Foreign policy expert (and Reason contributor) Michael Young had an op-ed out last week on nationalism and imperialism in the Middle East. Writing in The National, Young argues that Western imperialism should not be blamed for the problems of the Middle East today. Young argues that the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire guaranteed that violence would play a prominent role in the region, regardless of where the lines of borders had been drawn, or who had drawn them.
Violence would play an important role, Young argues, because aspirant hegemons and various types of nationalisms (Arab, Iraqi, Lebanese, etc.) would be eager to expand their influence and power throughout the Middle East. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it strikes me as disingenuous largely because there is no way to prove such an assertion wrong. The fact that violence could have happened in the absence of European imperialism does not excuse the cartographic crimes of European states. The carving up of the post-Ottoman Arab world happened (interesting counterfactuals notwithstanding).
Young’s argument fails on another account as well. He writes, for example, that:
None of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict has cast doubt on its borders, or has called for a Sunni or Alawite state. Their rhetoric has almost entirely been couched in nationalistic terms, with their aim being the control over all of Syria. Even Mr Al Assad has never expressed interest in falling back on an Alawite mini-state, and if he does so that would only be because he can no longer hold Damascus.
There are two arguments worth scrutinizing here. One, there have been calls for a Sunni state. Two, the nationalist rhetoric is itself a product of Western imperialism. For example, these power struggles for the center occur because secessionist or federalist options are not available to factions in the region. The lack of options stems from the inherent inability of these post-imperial states to govern without a strong man. Strong men are required in the post-imperial Middle East because the states that were drawn up by European diplomats were arbitrary and ahistorical, and therefore lack legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Post-imperial states are not considered legitimate by their citizens because they never had a say in how to go about structuring such a state (not even through the traditional channel of war). They had no say in where the borders should be, or who they could trade with, or how to best accommodate foreigners. Because post-colonial states are not legitimate, violent centripetal forces are constant. This pattern continues unabated because those who eventually end up controlling the center receive legitimacy from the international legal order, as exemplified by the United Nations and financial lending institutions such as the IMF.
By recognizing the legitimacy of Sykes-Picot’s arbitrary states and the sanctity of its borders, the UN and other Western institutions contribute directly to the bloodshed and impoverishment of the region. Because these states have been legitimized by the UN, violent factions can simply seize control of the center and they will automatically gain legitimacy from the very international order that has sustained this chaos. Why bother trying to gain the legitimacy of an impoverished populace when you can simply capture the rent associated with running a post-imperial state?
The West would do well to start working on a foreign policy that looks at recognizing devolutionist tendencies in the post-imperial world as a legitimate option. Recognizing the mistakes of Western imperialism would be a good start. Western recognition would also give these breakaway movements a sense of legitimacy when it comes to working with international organizations such as the IMF or WTO. Official recognition could open up diplomatic options that are currently unavailable to stateless societies in the post-imperial world.
By continuing to not view devolution as a legitimate option for Middle Eastern (and other) societies, the West is doubling down on its moral failure of a hundred years ago. Recognizing centrifugal forces as a legitimate political process would also bring the post-imperial world and the West to a more level standing with each other, as the West would welcome new states into their international orders rather than picking winners and losers through cartographic exercises. In an era where inequalities are shaping up to play prominent roles in policy debates, this last tweak in diplomacy could very well contribute (politically at least) to a more equitable world.