states continue to generate specific threats, such as terrorism, the United States has a range of more limited tools available to mitigate them. It can, for example, return terrorism to its proper place as a law enforcement task and continue to work closely with foreign law enforcement agencies. It can help train and develop such agencies, as well as local militaries, to lead in the fight. When necessary, it can employ targeted coercive instruments — classic intelligence work and clandestine operations, raids by special operations forces, and, with far greater selectivity than today, remote strikes — to deal with particular threats, ideally in concert with the militaries of local allies.

Some will contend that U.S. officials can never rule out expeditionary state building because events may force it back onto the agenda. If al Qaeda were to launch an attack that was planned in restored Taliban strongholds in a post-2014 Afghanistan, or if a fragmentation and radicalization of Pakistani society were to place nuclear control at risk, some would recommend a return to interventionist state building. Yet after the United States’ recent experiences, it is doubtful that such a call would resonate.

The idea of a neo-imperial mission to strengthen weak states and stabilize chaotic societies always flew in the face of more important U.S. global roles and real mechanisms of social change. There is still work to be done in such contexts, but in more prudent and discriminate ways. Moving on from the civilizing mission will, in turn, make possible a more sustainable and effective national security strategy, allowing the United States to return its full attention to the roles and missions that mean far more to long-term peace and security. One of the benefits of this change, ironically, will be to allow local institutional development to proceed more organically and authentically, in its own ways and at its own pace. Most of all, the new mindset will reflect a simple facing up to reality after a decade of distraction.