Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sovereign nation states, Mideast and GWOT

Lemme try to boil this down a bit.  It's written by an eggheaded, blame-America-first Princeton professor with an axe to grind, to be sure, but there's some really good stuff in here nevertheless.

The main thing is Prof. Mayer's comparison (albeit tortured) of the present Middle East with Westphalian Europe in mid-17th century.  

The point is that, as every poly sci major knows, the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War heralded the dawn of the modern European nation-state, and the principle of sovereignty of states that we hold so dear today, in the UN and international law.  You could even say that state sovereignty is the sine qua non of international law; without it, you have the jungle where the strong prey upon the weak.  What Westphalia did, in essence, was start the process whereby the strong nations acknowledged the weak nations' right to exist and govern their own affairs, and furthermore, strong states acknowledged it was in their own best interests (i.e. the interests of peace) to do so.  Because we're all interconnected.    

Prof. Mayer reminds us that the development of Westphalian-European nation-states was a pretty bloody, God-awful process in relative historical terms.  Furthermore, he sees a similar process happening now in the Middle East... although the borders of those nation-states were drawn by colonial powers that then did not take into account pesky things like historically who controlled what region, what religious sects dominated those regions, etc.  He hopes that this process, about 300 years later, won't be as bloody.  

In these "violent towel heads'" defense, one could argue that the borders were drawn up by Western powers precisely to divide up awkwardly those "natural" borders and institutionalize conflict in a "divide and rule" philosophy.  This is important to understand because the non-European Middle East (that's redundant but I'll say it nonetheless for emphasis) never had a "Westphalia moment" where it felt the need to draw up strict state borders.  Their borders were more organic and understood, and enforced by tradition and local force.  (And this is one reason why Palestinians who hark from present-day Israel are screwed to this day).

So what does all this mean for the U.S.?  It means that, to compound the complexity of the "Great War on Terror" (GWOT) against nebulous non-state actors that don't recognize governments or borders, we have the wonderful complexity of Arab-Mideast nation-states with poorly drawn borders whose peoples don't necessarily pledge allegiance to those nation-states where they live, but rather to their tribe, religious sect, ethnic group, etc.  This fact strikes our post-Westphalia western minds as horribly backward and primitive and yet that is what Europe was like until the 1600's.  

To sum up, this makes America's defining the terroristic enemy awfully hard.  Even if the U.S. can manage to win cooperation with Mideast nation-states, there is little or no guarantee that local populations will go along with the program.  Again, this throws a monkey wrench into our whole military-diplomatic modus operandi, whereby our political leaders meet with their political leaders over whom we exert some diplomatic, military or economic leverage, and who in return give us certain guarantees.  As the Arab Spring showed us, those guarantees are conditional at best, and blowback-worthy at worst. Because, while our leaders may be viewed as legitimate by their home polities, the Arab-Middle East leaders' polities may simply scoff.    

What all this tells me is that the U.S. must do a much better job at retail diplomacy in the Mideast, speaking to the ethnic and sectarian nations that make up its core, and not only to the nation-states that try to keep a cork on all the bubbling conflict inherent in poorly drawn borders. 

Comments?  Questions?    

By Arno J. Mayer
June 18, 2013 | Counterpunch

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