This week marks the 100th anniversary of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which France and Britain divided up the territories of the Middle East. Observers agree that the agreement has had negative consequences. Vice President Biden argues that the Middle East’s current problems stem from “artificial lines, creating artificial states, made up from totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups.” Commentators in the Middle East depict Sykes-Picot as an example of the West’s treachery and imperialism, since its preferences, rather than those of the region’s people, determined the area’s borders. The Islamic State, for example, has declared that putting “the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy” is one of its main goals. The group also known as ISIS blew up border posts between Iraq and Syria in 2014 as a step toward achieving it.
This discussion assumes that there was something unusual or unique about the decision of powerful states to carve up the Middle East while paying little attention to what locals actually wanted. It presupposes that states in other parts of the world, particularly in the West, were formed by the preferences of the people rather than the powerful. This assumption is wrong.
Sykes-Picot represents a particularly egregious example of how borders can be remade by force. However, the West’s own history makes clear that changing borders by force was the norm for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the borders of European states had little to do with the wishes of the people or their ethnic, religious or cultural identities. Instead, states and borders were determined by the preferences of the powerful. This only began to change during the second half of the 20th century.
In 1500, Europe was filled with hundreds of political entities, which looked nothing like modern states, let alone nation states. Rulers had authority over territories that were geographically dispersed and had little in common with one another. The peoples they ruled over often spoke different languages, had different customs and traditions, embraced different religions, and used different legal systems and currencies. Most Europeans’ identities at this time were regional, local or religious rather than national. The geographical, ethnic and linguistic unity that we associate with modern states did not exist.
Instead, the borders of the existing political entities were determined by the machinations and inclinations of rulers. Sometimes borders would change through marriages between ruling families. More often, however, borders changed thanks to war and conquest. This changed the map of Europe dramatically over time. From the 16th to the 18th century, some European rules began to centralize power and build the foundations of modern states (taxation systems, modern bureaucracies and the like). These rulers made it into high school history books – Louis XIII, Frederick of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria and others.
Other rulers, who were not as successful, aren’t in the history books, because their states were eliminated or dismembered. The ambitions and conquests of Europe’s powerful early modern rulers made the period a particularly conflict-filled and bloody one, but by its end, the continent looked very different than it had before. Of the hundreds of political entities that existed in 1500, only a couple of dozen or so remained by 1900.
Even after the French Revolution ignited nationalism, the mobilizations of peoples, borders and states continued to be shaped by the powerful rather than the people. After Napoleon’s defeat, for example, the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe to conform to the wishes of old regime monarchs rather than the populations involved. As the conservative writer Joseph de Maistre said, “Never before have nations been treated with such contempt, or kicked about in so infuriating a fashion.”
In 1848, when peoples rose up, demanding self-determination and a redrawing of borders to better correspond to their national sentiments, their aspirations were crushed by the leaders of imperial Austria, Russia and other states. Great powers continued to carve up nation states in Europe even when Europe’s great continental empires—the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman—collapsed after the First World War. Like Sykes-Picot in the Middle East, the European Allies sat down to redraw Europe’s borders after 1918, following their own preferences, rather than those of the people involved.
For example, a desire to punish Germany and Austria-Hungary led them to force Germany to give up 25,000 square miles of territory containing over 7 million people. Austria was made into a rump state that encompassed little more than Vienna and its hinterlands, leaving many of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s German speakers “marooned” inside the borders of other countries. Austria was not allowed by the Allies to join Germany, despite its clear desire to do so. Hungary, the other main successor state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lost two-thirds of its territory and three-fifths of its population. As was true when Europe’s overseas empires collapsed, many of the new European states that emerged out of the wreckage of Europe’s continental empires, including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, contained within their borders a variety of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups who had little interest in living together.
For most of modern history, state and border formation has been driven primarily by the preferences of the powerful rather than ordinary people living in the region. Sykes-Picot is one catastrophic example of this pattern. However, there are other examples too. It was only after the horrific violence of the Second World War and the shrinking of Europe’s power that norms changed. Now, it is no longer considered legitimate to use force to reshape borders or restructure states. Ironically, it is the West today, with the backing of powerful international organizations like the United Nations, that firmly opposes a return to the system of changing state borders by force.
There are plausible reasons for this: Today as in the past, reconfiguring the borders of existing states or shifting the populations inside of them will cause immense violence and bloodshed. Yet even if state-building was violent and bloody in the past, it did create states, however nasty and brutish, that could control their territories and peoples. We know very little today about other ways in which states might be constructed, nor is the West interested in devoting large amount of resources to helping such a process along in any case. Scholars such as Robert Jackson, Carl Rosberg and Jeffrey Herbst have argued that the tragic irony of the current situation facing the Middle East as well as other parts of the developing world is that even if current norms against the forcible reshaping of borders and restructuring of states seem humanitarian in aim, they may come with a very high price.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College.