Thursday, March 6, 2008

Ethnic Nationalism and State Borders

What I've been wondering for some time is to what extent national borders should coincide with ethnic or religious groups. The lack of a reasonable ethnic division in Africa, for example, has probably caused or exacerbated many conflicts in the post-colonial era. But what would another way of doing it have been?

Had the English or French decided to carve up their empires in a reasonably ethnic manner (as Woodrow Wilson generally believed that borders and ethnicities are meant to coincide) that would have left Africa with something like 800 tiny states. Some ethnic groups have 100,000 members. Others have 500. The ability of a state of 100,000 to simply overwhelm the tiny ethnic state might have created more instability. With ratios that skewed, you just need one twentyeth of one percent of the population of the larger state to join the army (most states have armies in the 1-10% of population range). With this miniscule army, you could march into the small country and have each soldier kill just one enemy man, woman or child. This done, the smaller state would be totally wiped out. It would be the most complete genocide in the history of the planet, a 100% destruction of an ethnic group. Assuming neither country sat on oil or diamond resources, it might happen too quickly for other powers to do a thing. The large state could then claim and occupy the smaller one. It would be a horrific but brutally efficient lebensraum. The large state's ethnic group could grow faster using the space and food resources.

We've seen how most Western states won't stop a genocide, and there's no reason to think they would stop this kind either. At least by aggregating the many similar ethnic groups into larger states, the current system makes wars and genocides more costly. Any group that wishes to use their army to wipe another groups out will face massive disapproval from the international community, with sanctions and possible military intervention. This hasn't stopped genocides by any means, but maybe it has decreased the wholesale destruction of small ethnic groups.

As a historical aside, people often don't mention that during the Rwandan Genocide (which also took place in neighboring Burundi) there were retaliatory killings of Hutus in Tutsi dominated areas after the genocide began. And both groups killed the minority third ethnic group, the Twa pygmies.

But there were also colonial empires outside of Africa, in Asia and the Middle East especially. Asia's borders are, by and large, correlated with major groups. Central Asia (all the countries that end in -stan) is sliced up almost esclusively on ethnic grounds. While this area is nowhere near prosperous, it is also less ethnically violent. The biggest problem in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etcetera is not genocide, war or civil strife but corruption and government opression. Corruption and injustice we can deal with. Genocide is harder.

As for the Middle East: it has fewer groups than Africa, and so an ethnic/religious partition of the region would not easily cause the genocide scenario above. All the groups are large enough that no one can destroy the other overnight.

Credit: Ralph Peters & Chris Broz

Here's a proposal for just such a partition, made by militarily-connected men who know a thing of two. It slices up the Middle East in new ways that reflect the various entities that actually exist there. Unfortunately, the three biggest losers in this scenario are also the most powerful: Saudi Arabia loses some land to Jordan, loses its Holy Lands to the interestingly-named Islamic Sacred State, and its Gulf coast to the Arab Shia State. Iran and Turkey both lose territory to Kurdistan, but that territory is currently held by ethnic Kurds, so the partition at least makes some sense.

While most people probably look at the map for its Iraq-related regions, I'm more interested in the Islamic Sacred State. Imagine it truly existed - would the Wahhabi-inflected Saudis pack up an move there, allowing the Saudi Homelands to travel the modernist path using their oil wealth? If the most conservative members of the Middle East all packed up and moved to one localized area, the rest of the region might jump into modernization (though by no means secularization).

One last thought: Baghdad is listed as a city-state, like the ones from Classical Greece. I wonder why we don't really see too many of those anymore. City-States seem like workable solutions to the problem of disputed ethnic control over a major capital city.

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