By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
8 November 2015
In the West, we have a pretty good idea of what countries are. They are areas of land where nations or peoples live, and roughly correspond to states which cover the world map. And all of the world except Antarctica is covered by some state or another, because humans live permanently everywhere except Antarctica. The world map is thus made of countries and states.
Except that it is not. Neither states nor countries are natural things that simply exist wherever people exist. In fact, having an entire world covered in states and countries is a very recent phenomenon indeed. It has only become the norm with the completion of the West’s colonial designs on the rest of the world by the late 19th Century. Up to that point, the majority of inner Africa was stateless tribal lands. The same was true of the large part of the North American continent and the Amazon. As indeed it was of much of Siberia and Central Asia.
We associate stateless territories with wilderness and backwardness. And this is a very strong instinct going back to the empires of Antiquity. The lands north of the Rhine, beyond the Roman Empire were the stateless lands of the Barbarians. Just like the lands north of the Danube were the lands of the barbarians for the Greeks. Or the lands north of the Oxus river or the Caucasus Mountains for the Persians.
For most of the time for which states have existed, the majority of the world was in fact not covered by states. And that is true for countries as well, even if for different reasons. For most of history, for as long as we have recorded history, most of the planet has not in fact been covered by patches of land which could be said to be properly inhabited in their majority by an overwhelmingly dominant nation or ethnic people. Quite the contrary: except in isolated states which lock their borders as a matter of policy and where such policy has been in effect for long enough that the population has coagulated into a single national identity, most areas of the world are in fact highly mixed and diverse. Most states are not national in character. They are multi-ethnic or imperial. And have been for most of history. The nation-state as a concept has only been invented during WW1, hoped to be a remedy to European countries chronic tendency to go to war with each other, after the Great War had ended.
Divided state-political loyalties
It should not come as a surprise then that certain places we think of as countries at the moment no longer exist. In the media we refer to places like Syria, Iraq and Libya as “failed states”. They are no such thing. They are no states at all. Any more than they are countries. In Iraq there is one, barely functional state: the Shi’a dominated state of Baghdad and Basra regions. Then then there is the feudal military force of ISIS who is attempting to establish a different state in the Sunni north-west. And then there is Kurdish country in the north which has its own proto-state structure in this region, but also in Kurdish dominated areas in Syria, Turkey and Iran. Upon the founding of the Kingdom or Iraq, King Faisal I noted that “there is no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments.” Iraq was never a country. And it is no longer a state either.
The exact same can be said of Syria and Libya. In both cases we at least had states. But these places were never countries. There are no such thing as “the Syrian people”. Even less, the “Libyan people”. Syria is a confessionally split, ethnically diverse mosaic of humanity and has been for its entire recorded history, due to its huge importance as a commercial and theological center. And Libya has always been a deeply tribal society with no notion of national identity. Once the states in charge of these territories have failed to uphold their claim to the monopoly of force in the lands they claimed, there was nothing to keep these places together as “countries”.
Nor should we try to. The people that live in these lands have no one, shared country, and have divided state-political loyalties. What they are fighting for, in all cases, is to prevent a rival people, a rival tribe, a rival religious group, to assert dominion over them through the political and military apparatuses of their respective states. And for as long as they do this they will continue to be in a perpetual civil war, whether this civil war is a hot war, or, as it has tended to be for most of their history since these countries were artificially invented at the end of the colonial era, a cold war. The artificial straight lines in the sand we drew when we “granted independence” to these states serve only to perpetuate these civil wars. We cannot fight to enforce these borders. They must be allowed to change, and new countries made up of people who share some kind of spirit of community with one another must be allowed to emerge.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.