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Sunday
Dec232007

Squiggly lines predict stability

The current Vanity Fair presents a hypothetical map of the Middle East drawn by a quartet of experts. It depicts what states should logically exist instead of those created by victorious European colonial powers following World War I. Not surprisingly, there would be no Iraq, a classic fake state. And there are plenty more pretend countries out there awaiting more realistic configurations.

In a study published last year, William Easterly and two other development experts noted that postcolonial states with straight-line borders experience less political stability and economic success than those with squiggly ones. If your country’s borders are squiggly, it’s probably because they conform to some natural geographic delineator, or perhaps past wars bent them according to tribal boundaries.

Conversely, if your borders are straight, some colonial power probably drew them. Their reasons were typically nefarious: dividing ethnic groups to create permanently unhappy minority groups in fake states ruled by competing tribes. The resulting regimes were thus kept weak by their inability to effectively control their own national territory, dependent on their colonial patrons.

The Middle East is just the tip of this iceberg.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did a similar number on Central Asia, creating five states that all ended up with substantial minorities linking them to neighboring states. Kazakhstan was tied to Russia. Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were made forever vulnerable to Uzbekistan’s revanchist dreams.

Why should we care?

As Easterly argued in his magnificent book, “The White Man’s Burden,” former colonies that score high on partitioned peoples consistently score low on things like democracy, government services, rule of law, corruption, infant mortality, illiteracy and clean water. Check enough of those unsavory boxes, and you’re a failed state. Such states are easy prey for transnational terrorist groups.

Good example? Check out al-Qaida’s permanent addresses over the years: Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The former is ripe to split into its northern and southern halves (with western Sudan suffering genocide amidst militia warfare), while the latter pair are linked by yet another British border that no local tribes recognize — much less respect.

Then there’s Africa, where America is setting up its new regional combatant command. According to Easterly’s research, 80 percent of its borders correspond unnaturally to latitudinal and longitudinal lines, like some colonial master took a ruler to a map. And we all know Africa’s record on ethnic violence in the post-Cold War era.

Now that they’re past the period in which outside superpowers fought proxy wars through client states, those fake states are free to fight amongst themselves in nearly infinite combinations. The result? A Holocaust’s worth of violent deaths.

I know, I know. These were just a lot of dark-skinned people dying in a galaxy far, far away … until 9/11 reminded us that such distant pain can be transmitted across the global body politic by those still willing to fight and kill and die to preserve their cherished identities in the face of this homogenizing historical process we call globalization.

Here’s the inescapable reality I think we need to get our arms around as a nation: The United States, so long as it remains a global military superpower, is going to be sucked into a lot of these fake states over the next couple of decades as globalization continues its frighteningly rapid advance.

For, whenever the global economy effectively penetrates these straight-line borders, somebody on the inside wants the equivalent of a national divorce.

Those who make the first move are typically the most ambitious and capable: e.g., the Slovenes and Croatians in now-defunct Yugoslavia or the Kurds in increasingly fake Iraq.

What should our goals be?

First, as needed, the world’s great powers must collectively intervene militarily to prevent or tamp down ethnic conflict. Second, we should make comprehensive efforts to stabilize the affected regions economically, providing what quick connectivity we can to the global economy. If done prophylactically, this can preempt mass violence.

Third, we must steer all players toward the long-term goal of political re-integration once economic stabilization takes root. Done well, borders need not change even as national economies are comprehensively recast.

None of this will come easily or fast. Indeed, we’re looking at the work of one or more generations. But this burden, which will be borne by powers both East and West, is inescapable.

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