How a mismatch between state boundaries and national identities drives conflicts from Ukraine to Iraq

New York City, Benjamin Miller: There seems to be little connecting recent violence in the former Soviet space to ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East. In one place, a neo-imperialist power is attempting to reassert itself in a region that it ruled not so long ago. In the other, sect-based militant groups are grabbing up territory by the mile.

How a mismatch between state boundaries and national identities drives conflicts from Ukraine to Iraq

How a mismatch between state boundaries and national identities drives conflicts from Ukraine to Iraq

Even so, both conflicts spring from a common source, as do a host of other major conflicts around the world. In each, there is a mismatch between state boundaries and national identities — a state-to-nation imbalance. The state is a set of institutions that administer a certain territory; the nation is made up of people who, in their view, share common traits (language, history, culture, religion) that entitle them to self-rule. In some parts of the world, there is a good fit between states and nations. In others, there is not. In those areas, at least some of the citizens believe that their national aspirations to be free from foreign rule will be best fulfilled by creating a separate state or by joining a neighboring state whose population is a closer match.

Although numerous Ukrainian citizens prefer independence from “foreign” Russian rule, for example, others — notably in Crimea, but also in eastern Ukraine — want to be free from “foreign” Ukrainian rule. In turn, they believe that they must join Russia or create a separate Russia-allied state. In a weak country, such a state-to-nation imbalance can lead to civil unrest, as it did in the early days of Euromaidan in Ukraine. When the imbalance crosses borders, it can lead to regional conflicts, as it did when Russia marched into Crimea.

The same goes for the Middle East, where the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is busy challenging international boundaries. Its efforts are unlikely to produce a formal redrawing of the borders between the region’s nations — the great powers and regional forces would do their best to oppose it. But existing borders will lose any real meaning as chaos grips both sides.

The recent fighting in the Middle East might seem like a sectarian conflict. After all, Sunni-led groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria — all supported by the Sunni states of the Gulf — are facing off against a Shia coalition of the governments of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But many of the people in these states do not think that the Sykes-Picot state system, which was created by Western colonial powers, satisfies legitimate claims to national self-determination. Over the years, there have been numerous challenges to that system, including the push for a “Greater Iraq” and “Greater Syria” since those countries’ independence from European colonial rule; Pan-Arabism, especially in its heyday in the 1950s and the 1960s under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser; and pan-Islamism (the most extreme proponents of which are al Qaeda and ISIS) most recently. Through it all, the Kurds have challenged the boundaries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

The state-to-nation imbalance has been made worse by many Arab states’ failures in nation building. The challenge was enormous from the outset because of the mismatch between boundaries and identities when these states were formed after World War I. But Arab regimes never built the kind of inclusive political systems that could have mitigated the problem. Today, when it comes to issues of war and peace, groups tend to identify more with their ethno-sectarian brethren in other countries than with their fellow countrymen from rival sects. Each of the Levant countries, for example, is deeply divided over the Syrian civil war. Sunnis supply fighters, arms, and money to the Sunni-led insurgency, and Shias do the same for the Alawite-led government.

There are plenty of solutions to the state-to-nation imbalance, but all are problematic. The classic one is a partition along ethno-sectarian lines. That is, two (or more) states for two (or more) nations, roughly based on the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination. But, in many places, populations are mixed and no good demarcating lines exist. In others, particularly in the Arab world, many layers of identity — religious, sectarian, tribal, ethnic, and national — overlap. That makes it extremely difficult to divide the land neatly. And even if there were clear lines between and within groups, existing countries don’t necessarily want to give in to all secessionist claims and are wary of setting a dangerous precedent by allowing it in some cases. In short, any creation of a new clear-cut state system would be an uphill and bloody battle.

Another solution is a binational or multinational state, which involves two (or more) nations sharing power in one state. This solution was tried in Iraq, but the high level of mistrust, petty politics, and the weakness of Iraqi state institutions virtually doomed the system to failure. Indeed, governments based on power-sharing arrangements, such as Cyprus, Lebanon, and Yugoslavia, are prone to civil wars. (Even Belgium has a hard time balancing between the Flemings and Walloons.) Recent power-sharing agreements that have seemed to work — or at least have not led to the renewal of outright war — are those that have been buttressed by a strong international presence, such as in Bosnia. Other effective power-sharing governments are supported by two collaborative “motherlands” that exert moderating pressure on their respective factions. For example, the United Kingdom and Ireland guided the Protestant and Catholic communities toward the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. In the Middle East, though, it is unlikely that the West will send peace builders to back power-sharing governments for the long haul. And the leading states that could exert helpful pressure on Shia and Sunni factions, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are two of the key antagonists.

A third solution is civic nationalism — the creation of a state for all its citizens, like in Western Europe and large parts of the Americas. But those nation-states arose out of very specific historical circumstances. In Western Europe, the process was bloody, and it took centuries before strong states with coherent nations, such as in France, emerged. In the Americas, it involved lots of immigration and the marginalization of indigenous populations. Such a model is unlikely to work (or to be very appealing) in the rest of the world.

A fourth solution — what guaranteed stability in Iraq and Syria for a long time — is authoritarianism. A strongman ruler can suppress competing ethno-national claims and thus create some semblance of balance. The United States ended the apparent stability in Iraq by removing Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 and then dismantling existing Iraqi institutions. That is not to say that Saddam would have lasted much longer on his own, of course. As Syria (and the Arab Spring more broadly) shows, in the age of democratization and human rights, all strongmen eventually lose legitimacy and effectiveness, especially in deeply divided societies.

In other words, there are no good solutions in the portions of the Middle East that are now gripped by violence. Iraq and Syria have no strongmen that are strong enough to hold their countries together. There is not enough time to build civic nationalism. And the West is unlikely to commit enough troops and money to prop up power-sharing arrangements for decades to come. For the foreseeable future, moreover, there are no regional powers that are likely to urge moderation. And so, partition might happen by default. An official redrawing of borders, of course, would be too bloody and costly to countenance. Yet if violence persist, a softer informal partition might be inevitable. At the very least, the relatively stable and prosperous de-facto independent Kurdish region in northern Iraq shows that partition can work.

The result of such a soft partition would be a Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, a Sunni region in the center, and a Shia one in the south. In the long term, this arrangement could either lead to a full-blown split or to a multinational state. The outcome would depend on developments inside the autonomous areas and on the relations among them. In the meantime, the West should accept the evolving reality and support pragmatic and moderate leaders in each area. Those leaders should be responsive to the aspirations of their own ethno-sectarian group and also able to collaborate with the leaders of other autonomous regions. In that best-case scenario, the groups would at least stop fighting each other, regardless of whether the borders between them are de facto or de jure.