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The Bloody Truth About Excommunicating Failed States

July 3, 2010
A few weeks back, Pierre Englebert published a piece in the NYT arguing it was time to reject the governments of Africa (one wonders if this applies to states everywhere…) in order to promulgate better regimes, after which we will re-recognize these news states. Englebert justifies his plan from what is essentially a “state of nature” argument about the foundation of sovereign states:
Yet because these countries were recognized by the international community before they even really existed, because the gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within, it came without the benefit of popular accountability, or even a social contract between rulers and citizens.
Therefore, revoking the developed world’s grant of sovereignty from these states will force these states to develop liberal social contracts, either by bargaining or by revolution.
… in the continent’s most troubled countries, politicians would suddenly lose the legal foundations of their authority. Some of these repressive leaders, deprived of their sovereign tools of domination and the international aid that underwrite their regimes, might soon find themselves overthrown.
But let us think clearly – how did any of these developed states gain their sovereignty? State of nature theories are models for determining what is right, good and fundamental in government. They are not really empirically sound, particularly those of the liberal variety. Government in European states came about through coercion, both internally and as a method of uniting against foreign threats. Englebert’s treatment of Somaliland is emblematic of this misreading and marginalization of history:
In Africa, similarly, the unrecognized, breakaway state of Somaliland provides its citizens with relative peace and democracy, offering a striking counterpoint to the violence and misery of neighboring sovereign Somalia. It was in part the absence of recognition that forced the leaders of the Somali National Movement in the early ’90s to strike a bargain with local clan elders and create legitimate participatory institutions in Somaliland.
Lack of recognition may have been part of Somaliland’s success, but Somaliland was to some extent ethnically and culturally distinct from the rest o the country, was separately administrated as a colony, and was even briefly independent. The SNM’s campaign to reach out to other clans did not begin after Somaliland independence, it began during the brutal Somali civil war in the 1980s when the northern clans chose to resist the murderous Siad Barre regime. Issues of war and survival preceded democracy and development.
So what does Somaliland really tell us about de-recognition? It came into being during the late ’80s and the early ’90s, during the death of the USSR and the primary alternative to Western support. The SNM came in large part from diaspora support and initial Ethiopian military aid. Finally, to be redundant, Somaliland is a product of external coercion and civil warfare, and remains engaged in battle with neighboring Puntland; despite the lack of international recognition and major aid, the government of Somaliland’s largest budget item is the military, which it needs to survive. Each of these issues has grave implications for a world order where de-recognition becomes policy.
Cutting off flows of foreign aid and international legitimacy will push some African governments to find a new equilibrium for governance. However, some states are rather more invested in maintaining sovereignty than the US or EU members. The most prominent case is China, is already proof that de-recognition will not mean the end of foreign support. China, which has no need to affirm the principles of participatory legitimation, will help whatever countries honor Chinese contracts and other economic interests. These states will retain Chinese international recognition and support, regardless of what the West does.
The existence of an alternative path for foreign aid exacerbates a graver problem for Englebert’s argument, and that is the alternative path to creating sovereignty. In surrendering all material leverage over foreign governments while proclaiming their illegitimacy, we open the door to anarchy and war. Englebert dismisses these concerns by saying that we already have this in Africa, and besides, “history shows that weak, isolated regimes have rarely been able to survive without making significant concessions to segments of their populations.” I disagree. History shows that weak, isolated regimes turn to violence as often as they turn to concessions, and that the two can emerge simultaneously. North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, and more, all prove that there is more than one way for odious regimes to survive. Englebert’s dismissal of the prospect of warlordism and conflict only makes sense if we assume it cannot get worse. It can, and it will.
As in Somaliland’s case, groups will attempt to carve out their own territories and establish their own systems of rule, and new bouts of warfare will erupt, goaded on by the support of more powerful neighbors. We will have little legal case or material ability to prevent this, beyond the risk-fraught course of military action. De-recognition would also made foreign trade difficult, which would increase the incentive for neighboring states to seize control, either directly or through an ally or proxy, of resources in illegitimate states. Contra Englebert, this can and would get worse, especially when issues of sovereignty and state power are explicitly put at stake.
Jeffrey Herbst has made the argument that allowing the disintegration of African states could be a strong path to the creation of bureaucratic states which have strong institutional capacity and make concessions to their people. But we should have no illusions about what this means for Africa – more war and immense violence. Western states cannot control this process, and by trying to institutionalize it in international law, we only make ourselves appear more hypocritical and ridiculous, particularly as the rise of China further curtails our already limited ability to affect lasting political change. If building effective states is only a means to an end of the well-being and security of people, forcing states to re-constitute themselves is probably not the best policy. The modern state was founded as an instrument for war and control, the concessions and liberalism came later (if at all). As in Europe, the anarchic environment which de-recognition will create will bear out that other theory of the state of nature, one of bellum omnia contra omnes.
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