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Mapping Utopia, or, the false imperative of self-determination

January 18, 2011

With the recent referendum in South Sudan, self-determination and secession are gaining popularity as new features of the international system. The referendum’s seeming success seems to demand a firmer commitment to these principles elsewhere. The classic trope is that the powerful nations of the world tend to be reactionary status quo conservatives when it comes to issues of redrawing borders, and only if they would open themselves to the project of dismantling the accursed colonial boundaries they imposed, the rest of the world might find some kind of peace.

The problem is that the founding act of the post-colonial system in Africa and many other regions was the new rulers acceptance of borders the colonial powers drew. In Africa, this essentially became a compact between the ruling elites to create a modus vivendi which accepted bad borders as the cost of avoiding wars which might unseat their regimes more quickly. The unraveling of this agreement is the price of resolving the internal conflicts which mar many post-colonial states.

Parag Khanna believes that rectifying these borders, however, is an international interest which deserves not just acceptance, but outright encouragement. Khanna implies that Iraq and Afghanistan prove that redrawing such borders is an American national interest. The implication that Iraq or Afghanistan’s bad borders, rather than the US’s deliberate choices about each conflict, are mostly responsible for their instability, is misleading. Iraq is not doomed to be a divided state, and a cursory examination of Iraqi history demonstrates that while Iraq’s borders have changed relatively little, the strength of Iraqi nationalism, pan-Arabism, sectarianism and other modes of political identification have fluctuated significantly. Similarly, to blame the Afghan civil war on the Durand line is a marvelously reductive fallacy that mistakes the Taliban for some kind of Pan-Pashtunist movement, among other things.

Khanna, however, does not primarily make his case in terms of the US wars, fortunately:

This growing cartographic stress is not just America’s challenge. All the world’s influential powers and diplomats should seize a new moral high ground by agreeing to prudently apply in such cases Woodrow Wilson’s support for self-determination of peoples. This would be a marked improvement over today’s ad hoc system of backing disreputable allies, assembling unworkable coalitions, or simply hoping for tidy dissolutions. Reasserting the principle of self-determination would allow for the sort of true statesmanship lacking on today’s global stage.

There is nothing new about the idea of statesmen trying to seize the “moral high ground” by supporting new self-determination movements. The moral legitimacy of allowing the flowering of new states in some kind of “Springtime of Nations” is as old as nationalism itself (although in grand historical perspective, it is not that old at all!). Note here Khanna’s invocation of “true statesmanship” – apparently, true statesmen do not meekly settle for timid power sharing agreements or inaction on colonial conflict, they boldly embrace the more monumental tasks of birthing new polities. “True statesmanship” cannot allow for small-minded pragmatism or inaction. Khanna’s political recommendations seem almost aesthetic. In describing the new world order and the maps to come, pursuing the redrawing of borders has some elements of the pursuit of beauty and ideal form. The idea of a “Springtime of Nations” has never been far from political romanticism.

The coming partitions must be performed with a combination of scalpel and ax, soft and hard power. Above all, the world must recognize that these partitions are inevitable. Our reflex is to fear changes on the map out of concern for violence or having to learn the names of new countries. But in an age when any group can acquire the tools of violent resistance, the only alternative to self-determination is perpetual conflict. After genocidal campaigns such as Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds and Serbia’s brutal repression of the Kosovars, it is impossible to imagine those groups again living under one government.

Khanna would have us believe that self-determination and conflict are clear alternatives – they are not. One of Wilson and his followers’ myriad mistakes was believing that the principle he chose to solve the problem of the collapsing European empires after the Great War, self-determination, had the primary role of causing that war or the cause of wars generally. Just because the Black Hand was related to a national cause does not mean self-determination was a root cause of the Great War. For most of the European great powers, the destiny of nations was of little concern and self-determination and national ideals had very little to do with their overall war aims. It was only the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires which necessitated a new spatial basis for the European political order.

