It is generally agreed that some sort of order is useful if relations among peoples in political, economic and security terms are to proceed with relative smoothness.
In recent years, and particularly since the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II, national states have been pretty much the order of the day in terms of structuring these relations. This practice proliferated with the creation in that same period of many new states, particularly in Africa and Asia, as formal colonialism ended.
International institutions and the big, reasonably stable countries had a vested interest in preserving various national states as a means of riding herd on the peoples of the world who constituted them, to preserve order, to prevent wars and to facilitate international economic relationships.
Given what is going on in the world now it may be worth asking whether the “national state” approach to maintaining order among peoples is still worth the effort that powers such as the United States have devoted since 1945 to preserving and perpetuating it. When it was evolving it was certainly considered to be not only very useful but also — accompanied by truly fine words about self-determination and democracy — to be the wave of the future, meritorious and moral, but also the approach to governance that was likely to prevail in the foreseeable future.
Now, not so much. Or, to put it another way, does that approach continue to have sufficient virtue and advantages to make it worth devoting considerable resources and even lives to preserve?
Two current challenges, in two very different areas of life on Earth, raise the question this very day. The first is the writhing around in the Middle East of Egypt, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Libya and Syria, and in Europe of Russia and Ukraine, worrying — scaring — the rest of the world with their efforts to work out a means of retaining viable national states to govern the different peoples who constitute what, in principle, are their territories of responsibility.
The second area of immediate concern in that regard are the states of West Africa — Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone — currently suffering an epidemic of the deadly disease Ebola. Africa suffers in general from being divided, since independence for most of its countries in around 1960, into 54 states. Most are only marginally viable in their current configuration. Although there are a few exceptions, most have been ruled by irresponsible people who have squandered or pocketed their countries’ wealth and not taken even a reasonable portion of whatever resources were available to build up solid health care, education, transportation and other systems.
Thus, when a terror like Ebola comes down the road, they are woefully — frighteningly — unprepared and find themselves hosting, virtually without any means of dealing with the problem, a threat to their existence that is a serious threat to the rest of the world as well. The health care systems of none of the four countries where the epidemic has turned up so far are able to deal with Ebola, individually or collectively.
Yet the world has spent substantial amounts of money trying to “save” variously Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone over the years, as they went through periods of brutal government and civil wars. Nigeria is currently coming apart as its corrupt government shows itself incapable of dealing with Boko Haram, an aggressive Islamist group operating in its north.
Now, if the sanctity and the usefulness of the national state is the argument for U.S. and other efforts to preserve it, is that justification now not noticeably slipping away, calling for a drastic change in policy on the U.S. part?
Does anyone still believe that the post-wall Humpty Dumpty former states of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine can actually be put back together again, by the United States or anyone else, to the degree that they will be able once again to be considered responsible national states, able to serve as serious partners on the world stage? I doubt it.
So what does that mean?
It means, first, that we should stop wasting time and resources trying to work out these countries’ internal problems in order to try to keep them together as entities. What stake, exactly, do we have in preserving an Iraq that includes the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds?
What is there in it for us in trying somehow to smooth over the differences in Ukraine between the pro-Ukrainian Ukrainians and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, not to mention relations between the two states of Russia and Ukraine? As for us trying to get Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone to work together to keep their populations from being decimated by Ebola, if they don’t get it why is it our problem?
Actually, de facto, we are starting already to realize some of the savings from leaving these countries to stew in their own juices. The United States has withdrawn its diplomats from a number of countries already, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Sierra Leone and Syria, some for security reasons, some for other reasons.
I didn’t start out favoring this selective approach. When African nations began to achieve independence in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy made it a special point to open embassies and appoint ambassadors to each of them. He did so out of respect, for them and for the principle of continuing to see a world organized in terms of national states.
The Europeans are moving away from organization purely on the basis of national states as the European Union has grown from six founding members to now 28 member states. There are bumps in this road but, basically, it is continuing to be seen as a sensible, rational way of organizing governance and external relations.
The Africans, by contrast, have gone basically nowhere with, first, the Organization of African Unity and then the African Union. Most “leaders” have jealously held onto every shred of power and as much money as can be squeezed from their relatively tiny pieces of real estate. Latin America hasn’t done much in that regard. Asian countries have shied away from organizations, but seem to keep off each other’s toes fairly well, even in touchy South Asia.
Wherever we are going now, it seems to me that the national state as the basis for organizing the world and conducting international relations is slowly but surely going away. U.S. policy needs to take this development into account and adjust accordingly.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).
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