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.
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.
The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq undertaken by the Bush administration is one of the American republic’s darkest moments. I rank it as the fourth-worst policy in our history, just after slavery, the extermination of the Indians, and the invasion and occupation of the Philippines and just before Jim Crow and the New Deal. Invading and occupying Iraq rejected the American notions of liberty and justice, individualism, republican government, and free trade. It also further damaged American credibility in the eyes of the world.
For the most part, populations have been okay with Washington’s antics since the end of World War 2. There are certain expectations that everybody has of a world hegemon, and the Cold War atrocities that Washington committed were largely understandable. But attacking a third world despot in the middle of the Islamic world – for no apparent reason except to “bring democracy” to the region – not only undermined the US’s claim to be defender of the peace, but it exposed the extent of the republic’s intellectual decay that has been going since the New Deal. Not only does nobody believe our claims when we attack a helpless state, but they don’t think we have the intellectual capacity to do the job, either.
My own perspective on the crimes against humanity that Bush and his cronies committed are much more superficial, of course (I live in LA, after all!): we have basically copied the British imperial model. Not only are my taxes being spent on killing innocent people abroad, but Washington is not even doing it creatively! The following article in Foreign Affairs illustrates my point perfectly. Continue reading