From the Comments: The Suprastate and the Substate

My post on American Senator Rand Paul’s recent remarks on Kurdistan elicited the following response from fellow Notewriter Michelangelo:

If a neo-Ottoman federation arises I suspect it will begin as a political alliance between Turkey and Israel. Perhaps such a federation will arise from the Mediterranean Union, who can know really. The two countries are already relatively close in interests and are, alongside a few of the Gulf States, the closest things the region has to secular liberal powers. The Turks at this time would not favor an independent Kurdistan though and I fear they might withdraw support for a federation if that was part of the package.

I think it would be easier to first form an Ottoman federation and afterward grant Kurds their independence within the federation.

It is hard for me to imagine the Arabs joining said federation either way. The Egyptian-Syrian Arab republic went nowhere. Part of me (an infinitely small part!) kind of hopes ISIS manages to defeat the Iraqi and Syrian forces and creates the core of a Pan-Arab nation.

I’ll let him have the last word here (be sure to scroll though the entire dialogue), but I just want to take this opportunity to stress the importance of thinking about the world in terms we might not be used to. The standard unit of measurement – for lack of a better term – for thinking about international affairs is the nation-state, but this way of thinking about the world has, like all devices humans use to make sense of their world, weaknesses as well as strengths. To my mind, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected thanks to liberalization, the nation-state becomes less and less useful as a tool for understanding human action.

What Michelangelo is doing here is thinking ahead of the curve; he is applying the notions of suprastate and substate to international affairs. A suprastate is an organization or union that is composed of various nation-states, such as the ones Michelangelo uses in his argument (i.e. “Mediterranean Union”). A substate is a region within a nation-state, such as Kurdistan or Scotland or Somaliland.

Often, especially in debates here at NOL, the notions of suprastate and substate are used in conjunction with the developing, or post-colonial, regions of the world. This doesn’t mean these notions can’t be applied to places like the United States or Argentina. Indeed, the US itself was created as a supranational union in order to combat the strategies of the British, French, Spanish, and various Native nations. If you can entertain the notions of suprastate and substate when you think about human action, you will be that much closer to advocating clearly for the free and open society (see this piece on the informal economy by Dr Gibson, for example).

9 thoughts on “From the Comments: The Suprastate and the Substate

  1. interesting idea on neo-Ottoman federation. Both Israel and Turkey have recently regressed towards the regional norm of autocratic powers, so I’m not sure there’s much that separates them from their neighbors outside of pan-Arab unity. I’ve often thought that a Levant federation could be an interesting way to formulate a multi-state solution for Israel and Palestine under a federal structure with regional security managed at the federal level (perhaps with NATO assistance or similar). Such a federation could potentially be joined by Lebanon, some remnants of Syria, and possibly even elements of Jordan and Iraq.

    I hadn’t considered Turkish involvement, however a Turkish federation might make sense with regard to Kurdistan. I can’t really see a Turkish dominated Federal Levant happening though except as perhaps the aftermath of an all out regional war on the scale of WWI that fundamentally redefines current state borders.

    As for the Arab world. I would expect that at some point the House of Saud bows out to an Arabian Republic, perhaps as part of a post-Oil era. I don’t think I ever see Egyptian national identity ever being subsumed into any suprastate.

    • Andrew,

      It is interesting, if only idle speculation. That’s what blogs are all about though, right? At the end of the day, idle speculation like this has the ability to shape future ideas about how to enhance and maintain the free and open society.

      I touched upon your (quite excellent) point about Israel and Palestine in a larger federation awhile back here. Matthew, my fellow Notewriter, took exception to it and he has many good rebuttals, both in the dialogue I linked to and in a separate post (found here).

      Heck, while I’m at it, you can check out the original “neo-Ottoman” debate here at NOL by starting with Dr Foldvary’s post here and then reading Dr Stocker’s rebuttal (found here). I am glad this has piqued your interest, by the way.

  2. A federation between Turkey and Israel? WTF? What purpose would it serve to the people that really matter, i.e. the Turkish and Israeli politicians that would have to design the rules for allocating power and resources between these countries? Why on earth would a sane politician in a developed country establish a confederation with a much poorer country that is almost 10 times as large? (and never mind that they don’t share the same history, culture, language, etc)

    Don’t get me wrong. I have a longstanding interest in federalism, and thus I agree with Brandon’s claim that thinking in terms of suprastates and substates can be very fruitful (with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize being the best example of an extremely successful suprastate). However, one thing that most commentators on federalism and regionalism tend to ignore is the extent to which federal arrangements represent equilibria rather than blueprints; in other words, they are not sustained by a constitution; they are sustained because a sufficiently large number of players have strong incentives to play by the federation’s rules. And the relevant players are almost always politicians with well-defined interests. In order to understand why some (con)federations arise and others do not, as well as how they work, you must understand these incentives.

    For example, the reason why there has been no Arab federation is not US meddling in the Middle East; is that by establishing a supranational government, all current governments would lose their power (think about this: who would lead such a state? al-Assad? the king of Jordan? el-Sisi? some Iranian?) Democratic regimes can create sustainable arrangements to ensure that everybody gets his fair share of the pie (think the EU), but authoritarian ones like the ones in the Middle East cannot. Similarly, the reason why the Argentine federation works so differently from the US is that in Argentina the federal state was created by the poor provinces as a way to extract rents from Buenos Aires’s custom house (the only relevant source of revenue in the mid-XIXth century). And that’s why the Greek case is so complicated politically: there is no arrangement that will satisfy all parties involved, but–unlike in a federal state—the EU has no mean for imposing such an arrangement by force over unwilling parties. And of course, the reason for that is that national politicians have little interest in creating an arrangement that would cut down on their powers.

