Borders they are a-changin’

1 Jul

It’s the season to redraw maps. Russia has annexed the Crimea, and Scotland will vote about independence in September (two VERY different approaches). The eastern part of Ukraine is getting blurry, while Catalonia may try to hold a referendum on independence soon. The borders of the Middle East are also changing, at least in terms of actual control: the maps of Syria, Iraq and Libya each look like a modern painting with different colors splashed on them. Meanwhile, nationalist tensions are mounting in the South China Sea. In short, sovereignty seems to matter more than just a few years ago.

cartoonSpot the differences. Source: Chapatte

Why? During good times, many people (and countries and regions) are continuously getting better off, so the distribution of wealth matters less. But in a slow-growth, less optimistic era, the world is more of a zero-sum game: the potential gain from cooperation and trade is relatively smaller compared to the potential gain from going it alone or from conquest – or at least that is what many people think. And the distribution of income matters more when it is stagnating or even declining, and the expectation is for this to continue. This is true both within and among countries: distributional conflicts are on the rise. At the same time, the potential punishment for breaking the (international) rules is less if a) everyone else is doing it, and b) everyone (including the former global policeman, the United States) is preoccupied with domestic issues and doesn’t want to shoulder the cost of upholding the international status quo.

Border changes are nothing new on a longer time scale, and we had quiet periods before…

Watch as 1000 years of European borders change (timelapse map) from Nick Mironenko on Vimeo.

Some places can deal with with separatism

Countries with different institutions deal with similar centripetal forces very differently. England and Scotland are very relaxed about their potential divorce; violence and intimidation are rare, although the latter does exist to some extent. In Catalonia, the sailing is less smooth, but civil war looks a remote prospect. In both cases, potential new countries expect to be members of the EU, therefore part of their sovereignty would remain pooled anyway.

The Velvet Divorce of Slovakia and the Czech Republic went smoothly back in 1993, and had the Quebecois voted yes to their independence, the rest of Canada would not have resisted. Sometimes there is no formal separation, but regional autonomy reaches such a high level that an “umbrella” country remains, but is just an empty shell. Does Belgium still exist, beyond their UN seat and sovereign bond markets (and football team)?

How a polity can deal with separatist movements is also a sign of maturity. Rich democratic countries tend to handle secessionist aspirations relatively well. And such countries themselves get along well with one another: prosperous democracies very rarely (if at all) go to war with each other – though this of course depends on the exact definition of democracy and war.

…and some can’t

Violent armed conflict is more likely both among and within poorer/more autocratic countries at all times. Practically all of the past examples of separation involving such countries descended into (civil) war: think of the break-up of India right after its independence, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Sudan, etc. No wonder that there seems to be a bias among politicians in favor of the status quo, at least as far as other countries and not their own are concerned. Establishment politicians like to say that “maybe we would draw the borders differently now, but changing them seems too costly and would set a dangerous precedent, so let’s try to leave them as they are”.

But the status quo has slowly been eroding anyway in many parts of the world, and this process has accelerated recently. Russia sensed an opportunity in Ukraine, and it seems that it can get away with seizing the Crimea, at least in the short run (though this may result in a conflict later).

The Middle East: ripe for change

It comes as no surprise that the Middle East is especially ripe for change. Not only many countries in it are plagued by persistent historic ethnic and religious divisions, but it also has abundant oil and gas resources to fight over (and which in turn could finance war). Many countries in the region have a large number of idle young males without much real opportunity. Furthermore, the borders of Middle Eastern countries were drawn around the time of WW1 without much concern for identity. Rulers often represent only a narrow part of society and (used to) rely on heavy oppression to maintain their power. The economy often provides no escape route of the talented because it is shackled by state regulation and is all about the distribution of government largesse and perks, often benefiting a narrow elite.

Here, the status quo is already changing due to the domino effect of the Arab Spring as well as the departure of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. In a wider context, all this can actually be interpreted as the ongoing fight over carving up the Ottoman Empire…

Five countries to split into 14?

It is likely that a new status quo will eventually emerge in the Middle East. The speculation began already prior to the current turmoil. This map below was originally produced in 2006, and contemplated possible radical changes in the region’s borders.

pic1The template for a new Middle East? Source: Global Research

More recently, an op-ed in the New York Times speculated about “how 5 countries could become 14”. The ISIS’s territorial ambitions overlap with the “Sunnistan” part of the map quite closely.

picHow 5 countries could become 14. Source: New York Times

Of course, not all of these changes are realistic or likely. But in many cases, these countries have huge internal tensions that need to be resolved somehow – either by separation or the “sizzling out” of the conflict after a long fight (as it happened in Lebanon, for example). This latter may only be a temporary solution, since a new generation that has not experienced the horrors of war may start conflicts again. There is also a (remote) chance that the conflicts could be resolved by these countries eventually turning into Canadas or Switzerlands, democratic, inclusive states that resolve conflicts through peaceful debate, parliamentary representation and voting.

The transition towards an inclusive state is rarely smooth. In the “middle part” overt conflict is likely: there is no strong authoritarian state/empire to successfully suppress conflict, yet the country is far away from being a well-functioning, representative polity. It is during this middle part when violent fracturing is most likely, but the resulting fragments then may have a better chance to achieve internal consensus and eventual democratization/building up an inclusive state. But before that happens they may fight nationalistic wars against their neighbors. But then again the threat of war may usher in liberal economic reforms.

Note that in both maps, Saudi Arabia is not immune to change. And that is probably a reasonable assumption: oil wealth and a lack of democracy can conceal a lot of hidden tension among regions and cultures. A potential breakup of Saudi Arabia would be hugely significant for oil markets. The ruling class is Sunni, while oil is mainly in the Shia areas in the east – this does not bode well for peaceful separation. It is easy to imagine the mother of all oil supply disruptions if tensions surface.

Wait and see and something better may emerge in the long run

In general, the emergence of a new order in the Middle East (and elsewhere) may take a long time, and may cost a lot of lives. And it is not easy for outsiders to help. Coming up with practical international rules on how to change borders and deal with secessionism would be useful, but does not mean much without enforcement.

Changing the pay-off for local leaders and elites would help a bit: kick Putin out of the G8, for sure. International Criminal Court, yes. Strike free trade agreements; promote educational exchange and even immigration (this would also help alleviate the surplus of young people). But all this has its limits…


Ibn Khaldoun told you so. Source: Economist

It took a long time for most of the currently existing prosperous, peaceful democracies to develop. From now on, it may not take centuries, but certainly at least decades for new countries to reach a similar state. So don’t expect it to happen overnight. But do not exclude it entirely either. It is easy to be a pessimist if you look at the next few years in the Middle East and elsewhere. But maybe this is the darkest hour, and the preconditions of future cooperation and integration are just emerging…


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