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Comparative Analysis of the Nation-Building Process in America and Iraq

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Development is a very controversial issue. In fact, each state can be considered as a living unity capable of action, and each nation in the world has a peculiar personalized history. For this reason, the conditions that allow a particular development change from state to state, considering different variables such as the composition of the territory, the character of the population, the geographical position on the map, the international relations developed from its origin to today. In this essay I will take as case study two completely different states, which are, however, strictly correlated and which intertwine and overlap in many different ways. I am going to develop the controversial idea of American’s nation-building, tackling it in the perspective of a uniqueness in the history. Then I am going to analyze the same nation-building procedure in Iraq, and trying to investigate how they influenced each other, with a specific mention to 9/11 attacks and the consequent ‘Iraqi Freedom’ operation.

Probably the first appearance of the idea of the so-called ‘American exceptionalism’ appears in ‘Democracy in America’: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” (De Tocqueville, 2003). In fact, many scholars consider that United States of America resulted by absolutely peculiar circumstances, that descended not only from its colonial past, but also from the uniqueness society structure, its beliefs and, last but not least, from its isolated geographical position, which did not bring substantive threatens to its security and allowed a virtually unlimited expansion toward the West. This school of thought named ‘consensus historiography’ (Trautsch, 2016), developed mainly in the 50s and has been the prevailing view for at least a decade. The theory goes back to the colonial period, when after the Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party, started the American independence war in 1775, followed by the United State Declaration of Independence the year later. The main idea relies on the diversity of American nation-building compared to Europe. American colonies had been created at different times, each one had its own legislation, and a specific position in the British commercialism. Furthermore, American society lacked those inequalities that characterized European countries. In fact, settlers did not import feudal relationships or the supremacy of nobility. The unique American society was fluid and allowed social mobility, was built on tolerance and pluralism enabled everyone to find his own fortune (Paine and Americana). So, it can be stated, that it is in this social peculiarity and in this special relation with England that the ‘American dream’ started to develop.

The founding myth of United States, steeped in individualism and Protestant ethic, also mentioned in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal, (that) they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US, 1776). It can be easily seen how this article diverges from European constitutions and, more broadly, how American nationalism is different from European’s. This one has been formed on concepts such as race, class, and the distinction between citizens and ‘others’. The American nationalism is mixed with the European ideology of liberal democracy, the puritan’s values of optimism and pragmatism and it is not based on race or something else, but on the free choice of each individual to embrace the American way of life. This factor allowed American to become a population, despite being composed of inhomogeneous people from different social backgrounds. This, together with unlimited space and plenty of resources, gives to United States a peculiar and unique shape, that enables its citizens to raise with an ideal of liberty that maybe no other nation could boast (Antonucci, 2001).

So, to conclude, Americans were not born with nationalism, but they have developed it in a spontaneous way, without the imposition of an authoritarian monarch or strictly divisions between population, and this created simultaneously a stronger national feeling mirrored by the willingness of each American citizen to adhere to this narration.

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In the opposite part of the world, Iraq had a troubled colonial history. It has been under the Ottoman Empire’s dominion until the end of World War I, when the League of Nations assigned the mandate to Britain. But the country suffered from the religious and social fractures of its own society, that was divided into two main Islamic religious group, the Sunni and the Shiite, and counted a significant minority of Kurdish. The British government led anyway to the Great Arab Revolution that managed to unify the two religious currents in 1920. But the revolution leader was not able to create legitimacy and remained, although unofficially, controlled by Britain. Iraq gained independence officially only in 1932, but the nation building process should take much more time to consolidate. The World War II increased the internal economic and political fractures, while anti British sentiments continued to rise. Through protests and conflicts, emerged the Baathist party which put the conditions for Saddam Hussein’s leadership. He managed to restore the relationships with many Middle Eastern states and relatively improve the economic situation of the country, but his bloody dictatorship could already be seen as an attempt to nation building (Hippler, 2005). The almost nonexistent state was transformed into centralized tyranny. In fact, social divisions were suppressed in blood. The government increased exponentially oil selling, and with that money the state was armored. On this conqueror wave, Hussein launched the country into the Gulf war, with the great ideal of the elimination of the Iranian competitor in order to have access also to its natural resources. But the epilogue was definitely different. Only four days after the start of the so-called Gulf War, United Nations under the patronage of the US imposed heavy economic sanctions to Iraq, comparable to an economic embargo. The next yeas a US driven coalition formally under the United the Nation defeated Iraq. And this was the country’s ruin. So, the Hussein’s attempt to build an Iraqi nation through war was failed at the beginning of the ’90s and the country collapsed inside.

