Recent developments in international affairs raise the question of whether a drastic re-think of how the world is organized is in order.
Since World War II, the world has been structured on the basis of nation states. This concept is a foundational principle of the United Nations and virtually every other international organization. It was at the core of the drive for independence from colonial powers that prevailed after 1945 in Asia and Africa. It has still been around in recent years as Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo and, most recently, South Sudan were created.
But does it make sense?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to make the argument for recolonialization, that the world was better off when big chunks of the map were pink or blue. The idea that people could be happy under colonial rule as long as their social needs were met is a racist one containing the false premise that the way Europeans did things was per se better. Nor will I argue that things were easier when the West controlled part of the world and the Soviet Union much of the rest.
But there is a problem. The number of failed or almost-failed states grows. Without trying we can list Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Sixteen U.N. peacekeeping missions — boots on the ground — exist now, costing $7.54 billion this year. The United States picks up 28.38 percent of the cost, or $2.14 billion. Other organizations also sponsor peacekeeping missions. The goal of most is to keep unviable states from imploding. Why?
There also are global problems growing apace that do not fall into the category of peacekeeping but are part of the failed- or failing-state phenomenon. These include economic
political immigration, hard-to-control epidemics, human trafficking and other violations of global humanitarian standards.
Before one’s eyes roll at the thought of these intractable world infirmities, it is not the case that the United States is altogether free of these problems. Growing ungovernability? What are we to make of the United States at the moment? The recent drama of the twin waterfalls of a government shutdown and a near default illustrates that these problems are not limited just to Darfur and Kandahar.
The inability of governments to manage their countries is the basic problem. Africa is the worst, mostly because many of its 55 nations are the ones that recently became independent. Middle Eastern countries for different reasons are striving to match Africa for domestic chaos.
Europe still has Greek and Turkish Cyprus, Kosovo and the Caucasus as unresolved issues. Latin America, independent earlier, still has Haiti and continued U.S.-Cuba enmity (which is absurd) but, in general, is proceeding rationally. In Asia, North and South Korea remain divided, China continues to have trouble with Tibetan and Uighur minorities, and India and Pakistan have strong dissident voices, although they do not really call into question overall governance from Islamabad or New Delhi. Myanmar is just this side of a failing state.
Africa’s problems probably result from its failure to become more united. Many of its states are too small to make sense — to be viable economically — and it is no accident that more than half of the U.N. peacekeeping missions and nine or so of the failed or failing states are in Africa.
Africa should look to the European Union as a model, though the usual reasons are trotted out as barriers to African unification. One is the plethora of languages. Another is the Christian
Muslim divide. Another is tribalism, inside and between countries. Another is varied colonial experiences — Belgian, British, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish — although this becomes less relevant as the 80-year period of colonial rule becomes a smaller portion of overall African history. There also is the Sahara/sub-Sahara divide.
But the real problem is the greed and indifference of many African leaders to the well-being of their peoples. They don’t want to give up an iota of the power and money that comes to their hands from the status quo in favor of the gains that could come from greater cooperation and eventual union. The continent is full of these so-called leaders. They include many of America’s favorites — Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the late Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, Paul Kagame of Rwanda — as well as super-villains such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Anyone who would like to be forgiving or tolerant of blind African nationalism — or non-nationalism, given the obvious fragility of these countries — should take a history course on 19th-century and earlier Europe. France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, all now pretty much inextricably unified, all suffered painful, bloody processes of unification and then, after World War II, for economic and political reasons forged the European Union.
Try the red and white roses of Lancaster and York. Remember that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Little German principalities provided much of the royalty of Europe. The multilingualism of earlier France remains a fascinating story.
The bottom line is that the rest of us are simply tired of trying to patch up the quarrels of these failed or failing states or to pick up the pieces of their greed and folly. We are fed up with their unwillingness to solve their problems. Why should we spend money and effort to prevent them from collapsing?
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).