What Kind of Nations Have We Been Building, As We Go Nation-Building?

“Nation Building Works,” New York Times columnist David Brooks declared in a headline last week. It was a confusing argument to follow—apparently 20 million Iraqis have mobile phones now, which sounds like a remarkable number, but not necessarily more remarkable than the growth in mobile-phone use in countries that the United States has not been busily nation-building. It’s been a busy seven years for the mobile-phone industry worldwide. Mobile phones have extended virtual banking infrastructure into parts of Africa previously unreached by finance, for instance. And the Iraqis have found their own characteristic uses for the phones, too.

Also Iraq has “the 12th-fastest-growing economy in the world,” Brooks reported. Again, good stuff, but rate of economic growth is a tricky statistic, if the economy you’re measuring has been recently and violently knocked down to around zero. The Detroit Lions had the fastest-growing rate of victory in the NFL last year—they were infinitely more victorious than they had been the previous season. But they were the second-worst team in football.

Brooks did note that not everything has turned out so well in Iraq. Though he identified “substantial progress” in creating “political and legal institutions,” he included a piece of information pointing at the opposite conclusion:

Iraq is the fourth-most-corrupt nation on earth, according to Transparency International’s rating system.

Fourth-most-corrupt? What other countries are down below it? On Sunday, the Times’ Dexter Filkins filled in that information

Afghanistan is now widely recognized as one of the world’s premier gangster-states. Out of 180 countries, Transparency International ranks it, in terms of corruption, 179th, better only than Somalia. 

Number three from the bottom is Burma , also known, if you don’t want to get shot by the ruling junta, as Myanmar. While we’re ranking things, Somalia is No. 1 on another list—Foreign Policy’s annual Failed States Index .

Iraq and Afghanistan, the twin monuments to the wisdom of our ongoing nation-building policy, were No. 6 and No. 7.