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Sheri Berman: Back to the Future

  Sheri Berman                In its bid to end the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the Obama administration obviously faces a wide range of obstacles. But as Associate Professor Sheri Berman, the chair of Barnard’s political science department, sees it, the success or failure of that mission will largely ride on one critical challenge: Can the United States help promote development of an effective central government—and thus create a modern viable Afghani state?

                  Berman, who joined Barnard’s faculty five years ago, has given a lot of thought to the state-building problem in recent years. A specialist in comparative government and European political development, Berman’s research initially focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the democratization process in Europe first began.

                  On closer inspection, however, she saw that fully understanding the origins of that process required going further back in time—namely to seventeenth- century Europe, and specifically to the era of European state-building when, as Berman points out, efforts to create far- reaching, powerful national governments first began taking hold.

                  “The French case was really the epitome of state-building,” says Berman, whose interest in comparative government dates back to her undergraduate days at Yale, where she received her bachelor’s magna cum laude in political science. She then went on to get her master’s and PhD in government from Harvard.

                  Besides chairing Barnard’s political science department, a position she took on last fall, Berman also maintains an active teaching load. Her spring classes include a course on democracy and dictatorship in Europe, as well as a senior research seminar in comparative government.

                  At first glance, the French experience may not seem to have much relevance for modern-day Afghanistan, or for that matter Iraq, where the government is also dangerously weak. But Berman sees important parallels. She notes that France’s experience offers some valuable lessons in state-building, and she believes that U.S. policymakers should consider taking heed. “I really thought the debate over Afghanistan needed some kind of historical perspective,” says Berman, whose article “From the Sun King to Karzai” was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. “Obviously, the more cases you have the better informed you are.” Much like Afghanistan today, Berman says that before Louis XIV France was also beset by ethnic and regional rivalries and violence, and in the absence of a strong central government, power largely rested with local lords, many of whom controlled their own armies and militias, and weren’t about to surrender their authority easily.

                  The Sun King’s regime, however, gave them some powerful incentives, notes Berman, including tax exemptions and lucrative monopolies and state offices. “The government gave out all kinds of goodies,” she says. “Most of these warlords were in it for their own interest, and if they’re led to believe it’s in their best interest to make a deal, they make a deal.”

                  Berman firmly believes that ultimately the same principles will hold for local warlords in Afghanistan, though thus far she notes the Obama administration has focused mainly on the military side of the equation. “It’s been all about how to use the troops, and the counterinsurgency strategy,” she says. “And that’s only half the game.” Just as in France, local warlords in Afghanistan will have to be co-opted.


                  “You need to have a strategy for getting them to give up power,” she says. “You have to be able to entice them into a deal, and there has to be give and take. It can’t be a zero-sum game.”

                                 Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain will obviously make the job of unifying the country even tougher. And Berman says there’s no way of predicting how the process will ultimately play out. But as French history clearly shows, it won’t be easy—or quick. “State-building doesn’t happen on a five- or 10-year timeline,” says Berman. “You’re not going to turn Afghanistan into France in a decade.”

-by Susan Hansen, photograph by Dorothy Hong