Despite that, the U.S. military continues to be the premiere nation builder on earth. In Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 150,000 troops -- and a projected price tag of hundreds of billions of dollars – were all devoted to nation building.
While there is not much of a modern track record on nation building, there is Bosnia, where the United States and Europe have been performing a sort of lab experiment in nation building for almost a decade. And they have spent tens of billions of dollars committing thousands of troops.
With the effort to rebuild Iraq barely begun, Correspondent Morley Safer decided to take at Mostar, one small city in Bosnia.
At first glance, Mostar looks like the ideal place for an experiment. It's a small city with a population of 100,000 people.
Under its dictator, Marshal Tito, it was once a showplace of ethnic integration. That ended in 1992, when Mostar was the scene of the bloodiest battles of the Bosnian War. Three ethnic groups -- Catholic Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs -- fought a very personal war in a neighborhood brawl that left thousands dead.
"What was so savage is that many of them had been at the same school. And there's no savagery like fighting your ex-classmate," says Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor of Humanities, and one of the foremost scholars on the challenges of nation building.
Over the last decade, Ignatieff has studied up close most of the world's nastiest internal conflicts, including Bosnia.
"The end of Communist suppression did not release a spirit of liberty. It unleashed ancient ethnic hatreds, a territorial war between ethnic groups. One group driving out another under the banner of ethnic cleansing. In Mostar, no side succeeded," says Ignatieff.
"The U.S. brokered a peace in 1994, and the fighting stopped. To this day, former combatants - Catholic and Muslim - face each other across a narrow valley, their city split down the middle between a Catholic west and a Muslim east. The fighting stopped, but the war never really ended."
Mostar is, in effect, two cities, says Richard Medic, an international aid worker. He says that the division has reached outrageous extremes, and is now a nation builder's nightmare
"There are two of everything or more. Before the war, there was one city administration. Now there are seven. There are two soccer clubs in Mostar - one Catholic; one Muslim," says Medic. "You have two sets of trade unions. Two totally different viewpoints of culture, history, religion and language, in one city."
And the list goes on. Social life carries on - but with strict divisions. You may not be able to distinguish between Christians and Muslims. But they can, and they do.
Would a Muslim boy dare date a Catholic girl?
"I think you would have to find out who her father is first, and whether he carries a gun," says Medic.
NATO security forces continue to patrol, and there is continuous talk of another war. But now and then, ethnic violence can still erupt.
Last Christmas, in a nearby town, a Muslim targeted three Catholics for murder. And just last spring, a Catholic set a booby-trap for Vlatko Menix, a Catholic Croat who uses his string of local television stations in West Mostar to broadcast a hard line Catholic message to viewers.
Menix says that in his town, no one is forgiven, and no one forgets: "It was war where a lot of people lost members of their families. If you did lose member of your family, would you be able to forgive?"
Menix also said that few Catholics are willing to move back to the Muslim East, where their homes used to be: "Some of them are scared. Some of them not sure how the children going to grow up. Where they're going to school."
Is nation building working? Ask yourself the question, 'What would Bosnia look like without nation building?' They'd still be killing each other," says Ignatieff.
"Americans tend to think of nation building as quick entry, quick exit, low investment. And the historical record, going right back to Japan and Germany after the Second World War, is nation building doesn't come cheap."
The U.S. and Europe have poured billions upon billions into this region, and so far, there's barely a hint of a nation being built. Officially, the peacekeeping mission here ended in December of 2002, but there are still thousands of troops here, including more than 1,000 Americans. The truth is that it has been more "Mission Impossible" than "Mission Accomplished."
Lord Paddy Ashdown would agree. He was appointed High Representative for Bosnia by the nations that hammered out the peace accords.
"The next big issue for Bosnia is the ludicrously tangled and complex system of government in this country. We have 13 prime ministers, 13 ministers of education, 13 ministers of the interior for 3.7 million people," says Lord Ashdown.
Mostar, like the rest of Bosnia, is a crazy patchwork of fiefdoms, says Ashdown, with each ethnic group trying to run its own patch. It's an invitation to corruption, and untold billions in international dollars have gone down the drain.
"This country spends 70 percent of its government expenditure on government," says Ashdown, which he claims has made Bosnia today barely governable and economically dead.
And Mostar is the worst of all: "You pay something like 200 politicians in Mostar alone, let alone the bureaucrats, but you can't pay your teachers."
Before giving up, the international community is taking one last shot at shaping Mostar's future - a rather beautiful one - rebuilding the city's lost past.
Before the war, Mostar had its own emblem of ethnic unity - the Mostar Bridge, the old bridge linking the east and west banks of the river Neretva. Built almost five centuries ago, it was a tourist attraction, a renowned architectural icon. Children played on it; lovers met there.
The bridge was the heart of the city, a symbol of integration. And intermarriage was not unusual here. Maja Popovac, a local architect, always felt a kinship with the bridge. Like her, it had a foot in both worlds. Her father is Muslim, her mother Christian.
"You know, I can't split myself. I can't say my lungs are, I don't know, Christian and my feet are Muslim," says Popovac. "You know, that's a bit, so that's also in my soul. That's the state of my soul."
When the war came, the bridge kept hope alive for Mostarians like Popovac -- battered, broken, but still standing. It was a symbol perhaps of nothing more than the possibility of reconciliation.
Then reality set in. After a year and a half of savage warfare, Croatian gunners on that mountain zeroed in on a special target - the heart of the city – and destroyed the bridge.
"To take the bridge down was to say, 'We've got nothing in common. All that common history was a lie. They're them and we're us,'" says Ignatieff. "And a lot of people start saying, once the bridge goes down, it was always, 'Their bridge; it was never our bridge.' And that's astonishing to me. Something that everybody thinks is in common suddenly becomes theirs."
For a long time, the bridge lay in pieces. But for nation builders, it was a symbol too good to pass up. So a new bridge is rising between the banks of the Neretva, paid for by the World Bank and a consortium of nations and charitable foundations.
It's a $15-million attempt to literally bridge the differences. But with the help of architects like Popovac, teams of stonemasons are recreating the structure in the traditional manner. The bridge will be finished by the end of the year, and it will serve as a stirring symbol -- but will it be anything more than that?
"This has been Europe and America's premiere experiment in nation building in the '90s. And everybody wants to go home," says Ignatieff. "We've got to have something for the end credits. What better end credit than that beautiful bridge? And so, they're kind of forcing the pace. Mostar is not necessarily ready for the reconciliation that the guys shooting this film want."
But can the reconstruction of the new old bridge create some kind of reconciliation, and serve as a symbol of the East and West being linked again?
"For Muslim people, the main symbol is going to be Allah. For Croat people, main symbol is going to be...God," says Menix. "And the Serb people also, that is the only symbol. Bridges, buildings, whatever, forget."
Even Popovac, that rare optimist in Mostar, must struggle to believe in the idea of a single nation: "You can't avoid all the nasty questions and all the bad thoughts and everything. You must really face them and try to deal with them to be able to continue. You know, I can't forget some things and pretend that they didn't happen."
Symbols aside, the reality here is that the wounds may never heal.
"The key thing that Mostar tells you about nation building is, beware of fantasies. Don't think you can impose reconciliation. Bitterness runs very deep," says Ignatieff. "You can't plaster over that stuff. And we, because we have short timetables, 'cause we're in a hurry, we often want symbolic results more than real ones."