    • Thanks Adrián.

      Your points, which I don’t disagree with, about (con)federalism deserve a post of their own. The more knowledge there is of (con)federalism out there, the better. Also, I must ask your pardon. A lot of this idle speculation on my part might be cultural. American libertarians LOVE idle speculation. We fucking love it, and I cannot explain why. Michelangelo and I have been having a running dialogue loosely exploring federation for quite some time now (it all starts here, if you’re interested).

      Speaking only for myself, this recognition of equilibria is one of the reasons I have become so interested in (con)federalism. A (con)federal arrangement, after all and as you say, would not be popular among autocrats (in the Middle East and everywhere else). In fact, it would destroy their power, and that alone is enough for me to be interested in it. (Con)federalism also offers a viable, theoretically coherent alternative to past, mostly failed attempts at opening up the world to liberalization, such as imperialism and colonialism.

      The way I have interpreted the equilibria of the developing world is by drawing a connection between three broad factions. I have targeted these factions because, at the end of the day, I think that enough of the People Who Matter can be convinced of (con)federalism’s benefits. The three factions are: 1) secessionist/devolutionist interests in post-colonial states (such as Kurdistan), 2) the liberals in post-colonial states, and 3) the Western interests that are dedicated to including the post-colonial world in the West’s international order (such as it is). The involvement of the West and its international, preferably (con)federal institutions would then temper the nationalist impulses so prevalent among secessionist movements and, of course, reduce the power of strong men running these post-colonial states.

      I realize that this is idle speculation, but it provides me an opportunity to tease out or unpack certain concepts in a way that is likely to get good feedback from smart people.

    • Disclaimer: I’m an economist by training so take the below with a grain of salt.

      Both Turkey and Israel, the former more so than the latter, both wish to join the European Union. Turkey in the foreseeable future won’t be allowed to do so for the simple fact that it is a Muslim country.* Similarly I doubt the EU is willing to admit Israel for fear of finding itself further entangled in the region’s security issues. Israel for its part realizes this and has never more than flirted with the idea of EU membership.

      Turkey, Israel, and Iran all have the problem of being surrounded by Arab nations. For the immediate future the first two have the support of the United States to assure regional peace, but they can’t rely on the US to continue providing this for much longer.

      Turkey is secular, non-Arab, and democratic**. This combination makes it difficult for it to make allies with its neighbors. Israel is one of the few options Turkey has for when it comes to allies. An Israeli-Turkish alliance would earn Turkey the dislike of the Arab nations, but its not like they had warm relations to begin with.

      Israeli-Iranian relations are too poor for one to even jokingly muse the idea of an alliance, but Israeli-Turkish relations have been better historically (although they are poor at the moment). Trade between the two nations has grown steadily over the years despite their current poor political relations.

      Do I suspect an Israeli-Turkish federation in the next decade? No, but I do think that the two have too many mutual goals in regional security and trade to continue ignoring one another much longer.

      *Not to mention the Germany is unable to deal with its existing Turkish population and fears further waves of Turkish migrants.
      **Relatively speaking.

  3. Guys, thanks for your comments, and apologies for the delay in responding!

    1. I share your love for idle speculation. I’d say my fundamental difference with you lies elsewhere: you grew up/are very familiar with a country where federalism has worked pretty well (with notable exceptions, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws), while I came from another where federal institutions are full of perverse incentives. So, whenever somebody proposes a federal arrangement, I immediately perceive the costs, while you’re more open to the potential benefits.

    2. That said, I think an useful way for thinking about federal structures is to analyze the incentives faced by subnational governments. (a) Some subnational governments are accountable to domestic audiences, and thus they seek a federal structure where subnational governments retain considerable autonomy, including autonomy over taxation. This is the kind of federation that fosters tax competition and experimentation, with the US and the EU as good examples. (b) In other contexts, subnational governments are not fully accountable to domestic audiences (even with elections) and thus they devise federal institutions as mechanisms for extracting and distributing rents among themselves, and they use these rents to perpetuate themselves in power. Rather than keeping authority over taxation, they purposefully delegate their tax authority in the federal government to collect taxes for themselves. In other words, the federal government acts as a enforcer of a cartel: it establishes the same tax rate everywhere, collects the money, and distributes it between the states according to some highly politicized formula. This is the kind of federalism that predominates in Latin America: Argentina, Mexico, and to a lesser extent Brazil.

    In sum, my point is that creating a federation among governments that are not responsive to voters will lead to the second type of federation. I don’t see the Middle East creating a fully functional federal system unless governments in the region become fully responsive to voters, which will require much more than competitive elections.

    3. Michelangelo: I agree with 95% of what you say about Turkey and Israel, especially the EU part, and I obviously believe that it is a good thing these countries trade more and develop better relationship with each other. That said, the main reason why I don’t see these countries forming a federation is a more fundamental one: (a) that neither Turkish nor Israeli politicians have anything to win by creating a federal arrangement, and (b) given Turkey’s enormous size with respect to Israel, this problem is especially important from the Israeli point of view.

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