The idea of the nation state is fatally flawed

Nearly everywhere, states are breaking up as their ethnic groups pull away from the centre
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The Independent Online

One of the most over-used and least useful concepts for understanding the modern world is that of "failed states". The former development secretary, Clare Short, was using it earlier this week, talking about the terrible massacre of Tutsi refugees in Burundi over the weekend. Indeed, she actually declared that Africa could become a "failed continent" (tell that to the South Africans and the Moroccans).

One of the most over-used and least useful concepts for understanding the modern world is that of "failed states". The former development secretary, Clare Short, was using it earlier this week, talking about the terrible massacre of Tutsi refugees in Burundi over the weekend. Indeed, she actually declared that Africa could become a "failed continent" (tell that to the South Africans and the Moroccans).

The US State Department has equally declared Nepal, in the throes of a violent Maoist insurgency, as "descending to the status of a failed state". And you can't listen to speeches of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, or his policy advisers without them being peppered with references to it.

It's not that the diagnosis is altogether wrong. You only have to witness what is going on in Darfur, or the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi, to see the truth of that. Half of Africa is in civil collapse brought about by wars and rebellions that are both tribal and political in nature. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have suffered the most fearful bloodshed along religious lines. For quite different reasons - money and drugs - Colombia and Afghanistan are countries where the writ of government barely extends beyond the capital.

What's wrong with the concept of "failed states", however, are the assumptions behind it. Implicit in the phrase, and the kind of philosophy of intervention being developed in the Foreign Office and US State Department along with it, is a judgement on governments deemed to have failed to make the grade. A successful state is assumed to be a stable, democratic, free-market country like, well Britain and the United States. An unsuccessful state is believed to be one in which the government has brought failure on itself by dictatorial politics and outdated economics.

True, no doubt, in many cases. But the deeper truth is that most of these states are failing because they were western constructs in the first place, especially in Africa, held stable by occupation. And if they weren't, as in the case of the Middle East and central Asia, they were held firm by the Russian and Ottoman Empires. When these collapsed, the Cold War served to freeze political structures as they were at the end of the Second World War. The empires went, but Washington and Moscow acted across the world to support their favoured regimes for fear that they would fall into the other's hands. The aim, and the effect, became to preserve the status quo, to keep in power people such as Saddam Hussein as long as they kept local conflicts from developing into international confrontations.

When the Cold War ended, it revealed a world in which all the ethnic and religious divisions around the world re-emerged as if they had never gone away. Only the regimes and superpower intervention which had kept a lid on them were no longer there, or at least not so powerful.

The result is something far more pervasive and far more deep-rooted than the concept of "failed states" would have it. Almost everywhere states are breaking up as their constituent peoples pull away violently from the centre and the mechanisms of central power - the police and armed services - are used to try and stop them by force.

What is the National Assembly in Iraq and the bloody fight in Najaf other than an attempt to try and hold together a country whose parts - Kurds, Shia and Sunni - want autonomy if not complete separation? What else indeed is behind the violence in Darfur and the Congo?

To describe this as a state failure when the very concept of statehood is being challenged is just whistling in the wind. All Britain and Washington's new policies of intervention would do is to propel countries straight back to a past when the West supported governments that could guarantee stability rather than governments that had legitimacy - which is one of the worries about the US backing of the ex-Baathist strongman, Iyad Allawi, as prime minister of Iraq.

What the international community has to do is not to act as global policeman but to find ways of accommodating the ethnic pulls in the world without bring political chaos and economic disaster upon the peoples. The trouble with the nation state is that it can only seem to achieve this after a prolonged period of suppressing minorities (look at the English with the Scots, Welsh and Irish).

The problem with globalisation and imposed democracy is that they tend to promote the tyranny of majorities rather than the opposite. The best hope probably lies in the development of regional groupings such as the African Union or the new Asian associations, backed by a strengthened United Nations, which can bring to bear international force.

It's not perfect. All associations are the sum of their parts and very often constrained by them. But the much-despised European Union offers at least some practical experience. The EU hasn't eliminated Eta or solved the divisions in Cyprus, but it has allowed all sorts of internal ethnic ambitions to flourish, which would otherwise have been suppressed by the nation state, and it has protected all sorts of minorities, including the Russians in the Baltic States, and, if it should be allowed to join, the Kurds in Turkey.

It's not fashionable to say so, but an awful lot of the world looks to Europe as an example, if only we'd do something to give it to them.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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