The triumph of the nation-state was made possible by the triumph of industry over artisanal production, especially in the area of weaponry. Industrialization gave the larger nations the means to produce vast quantities of war matériel, in turn giving them the impetus to homogenize and standardize the population by imposing a single language and educational system in order to be able to field a unified fighting force. The transformation was profound: at the time of the French Revolution only 10-12 percent of the French population could be said to speak French; in Italy the number of people who could be said to speak Italian was even lower. It allowed a handful of European nation-states to conquer the entire planet, before suffering the successive paroxysms of the two world wars. As they retreated, they did their best to carve up the planet into patches that, they hoped, would emerge as nation-states in their own right. Many of these experiments at constructing nations out of heterogenous ethnic raw material are famous failures: the Tutsi–Hutu Rwanda, the Sunni–Shia–Kurd Iraq, the Moslem North and Christian South Sudan, the permanent disaster area that is the Congo, along with numerous less famous ones. But no matter how weak the case for unity happens to be, it is a requirement that each patch of land belong to some nation-state or other.
Take the example of the Republic of Abkhazia, a tiny speck of a country on the Black Sea that, after the collapse of the USSR, fought and won a war of independence against the newly hatched and rabidly nationalistic nation-state of (former Soviet) Georgia. Abkhazia then spent more than a decade in political limbo because the world at large frowned upon its separatist ambitions. Meanwhile its remaining residents held a referendum and voted for independence, while at the same time acquiring Russian passports. They wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Georgia while realizing that full independence was but a dream. In August of 2008 the Georgians lost their cool and attacked South Ossetia (another limbo territory full of Russian citizens). For this they were severely punished by Russia, which then de facto annexed both territories. Since then the international furor over Abkhazia’s refusal to be part of Georgia has been buried. Clearly, the problem with the world’s refusal to recognize Abkhazia’s independence had nothing to do with Georgia; it had everything to do with independence. Now that Abkhazia has been claimed by a nation-state, all is well and the matter can be regarded as settled. And when we say “the world,” let’s be clear that we mean the United Nations, the OECD and various other international organizations whose members are... nation-states. Membership has its privileges, and one of them is the privilege of stomping on the heads of non-members.
Such is the pressure that every single patch of dirt on the planet should belong to some nation-state or other, even if it is weak or defunct or purely a notional artifact of the political map. Any patch of dirt that fails to coalesce with one of the neighboring tiles in the nation-state mosaic can, in principle, become its own separate nation-state, but then it must organize a national government for the purposes of seeking international recognition and entering into state-legal relations with other tiles. It is by now abundantly clear that not every former imperial possession does a viable nation-state make: the planet is littered with defunct or semi-defunct states that succumbed to internal conflict. The idea of carving up peoples according to arbitrary patterns set by previous imperial conquests and treaties is not a fruitful one.
It is often tempting to see the problems of these stillborn nation-states as problems of governance: if only the political arrangements could be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, democratically, of course. This approach rather glosses over the point that the world is full of tribes which have lived in close proximity for eons but generally do their best to avoid each other, perhaps only interacting in specific ways, for example by trading on market days, like animals that call a temporary truce when approaching a watering hole. Such tribes remain happy provided they can maintain their cultural, linguistic and social separateness while being able to insult their neighbors (not to their faces, of course). Failing that, they are happy to go to war with their neighbors until their separateness is restored. Forcing neighboring tribes to submit to a single government is tantamount to forcing them to fight. The problem is not with the lack of governance; it is with the mindset that centralized governance and political unity are necessary.
Here is a prescription for disaster. Take a collection of tribes that proudly hate their neighbors and treasure their ability to maintain their separate identity and way of life. Split them up into separate territories based on previous patterns of imperial conquest, being especially careful to make sure that the new borders cut across as many seasonal migration and trade routes as possible, to unnecessarily increase the amount of hardship. Hire a low-budget design agency to come up with a flag, an anthem and some other national symbols. Download a template for a national constitution off the Internet and spend an afternoon customizing it. But then you face a choice: organize a national government that pretends to be democratic and obeys the constitution, or just put the constitution in a glass display case and pick a dictator? These are both bad choices, but in different ways.
Dictatorship is a good form of governance in a bad situation. During the Roman republic the senators would elect a dictator when faced with very serious crises, although a better practice was to elect a couple of consuls, so that their dictatorial powers would be divided between two competitors. The situation of being a recently formed, weak nation-state that confronts a political map crowded with established nation-states, many of them powerful, can be considered a crisis of such monumental proportions that the choice of a dictatorship may seem to be a wise one. However, the country rarely gets a chance to un-pick the dictator once the crisis is over. Perhaps the biggest problem with having a dictator is that dictators tend to either end up being Western stooges or getting overthrown by the West.
