As the world awaits the results from a week-long vote in South Sudan on independence from the north, some are already predicting the proliferation of new sovereign nations over the next few decades.
Parag Khanna, research fellow at the New America Foundation, argues boldly in Foreign Policy magazine that with this wave of self determination, we could easily have 300 states in the world within a few decades, including possibly Palestine, Kurdistan, South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur. And since these breakups are often the result of colonial inheritance, Mr. Khanna believes the West should facilitate the emergence and development of new states as a way to make amends.
I share Mr. Khanna’s frustration that many of the countries around the world are artificial and some have arbitrarily drawn boundaries. But surely he can’t be serious.
Firstly, it isn’t clear why exactly Mr. Khanna believes that we are suddenly entering a period of mass state birth, He mentions uncontrollable population growth, corrupt leadership, crumbling infrastructure and institutions, and ethnic and sectarian populations. But, as he concedes himself, these factors have existed for decades and yet the pace at which new countries have been produced has been slow (only two in the last two decades, East Timor in 1999 and Kosovo in 2008). Why will the next few decades be any different?
The fact is that most of the rare cases where new nations were founded occurred when elements of the international community agreed that violence was so endemic or intolerable that they had to be created, whether it be the genocide conducted against Bangladesh by the Pakistani army in 1971, or the brutal occupation of East Timor by Indonesia that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths from 1974-1999.
Other than these exceptions, the creation of new nations has otherwise been stymied by three main factors: the coercive power of the traditional nation state, the knotty problems experienced or foreseen in creating new ones, and the interests of outside powers. In the case of Palestine, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are at present unwilling to take on the naysayers within their own constituencies in order for a deal to be made, and there are already whispers of a one-state solution. An independent Kurdistan remains a pipe dream because the surrounding states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – are unwilling to accept it and hence the new country, if conceived, would face a tough time surviving economically and politically in such a hostile neighborhood.
In other cases where Mr. Khanna claims borders may need redrawing, such as Pakistan and Yemen, the military, outside actors such as the United States, or both, will likely ensure that sporadic descents into the abyss will not proceed to such an extent that they will necessitate such a dramatic change.
Secondly, even if these obstacles Mr. Khanna understates were to be hypothetically removed, I’m not sure the birth of these new nations is necessarily a good thing in a practical (not moral) sense. Recent examples reveal that once independence is achieved, several tensions that were suppressed before in the name of fighting a common enemy are often released, and these new states face profound problems sustaining themselves due to fragile or non-existent political institutions and the lack of experience with administration.
Consider the last two examples of new states for instance: Kosovo and East Timor. In East Timor, despite the presence of the third largest UN policing mission in the world costing 200 million dollars a year, the country remains desperately poor with chronic levels of unemployment. That is to be expected, one might say, after the country was ravaged by factional violence condoned by Indonesia. But the government in power does not even want to listen to the UN policing mission deployed there and has failed to reform and rebuild its national police service and prosecute war criminals.
Kosovo has fared no better. Its almost three years of independence has seen a fraudulent election, a leadership now accused of having engaged in organ and people trafficking, and a lack of prosecution of war crimes. The country is ridden with high unemployment, rampant smuggling and simmering ethnic tensions, and its moribund economy is still highly dependent on foreign capital. This is despite the billions of euros pumped into the country for years.
Again, I’m not arguing that these nations should not have been created. I’m just saying that we ought to base our opinions about state creation not just on moral arguments about self determination, but practical ones rooted in the history of how this has worked and played out in the past. The record suggests that new states occur much less frequently than Mr. Khanna hypothesizes, and that the implications of their creation are much more mixed than he portrays.
Mr. Khanna, who first made his mark internationally through his extensive travels across the globe, may relish the fact that there may be more countries around in the future for him to traverse. But while this dreamy scenario may satisfy his wanderlust, it is unlikely to occur. And, even if it does, it may not necessarily be the best outcome for the world’s policymakers, or for these countries themselves.