Creative destruction ain’t just a place for the marketplace, baby! The National Interest has an article out by Mark Donig on “The Twilight of Sykes-Picot.” It’s a great piece that basically acknowledges the end of an era (European imperialism and cartographic arrogance), and what this will mean for the United States.
Sykes-Picot is an agreement between France and Great Britain that divided the Ottoman Empire up between the two after World War I (the article goes into a bit more detail if you’re interested). Russia was also a part of the negotiations for carving up Europe’s sick man, but after the Bolsheviks seized power all imperial pretenses associated with the West were abandoned in Moscow. European cartographers abandoned the Ottoman approach (learned over centuries of trial and error) to governing territories in the Levant and instead carved up the region as they saw fit. The end result was, of course, a number of states that could only be held together by a strong man. Today, these post-colonial states are collapsing and in their place are a greater number of pseudo-states.
In many of these pseudo-states, Islamists run the show. Donig, an international law student, is worried that if states like Syria and Iraq collapse, the chemical and biological weapons stockpiled in secret locations will fall into the wrong hands. Donig’s suggestion is that the US pay very close attention to what is happening in the Levant, but I think he is much too pessimistic.
The US should embrace political disintegration in Levant wholeheartedly. Doing so would mean recognizing sovereignty of nasty-looking regimes. Yet is would also end the power struggles for the “center” in Sykes-Picot states, which would in turn end the reign of strong men in the region for good (for a concise explanation on why strong men emerge in post-colonial states, see “Imperialism: The Illogical Nature of Humanitarian Wars“).
Were the US to embrace decentralization in the Levant, it would be wise for Washington to play an active role implementing trade agreements both between the new states as well as with Washington. The separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia illustrate my garbled point well. Scots and Catalonians don’t want independence without membership into the international trading confederation known as the EU, and membership in an international confederation requires relinquishing some sovereignty (Daniel Larison inadvertently makes this point here; people on both the Left and Right who point to evils of EU rarely acknowledge that many states and regions would love to be a part of this confederation, warts and all, and that they stake their very separatist claims on such a membership).
Trade agreements would play an integral role in making or breaking these new states within their newly decentralized region (see Becker or yours truly on the importance of trade in politically fragmented regions). Once recognizing sovereignty of new states, the US would gain some much-needed trust from the peoples of these new states, and then Washington could use that influence to push for more economic integration (between the new states and with the new states) while at the same time recognizing the reality of political fragmentation in the region.
At any rate, full-on American diplomacy in this area is a must, especially given the TNI report’s account of possible chemical weapons stockpiles. This is something the US could work with Russia on, thus building a measure of trust which could, in turn, be used to work with Moscow elsewhere (especially in Europe). It still surprises me that dovish policymakers in Washington and Moscow have not yet used their respective government’s mutual enemy (Islamism) to build much-needed bridges between the two countries.