The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has exhausted itself over the past few weeks promoting “The System Worked.” This has involved giving a series of book talks and conference presentations that, in retrospect, kind of merge into one massive Bigthink Conference on Big Trend in World Politics. But one of the few advantages of non-stop conferencing is that one can fuse the best bits of it into a provocative blog post.
See, the last leg of this System-Worked-A-Palooza was a conference sponsored by The American Prospect, The American Conservative and and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University on new approaches to international security. It was a confab that even Steve Walt might have approved of in its intellectual diversity.
You can catch the CSPAN3 video of my panel — with Dan Larison, Matt Duss, and William Lind. Lind was the most provocative of us, asserting that we were entering the “4th generation” of armed conflict due to the collapse of the Westphalian nation-state across the world. Now at around the 1:05:00 mark, I take a pretty hard swipe at Lind’s contention that the Westphalian nation-state as we know it is crumbling into oblivion.
On reflection, however, maybe there’s something to Lind’s comments. They reminded me of something that a Great International Relations Scholar Who Shall Go Unnamed Because of Chatham House Rules said at an earlier conference: that part of the problem with world politics today is that the international system has no functioning peaceful mechanism for changing international borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea flouted numerous international norms and laws, but there were demographic reasons to believe that a proper referendum might have still led to a majority of voters supporting becoming part of Russia. There have long been
Kurdish decent arguments to be made for breaking Iraq up into multiple entities. Indeed, Iraqi Kurdistan is simply one of a number of coherent statelets in areas of anarchy — think Transnistria, Puntland or Somaliland — that the international system does not recognize as an actual sovereign entity.
In most parts of the world, the one way to create a new state is to fight a decades-long war that eventually creates new facts on the ground or exhausts all participants into recognizing the new status quo. This creates lousy incentives for most groups who want greater autonomy — take up arms or let resentment fester. Now, to be fair, there are excellent reasons for this incentive system — one doesn’t want to make secession or border-shifting too easy.
The ironic thing is that the one region of the globe that appears to have hit upon a peaceful formula for dealing with this problem is also the region responsible for most of the world’s ill-fitting borders in the first place — Europe. One the one hand, the past two decades have seen violence in former Yugoslavia and Ukraine in an effort to re-draw borders. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia broke up without a shot being fired, Montenegro became independent via a peaceful referendum, and as I type this, the campaign for Scottish independence in the run-up to a September referendum is kicking into high gear. Despite the relative decline of Europe as a model for political integration and economic growth, it’s still in the vanguard for how to peacefully manage an independence movement.
In the wake of Middle East turmoil, there’s been a lot of talk about the folly of forced democratization, which I agree with most of the time. But there is an irony that an underlying tension to much of the turmoil in that region is due to ill-fitting borders, and that the best way to change those borders without loss of life and limb is… a greater respect for the rule of law and democratic process.