Thursday, 1 November 2007

Why are we bound by borders?

A Turkish friend of mine just sent me this map which I find extremely interesting. He was pointing to the AFJ-designed hypothetical creation as an example of “US arrogance,” but I think it makes for an interesting study as the crisis with the PKK pushes Turkey further and further toward an invasion of Iraq.

The map is a redrawing of the national borders of the Middle East based on ethnic and religious lines. It accompanied this 2006 article in the Armed Forces Journal about what a fair Middle East would look like. Apparently the map has been circulating around Turkey without the accompanying article (I had to do some super sleuthing to even find the article) and is being presented as actual plans of the US military to redraw the Middle East. This assumption, of course, is not only wrong but idiotic, considering that much of this redrawing would be not in American interest and the US is actively resisting such a redrawing by clumsily trying to hold together the nonsensical, European-drawn borders of Iraq. A group in Turkey even announced a competition to redraw the US map in retaliation. Check them out here, they’re absolutely absurd. Isn’t the fact that no Turk was able to draw new borders for the US that make any sense evidence against their own point? The US is a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation, and the ethnic and religious divisions that exist are spread out. None of these entries even takes into account the political differences that might actually be astute (like the infamous “Jesusland and United States of Canada” map that came out after the 2004 election).

The reason why so many Turks have taken offense to this hypothetical map is because they would lose territory to the newly established Kurdistan. This is a particularly sensitive issue right now as Turkey prepares to launch an attack on the Kurdish paramilitary groups operating out of Iraq, fighting for the independence of the Kurd-dominated eastern part of Turkey. Nationalism in Turkey is growing at an alarming pace and there have been report of increased violence against Kurds in Turkey.

There are between 27 million and 36 million Kurds living in an area that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. That’s larger than the population of Iraq itself, and even the bottom of this estimate would make the Kurds the world's largest ethnic group without its own state. The Kurds have been persecuted by all four of the modern nations hosting them, particularly in Turkey, which has even tried to erase their nominal existence by rebranding them “mountain Turks.”

It is surprising to me that the “three state solution” in Iraq has still not gained traction in the US, with the only presidential candidate endorsing the idea remaining Joe Biden. As I’ve written before, it’s the only realistic solution for the problem and is probably inevitable. But Turkey is terrified of the prospect of an independent Kurdistan, because that new state would probably demand to be given the bordering Kurdish region of Turkey, and might even fight for it. So the US is steadfastly insisting that Iraq should remain one unified state.

But the question needs to be asked, why are we fighting to maintain the existence of a dysfunctional state whose borders were drawn arbitrarily by Europeans and was only able to be held together by a ruthless dictator? The reason has a great deal to do with the peculiar way in which geopolitics works in the modern world.

After World War I, the prevailing ideologies in Europe were nationalism and self-determination. The massive multi-ethnic states of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires were demolished, and in their place emerged nation-states based instead around ethnicity and language. Hence you had the emergence of European states which had never existed before such as Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Even the new multi-ethnic states of the USSR and Yugoslavia could only operate in this modern European context by becoming federations of various semi-autonomous ethnicity-based states.

Yet at the same time the main European powers still held vast colonial empires around the globe. The devastation of World War II and the inability of Europe to hold on to these territories meant that the principle of nationhood and self-determination, which had started in Europe, quickly spread throughout the globe and the European powers had to rapidly, and chaotically, abandon their holdings. Yet despite the prevailing ideology of creating ethnicity-based states in Europe, the borders of the territories the Europeans withdrew from were drawn haphazardly, with little regard for the realities on the ground, and nowhere were these boundaries more arbitrary or distorted than in Africa and the Middle East.

Yet those borders still stand, and although they are the source of endless and bloody conflict, they are treated as gospel. Over the past half century the United States has continually intervened in foreign wars to maintain these arbitrary borders. In fact, even though borders have been constantly changing and adjusting throughout history, the assumption today is that the map of the world that was drawn after World War II is permanent and unalterable. The only significant adjustment was in the dissolution of the USSR, but this effectively doesn’t even count because all of those former SSRs were already states beforehand, they just existed within the union.

In fact if you stop and think about it, current US foreign policy would suggest that the best possible outcome is for the current political borders to exist forever, in perpetuity. This is why the suggestion that Iraq should really be three different states has not beeen discussed seriously in the US, or in Europe. It violates the basic assumption that the world operates on today: that the existing national borders are sacrosanct. Yet as the AFJ article points out, when so much of the conflict coming out of the Middle East is a result of these archaic borders, it’s certainly constructive to start thinking about how they could be redrawn.

I do agree with my Turkish friend, however, that the fact that the Palestinian situation is completely ignored in this map is highly unusual and may reflect a bit of a US bias. Under the precepts this map is operating on, shouldn’t the West Bank become part of Jordan and the Gaza strip become part of Egypt? Similiarly, why have the Gulf oil states been completely untouched? A bit suspicious, to say the least. But I’d say this is countered by the fact that there are changes on this map that would clearly be not in America’s interest. I also think the idea of an “Islamic Sacred State” is pretty untenable.

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