Several years ago I heard the story of a freshman chemistry course at an elite American college. The professor informed the class that the electron model that they were about to learn was known to be incorrect. Chemists had not yet ascertained the correct model, so the students would learn the wrong model for now. In any case, teaching the wrong model would not get anyone killed.
It is hard to imagine political-science professors conveying a similar sentiment about certain applications of the nation-state paradigm: “We are about to learn a failed model, one that we know does not work where the requisite social, cultural, and political elements are missing. But we don’t yet have a model that works for those situations.” Perhaps chemistry professors are more candid about what they do and do not know. Yet Western professors and policymakers cling to the nation-state model today, even where it has proved untenable.
In February, the Atlantic Council launched the Task Force on the Future of Iraq at Georgetown University with a panel discussion led by former ambassadors Ryan Crocker and James Jeffrey and Lieutenant General Michael Barbero. The panel defended the borders created by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, imposed following World War I. The Kurdish representative to the U.S., Bayan Abdul Rahman, pointed out that the current borders had been preserved at a terrible cost: “There has been genocide, chemical bombardment, war, bloodshed repeatedly. And we’re seeing it today in Iraq yet again. So I think we should stop thinking like 19th-century men” such as Messrs. Sykes and Picot. The Kurds — the largest group of people on the planet who share a common language, heritage, and culture but have no a country — and millions of others remain hostage to a cynical, artificial Western political construct.
Later in February, retired general Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the NSA, candidly acknowledged what should have been apparent for some time: Sykes-Picot and the concocted states it formed the Middle East have failed. “Iraq no longer exists,” Hayden said. “Syria no longer exists. They aren’t coming back. Lebanon is teetering and Libya is long gone.”
States with boundaries arbitrarily carved out of empires, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Iraq, and Syria, have not proved durable.
The two positions are, of course, mutually exclusive: Either Iraq and Syria are authentic states that merit continued recognition and sustainment or they are contrivances that have come apart, and attempts to hold them together will only lead to protracted violence. The claim against Sykes-Picot and faux nation-states is quite simple: States marked by a diversity of ethnicities, languages, heritages, religions, and cultures but lacking a developed concept of the common good can maintain their unity only through coercion; when that coercion is no longer present, parochial, sectarian interests will prevail and the state will break apart. Put another way: Pluralistic democracy cannot be sustained without a highly evolved public concept of common interest and the common good — or without force.
In the aftermath of World War I, several nation-states were recognized; others were more or less artificially created, carved out of disintegrating empires. Those with a common language, heritage, and culture, such as Poland, have been generally stable. The states with boundaries arbitrarily carved out of empires, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Iraq, and Syria, have not proved durable.
By the early 1990s, Yugoslavia had come apart in all but name. The secular Communist state was sustained, despite its ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, through the brute force of Marshall Tito’s regime. With the Cold War over and Tito gone, Yugoslavia could not hold together; sectarian interests prevailed. Iraq and Syria, states carved out of the Ottoman Empire, passed through various phases of instability but were held together by ruthless Baathist dictatorships. These states could not survive without coerced unity. Iraq and Syria, following the Yugoslav pattern, descended into sectarian violence. Of the states created after World War I, only Czechoslovakia had the good fortune to dissolve along natural ethnic and cultural boundaries without bloodshed.
Ten years ago, then-senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb proposed a plan for a federated, decentralized Iraq. The Biden-Gelb model borrowed heavily from the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. We are left to wonder how many lives might have been saved, and whether ISIS would exist at all, had leaders listened. Sunni tribal leaders, however primitive their capacity to rule, no doubt would have preferred self-government to a Tehran-dominated regime in Baghdad. It is difficult to conceive of ISIS’s rise in a Sunni zone drawn out of the present Iraq: Indeed, Sunni tribal leaders had already substantially reduced al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, during the 2007 surge. The Shia zone would still have been dominated by Iran, but its diminished geography would necessarily have meant diminished significance, and would have obviated much of the anti-Shia animus that fueled ISIS. And the Kurds could have devoted their energy to economic development rather than battling the Islamic State.
Anglo-American democratic governance is, of course, much more than elections.
Western policymakers failed first by imposing Sykes-Picot on the Middle East. They failed next by not correcting that error, as they could have done by following something like the Biden-Gelb proposal. This failure was accentuated by the naïve belief (especially in America) that democracy would be a panacea for the region. Some American leaders and policymakers believed that persistent sectarian strife could be reduced simply through the introduction of elections. But Anglo-American democratic governance is, of course, much more than elections. Even in more authentic Mideast nation-states, such as Egypt, democracy has proved fragile — especially democracy of the narrow, procedural variety. Even the more robust pluralistic democracies of Western Europe suddenly appear tenuous with the recent resurgence of ethno-nationalist movements.
A common heritage and culture are necessary to the viability of a nation, but for a democratic state to survive, there must be a strong sense of the common good. American naïveté, while costly, is understandable: It is the projection of American exceptionalism onto the Middle East.
In pluralistic democratic societies such as America, the sociocultural and political order is maintained through the notion of the common good. Americans rarely use the term “common good,” but the concept informs nearly every debate in the public square, even amid the recent culture wars. Like social-contract theory, it is rarely mentioned explicitly but is a powerful organizing concept. However, it is highly unusual for nations with diversity of ethnicity, heritage, and culture to transcend those markers of identity and embrace the common good.
In the Middle East, the promise of democracy has failed to forge a sufficient sense of commonality in given populations or to overcome the more visceral division of sectarian and tribal affiliation. So the faux nation-states of Iraq and Syria have gone the way of Yugoslavia, descending into horrific sectarian violence. In the former Yugoslavia, borders have been redrawn along ethno-religious lines; cohesive, largely sovereign proto-nations have emerged; most important, conflict has subsided. The epicenter of that conflict, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has staved off violence for two decades through a decentralized, federated model — precisely the model called for by the Biden-Gelb proposal. This was possible only when the international community reached consensus on what should have long been obvious: that the state created no longer existed.
If a prominent public figure were to call for the restoration of Yugoslavia today, it would be an act of professional suicide. Yet to claim that Iraq and Syria must be sustained — for the sake of the “cartography of governance” or some such — is regarded as somehow palatable, even though Iraq and Syria, like Yugoslavia, have witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths from violence: testament to the exacting cost of a failed model. If America is to achieve a meaningful foreign policy in the Middle East, its experts must learn to acknowledge, like the humble chemistry professor, when the model they are trying to apply is wrong.