Why is this important? Because the embrace of principles gives rise to new conflicts as easily as it settles the old. National identity is a flexible characteristic. Khanna asserts that partition is inevitable because nations cannot forget the crimes they have endured in cohabitation. But nationalism itself relies on forgetting of some degree. The founding act of all states and nations is illegitimate, it comes from an event outside the scope of what it creates. There will never be an ethnically uniform state or a state which sprung into existence without ideological sacrifice or harm to some group – forgetting this is critical to building enduring national identity. The Kurds must forget their civil wars. Kosovo must forget the atrocities the KLA provoked to incite Serbian retaliation to secure US intervention.

Khanna would have us forget the violence that was necessary to make this referendum possible. As Tilly said, states made war and war made the state. We would not be talking about a South Sudanese state if it were not for the decades of catastrophic civil war, which did not simply “hold back” South Sudan, it helped create the national identity and political will for secession in the first place. Just as the Third World did not come into existence “naturally” composed of its varied post-colonial states, it was and is not “naturally” a web of nations straining against the cages these borders impose. It took conflict to forge the political authorities which turned South Sudan from a geographic space immune to absorption into a concrete political entity capable of receiving independence. Khanna is right, conflict is inevitable, but it is not a function of choosing or not choosing to embrace self-determination. Conflict is inherent to politics, particularly the politics of making and breaking polities themselves.

Thinking the West can engineer some sort of system which can create functional, successful countries without conflict is naïve. There is no shortcut that allows Third World states to reach a new geopolitical equilibrium and redraw all their borders without conflict. We cannot know what borders will create the most effective state, or how to best constitute every new polity, or how to manipulate the local balance of power to ensure their preservation. This is a process of trial and error, and it is bloody. Let us remember what it took Europe to achieve its peaceful state after Wilson’s vision: the Second World War, the redrawing of border, population transfers, and occupations which followed, the control of two extra-European superpowers, and the emergence of a unipolar power committed to preventing the re-emergence of traditional European politics in the post-Communist east. Does Khanna really think some infrastructure investments and regional arbitrators will let us skip this, or that this barbarity did not have a vital role in forging European nation-states?

Khanna believes that self-determination deserves all the credit in this sordid history, and that embracing it elsewhere will just give us Europe writ large. You cannot map utopia. Khanna’s primordialist reduction of all conflicts to ones of national self-determination ignores the histories of European and non-European alike. Violence is part of political life, it existed before nations mattered and it will exist afterwards, too. He also ignores the impossibility of a fair redrawing of the world’s borders. If a concert of the United States, Europe, and other modern powers are intervening to create new nations, how is this any less problematic than the original colonial appropriations in the first place? The gloss of self-determination does not remove the reality of power politics and the agent-principal problem. The US and Europe will push for self-determination when it suits them, as in the Balkans, and resist it when it does not, as in the Caucasus. So too will go for Russia and the Chinese. How will we determine what self-determinations deserve our support? There are too many to choose all of them. Will it be by the degree of political coherence of the potential nation? The relative abuse it is suffering, even if its members do not conceive of themselves as a nation? Who will we choose to come to the negotiating table? The KLA were an ugly bunch, but outside powers need somebody to negotiate with and show up at the table. There is no peaceful, faultless, just, world waiting on the other side of a few regional bodies, humanitarian interventions, and foreign aid programs. Khanna wants to solve a grand historical problem with some policy adjustments.

Ultimately, statesmen are mortal beings with limited time and prior interests, they cannot be expected to play the role of History. These pressures will mean an arbitrary selection of movements to support, leaders to acknowledge, conflicts to accept, and post-independence support to offer. The grand principles of self-determination, passed through the filters of limited human action, ultimately leave us with the arbitrariness, absurdity, and ugliness that is part and parcel of political history.  . These are not the opposite of moral principles, they are moral principles in historical action, and the fertilizer of the intellectual soil from which they spring. There is no “right side” of history on this scale. From the god’s-eye vantage point from which we see the life and death of nations, we lose the frame of reference for making moral and immoral decisions, and the hubris of thinking a state, great power or not, can or should tether its fortunes to some teleological force of history reveals itself once again. The ultimate problem of Khanna’s argument is its view of history, and its belief that there are policy preferences to escape it.

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