The combination between money and brutal repression did not create a nation state, instead, left it only with suppression and blood and without any social or political identity (Hippler, 2005). At that point, tension was palpable in the country and ethnic divisions exacerbated the precarious social situation. Saddam Hussein itself belonged to the Sunni Iraqi minority (among 20% of the population) that is instead prevalent in Muslim’s world, while about the 60% of the Iroquoians are Shiite, a minority in the whole Muslim world but majoritarian in the neighboring Iran. Not to mention the Kurdish Shiite 17% of the population, politically more stable and which has always aspired to build an autonomy region. This extreme situation contributed to develop the following hypothesis. Iraqi people have never experienced that ideological and political revolution brought in the West by enlightenment. In fact, it is probably impossible to build a nation if some fundamental steps are skipped, such as state secularization, freedom of thought and associate and, above all, monopolization of violence. In a society in which illegitimate violence remains ordinary, people don’t develop a ‘nation sentiment’, instead they take refuge and swear allegiance to their own ethnic group which are entitled to ensure security for the members, and so the groups predominated over the idea of the nation. In this sense, there is not a nation, but at least three different ethnic, social and religious groups fighting inside borders drawn by others and that nobody feels proper. In fact, the situation seemed unchanged since former Iraqi King Faisal I wrote on a confidential memorandum in 1933: “There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever” (Batatu, 2012).

Until the American intervention occurred, it can be stated that no progression has been made into the formation of an authentic Iraqi nation, despite Hussein’s attempt. After the end of the Cold War and the affirmation of United States as unipolar superpower, it seemed that the western democracy model had won against totalitarianisms, and it started to spread the moralistic motto of exporting civilization in those nations who continued to experience totalitarian regimes, even using military power when necessary. And American intervention in Iraq did not take long to come. After the 9/11 attacks, it took only two years and some spurious few allegations to start the ‘Iraqi Freedom’ operation. In two months, Baghdad had fallen and Hussein had escaped. At this point, occupation forces’ leader Paul Bremen started to dismantle Iraqi’s security structures and to eliminate Baath party’s residue. Thanks to this power vacuum created by US, centrifugal forces were irreversibly unleashed. Excluded the Kurdish component that managed to reach some semblance of autonomy, the two Muslims groups started to fight against western occupation and against each other, and to acquire efficacy both affiliated to terroristic groups. Violence flared up. Terroristic attacks against each component of the puzzle intensified out of all proportion, and it was clear that American attempt to nation build was miserably failed. Only in 2005, after an indescribable violence escalation, Americans tried to establish the first necessary step to create a nation, that is the election of a constituency assembly. But, again, ethnic tension emerged: Sunnis boycotted it and Shiite component were deeply split. After grueling negotiations, the constitution was approved by a popular referendum and the Parliament was formed, enshrining the predominance of the Shiites. This encouraged the outbreak of a civil law between the two factions, which ended only in 2007, and despite a new government, Iraqi’s institutions remained deeply weak and consistently depending from US presence. The turning point took place with a change in American policy, namely the replacement of some officers and the start of the so-called surge, that consisted in an increase in American troops on the ground, an enforcement of the Iraqi Security Forces by through an American military disengagement, that indeed realized in 2011 after nearly 8 years of military occupancy. Unfortunately, American moralistic new colonialism embodied in democracy’s exportation miserably failed. It only triggered a spiral of violence that materialized in the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which assumed control of almost a third of Iraq in 2012 and which was definitely defeated only in 2017. After that, controversial elections took place in 2018, but the risk of civil unrest remains high.

The diversity which permeated American society before the creation of United States of America was its strong point. It allowed the creation of a fluid, free and heterogenous society. The economic development created by an abundant resourcefulness, a strategic geographical position and an excellent relation with the old continent, allowed the development of strong institutions and these led to the creation of a permeating patriotism embodied in the most powerful nation in the world. On the contrary, the lack of industrialization, the international oppression in a strenuous fight for resources, its geographical position and the sequence of colonial masters have impeded the construction of Iraqi institutions. In fact, many interventions, included the American one, were not aimed primarily to the establishment of democracy, instead more probably they were focused on take possession of Iraqi oil. This is a recurring pattern which permeated all the Middle East, which transformed one of the richest geographical regions in the world into a never-ending battlefield. The continuous conflicts prevent the country to entrench liberal institutions and led to bloody dictatorships that inculcated hatred for the West, extremism and illiberal ideologies, and this fact obviously impeded the establishment of a western model democracy. To conclude, Iraqi troubled colonial past, its particular geographical position, together with an ethnic division and a lack of industrialization created a state which was never allowed to evolve into a nation.


  1. ANTONUCCI, M.C. 2001. Alcune Osservazioni Sul Nazionalismo Americano, Il Dubbio, Number 03,2001. Access date 02 October 2019.
  2. ANGELI, M. Thomas Paine e la Rivoluzione Americana Analisi del Common Sense. Tesi di laurea, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, a.a. 2008-2009, relatore F. Romero.
  3. BATATU, H. 2012. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Bathists and Free Officers, Saqi, pp.25-25.
  4. DE TOCQUEVILLE, A. 2003. Democracy in America, Regnery Publishing, pag. 518.
  5. HIPPLER, J. 2005. Nation-Building by Occupation?–The Case of Iraq. Barry Stone, trans. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, pp.1-2.
  6. TRAUTSCH, J. M. 2016. The Origins and Nature of American Nationalism. National Identities, 18:3, pp.289-312.

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