Here are some examples of dictatorial successes in holding non-viable nation-states together. The authoritarian Josip Broz Tito held Yugoslavia together and made it a pleasant place. Once it was left without his unifying presence, Yugoslavia descended into ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war. Saddam Hussein succeeded in creating a prosperous Iraq out of disparate bits and pieces of the Ottoman Empire, with a large, thriving, well-educated middle class. Once he was overthrown, the country (if it can still be called that) descended into civil war, and is now an impoverished ghost of itself characterized by misery and permanent unrest. Muammar Qaddafi achieved similarly stellar results for Libya, and was for a time regarded as an honest broker and a peacemaker throughout Africa. He launched communications satellites in an attempt to break France Telecom’s stranglehold on that continent. But he was overthrown, and now Libya is a war zone and a dangerous place for Washington’s ambassadors. Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar, the current dictator) held Syria together for thirty-odd years, but now it has descended into civil war.
Yes, dictatorship is at best problematic. But any nascent nation-state that decides to give democracy a try is sure to confront many problems as well. To start with, democracy is a tradition that cannot be conjured up on the spot or imported and installed like a piece of industrial machinery; it has to evolve in place. The best, oldest, most stable democracies have tribal roots and rely on direct democracy at the local level. A representative democracy is a degenerate case open to many kinds of corruption and abuse that may become bad enough to invalidate the entire project. In a representative democracy the electoral process involves forming national political parties which tend to become financially dependent on the dominant class in a process that disenfranchises those whose only ambition is to pursue local interests. On the other hand, violent confrontations over votes are likely when the elected representatives represent specific districts. An attempt to institute granular political representation in an already weak state dominated by non-state actors is a prescription for political violence. Add to this the fact that, in a heterogenous population, proportional representation gives the more powerful and numerous tribes the upper hand over the smaller, minority tribes, which do not readily accede to such an arrangement and look for opportunities to make mischief.
Secondly, democracies, young democracies especially, are easily corrupted by money, especially money from abroad. Much of the foreign aid that comes from the US, the EU, Japan and, more recently, China, has been spent on propping up weak governments, to the detriment of the governed. There is a long list of countries that have an impoverished, disenfranchised population lorded over by a government that is headed by corrupt officials who drive around in limousines and wear flowing robes and plenty of bling and command foreign-trained, foreign-armed militaries. It has been a long-standing pattern for such officials to accept Western loans, promptly deposit most of the money in their own personal offshore bank accounts, and leave the country saddled with the impossible task of repaying them. The same pattern of exploitation that corporate raiders practice in doing leveraged buyouts of public companies, where the raiders walk away with a great deal of money while the company is left behind as a hollow shell suffocated by debt, can be practiced with respect to countries, especially if they are democratic ones. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that democracy enables the process by which private property can be transformed into political power. If an authoritarian regime finds that individuals or corporations are using their private property to undermine its political power, the property in question is confiscated (nationalized). There is a very nice fellow by the name of Michael Khodorkovsky, who used to run a major Russian oil company but is now cooling his heels in a Russian penal colony. The reason he is there is that he did not appreciate this particular aspect of authoritarianism: he naïvely thought that his corporate wealth automatically gave him political leverage.
Although a nonviable nation-state run by an authoritarian government or a dictatorship is better at pushing back against neocolonial predation by other nation-states than a pretend-democracy, neither one is ultimately satisfactory. The solution that tends to emerge spontaneously is one of local self-governance that takes each small region out of the arena of state-legal relations altogether. If a region possesses a system of informal self-governance, refuses to allow selection of representatives, refuses to enter into treaties and rejects all claims of outside control or ownership with a credible show of force, then it effectively becomes, in the parlance of international law theorists, an ungoverned space. Such spaces are not necessarily lawless or even dangerous, but they are dangerous to outside forces wishing to advance their own interests to the detriment of the locals.
As more and more erstwhile nation-states pass through the weak phase and tip into the defunct column, they can collapse into durable disorder or endless civil war, but they can also collapse into local autonomy and self-governance and let national borders grow porous. Their human populations are then able to come out of the vegetative condition to which settled, civilized existence has consigned them and revert to their original, nomadic state. There is a none-too-subtle difference between terrestrial plants and animals; the plants do not move, while the animals do (and when they do, there is just one species that requires passports or visas to cross international boundaries). We did not colonize most of the planet by staying put; nor will we be able to stay put if we wish to adapt to life in a depleted, disrupted, rapidly changing natural, physical and social environment.
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