Journalist Robert Kaplan briefly broke the (national security) Internet with a Foreign Policy article that seemed to call for a return to imperial governance as an alternative to the “chaos” in the Arab world today. This is not Kaplan’s first attempt at making this case, and now, as then, his writing sparked withering and important rebuttals.
Yet Kaplan’s arguments still find avid readers. Both he and his critics have made deeply problematic arguments — not just about the nature of empire, but also about nationalism, borders, the course of history and the problems of politics and state formation in the modern Middle East. These arguments just don’t hold up against the facts, as plenty of political science research reveals in great detail. The facts matter because, unfortunately, these arguments about imperial history of the Middle East do not exist in a vacuum. They have been co-opted to promote various policy positions toward the region. We will explain below how this argument is flawed and how these falsehoods lead to unfortunate policy positions.
Kaplan argues that the current state of the Middle East and North Africa derives from the collapse of three imperial orders: The Ottoman Empire; the world defined by “borders erected by European imperialism in the Levant,” as Kaplan put it; and the erstwhile American role in ostensibly “organizing and stabilizing the region.” He also differentiates between states whose history supposedly stretches to antiquity (Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt) and supposedly artificial states (Algeria, Libya, Iraq, and Syria) without ancient historical predecessors. As these states have declined, he argues, “indigenous regional powers” like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have emerged, forming “nodes” around religious and ideological distinctions that could and should serve as poles for the new regional alignments needed to restore order in the Middle East.
Kaplan’s arguments substitute vague, inaccurate recollections of the past with outdated and essentialist ideas about geographical determinism and intra-Muslim conflict. He posits, for instance, that a history of ancient civilization and statehood has given countries like Morocco “sturdy forms of secular identity,” a claim that stands somewhat at odds with the Moroccan king’s title as Amir al-Mu’mineen, or Commander of the Faithful. He also argues that a lack of major Roman settlements in Libya and Algeria (which is just false: there were major settlements in today’s Constantine, Tipasa and elsewhere, and Roman provinces in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) somehow calls into question whether a “state or central government is even possible” in these places. And yet Algeria’s northern borders have largely been defined for hundreds of years, while Libya’s current dysfunction stems primarily from decades of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s family and tribal rule, which hollowed out or destroyed state institutions.
Artificial arguments about artificial borders
More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.
Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.
Moreover, supra-national entities, like the United Arab Republic in the Middle East and the Mali Federation in West Africa, fell apart under local and national political constraints. This suggests that, counter to Kaplan’s claims, national distinctions matter, even when colonial powers drew the borders of what became postcolonial states. And Marc Lynch and others have recently demonstrated the ways in which national identity remains highly salient in the Middle East. Kaplan’s “artificial” nations can in fact show a high degree of coherence and nationalist sentiment, even in the face of ongoing political, social and economic turmoil.
While the Sykes-Picot agreement is an easy example of an arbitrary European delineation of borders, colonial borders were not always quite so “artificial.” Camille Lefebvre notes in her recent book and in scholarly and public articles that a number of African borders — such as in Niger — emerged from existing political, military and social realities that involved more than just European pens tracing straight lines on maps. Of course, colonial and neocolonial crimes and misdeeds have fed contemporary problems, but so have local political realities. Attributing postcolonial violence and disorder only to purely outside factors – whether those might be colonial borders or neoliberal economic reforms – ignores the actual people and power struggles on the ground.
Is empire really better? Ask the colonized.
The crux of Kaplan’s neoimperial argument is that imperial control over the Middle East promoted more social order and less conflict. This rosy view of imperialism misses the various forms of resistance to foreign rule and the incredible violence of colonial conquest. This is most obvious in areas that faced the most intense forms of settler colonialism, such as South Africa, Kenya or Algeria. In these countries, British and French colonial governments alike faced repeated uprisings. They regularly resorted to brutal and horrific repression and awful legal regimes like the corvée or the indigénat in North and West Africa, statutes that forced colonized peoples to provide labor for the colonial government or gave colonial officials enormous latitude to criminalize many aspects of daily life. Both existed at least in part to regulate labor and exert greater control over colonized peoples.
Even in places where European colonialism was less omnipresent, people rebelled violently against colonial rule — as when northern Moroccans rebelled against Spanish and then French forces in the 1920s. The colonized revolted against non-European colonizers, as well. Ottoman rulers faced many revolts, such as the First Serbian Uprising in 1804 and the Albanian Revolution of 1844. Imperial “order” often involves almost ceaseless bloodshed and repression, something the United States learned after “liberating” Iraq.
What do we talk about when we talk about “empire”?
Anyone trying to justify short-term policy in the Middle East by referring to a political order that lasted for centuries will inevitably be able to find some historical episode to support the argument. But empires vary, and they’ve varied tremendously during different times and in different places. Even within any single empire, political realities vary incredibly over time. Political scientist Paul MacDonald has argued that preexisting networks of local actors are key to explaining successful imperial domination, while political sociologist Michael Hechter explains that resistance to imperial rule varies depending on the imperial structure. Adria Lawrence also illustrates how nation-states that emerged out of colonial rule were one of several possible outcomes in Morocco and Algeria, while Frederick Cooper notes how African politicians proposed a multiplicity of political arrangements and orders in late-colonial French West Africa that were different from today’s nation-states. All this research illustrates how empires can greatly differ from one another, both in the type of order they provide, and in the reactions and resistance they inspire in the colonies.
“Empire” is not one constant thing; it’s an idea, acted out by people, in very different ways. And imperial rule doesn’t necessarily deliver stability. The Italians struggled to consolidate rule over Ethiopia, the Ottomans faced resistance in the Balkans, and the British stumbled seriously in attempting to govern Iraq after World War I.
Kaplan and others call for imperialism-lite — without acknowledging that empires aren’t always sunny, stable and successful. Policymakers and scholars alike need accurate historical examinations of imperial rule, and need to stay alert to the ways in which local politics, outside political forces and military intervention affect countries in untold and infinitely complex ways.
Benjamin Denison is a PhD student in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Andrew Lebovich is a PhD student in African history at Columbia University.