Editor’s Note: Keith Magee is a theologian, political adviser and social justice scholar. He is chair and professor of practice in social justice at Newcastle University (United Kingdom) and senior fellow in culture and politics at the University College London Culture and Centre on US Politics. While he was a visiting scholar at Boston University, he founded The Social Justice Institute in 2014, which remains the hub for his independent work and research. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
After witnessing the earth-shattering 9/11 attacks on US soil, many of us felt we would never be the same again. The world order had somehow changed, and so had we as Americans.
Soon, thousands of US soldiers would be deployed to Afghanistan in pursuit of a set of illusory goals –often unclear to the long-suffering people of that distant country, the American public and even American and allied leaders.
Although President Joe Biden claimed on August 16 that the US military operation in Afghanistan was only ever focused on counterterrorism and “was never supposed to have been nation building,” this assertion contradicts statements made by then President George W. Bush and by Biden himself as a US senator – before he changed his mind as vice president during the Obama administration.
Almost 20 years after 9/11, to the despair of many Afghans, Kabul is back under the control of the Taliban, hardline Islamists. There is little doubt that they will reimpose their brutal version of Sharia, or Islamic law. After the chaotic, at times violent withdrawal from Afghanistan, this defeat – and there is no other way to describe it – should spark a collective realization that we cannot simply impose our system of government on countries with vastly different cultures, histories, belief systems, outlooks and ambitions.
Biden was right to withdraw US troops. History has shown us the pitfalls of nation building abroad. If we want to uphold the blessings of democracy, perhaps America should be looking inward – building up our own nation.
The time has now come for the US to truly commit itself to lead – if, indeed, we are entitled to lead at all – by example. If we believe that a strong, stable democracy is the best form of government, then we need to start by making sure that we actually have one that inspires others. Over the last 20 years, we have failed to work on preserving our own democracy, which now confronts alarming levels of polarization and voter suppression.
I am by no means suggesting we turn our backs on people around the world who suffer under the yoke of oppression – but prolonged military interventions and misguided attempts at nation building are not the answer.
America should use its enormous wealth and influence on the international stage to do good wherever and whenever it can. We can achieve this by sending carefully targeted (and administered) –and generous – financial aid to those in need, and by promoting – through both diplomatic leverage and our own actions – the values of freedom, equality and human rights that we share with our allies.
We also have the capacity to provide a safe haven for people fleeing persecution. Let’s welcome refugees, not create them. They are, after all, key to building our own nation.
Indeed, constructing a nation like the United States is a never-ending task. It is a project that aims to produce a better, more equal society and which requires every citizen – whatever their political beliefs, skin color, faith or economic status – to commit to nurturing a living democracy. Of the various building blocks at our disposal, three are key:
First, it is crucial to involve individuals in the democratic process from the bottom up. In addition to electing local representatives, we should encourage participation in local and national deliberative bodies, such as citizens’ assemblies, crowd-sourced initiatives that bring together people who have been chosen randomly to reflect the population.
Examples of recent citizens’ assemblies held in countries including Iceland, France, Canada and Poland demonstrate that when you trust people and give them information, the space and time to talk, and a chance to have a real impact, they can find common ground and solve problems in innovative ways.
Second, fair voting rights, which are still cruelly lacking in many US states, also need to be a priority.
Urgent action should be taken to make up lost ground here. We must put a stop to the further disenfranchisement of the poorest, most disadvantaged Americans, beginning with US senators passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
The final nation-building block is civic education. In 2018, Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress found that most states only required a half year of civics or US government education. Ten states had no civics requirement at all. No states had a civics curriculum that included a local problem-solving component, a key element in the acquisition of the skills and agency for civic engagement.
We must do better by our children if we want them to understand, benefit from and cherish our democracy.
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On the date of the withdrawal deadline, President Biden said, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan – it’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Perhaps we should not ask ourselves whether we should now embark on a campaign to remake our own country instead, but whether we can afford not to. For without the insurance policy of a robust democratic political system, what stands between us and the rule of authoritarian extremists?
Our democracy cannot act as a guiding light in the world if, through our negligence, we allow it to be extinguished.