Do Countries Even Matter?

by Daniel Russ on January 22, 2012

World Map


Are Countries Passé?


In 1945 at the end of WWII, there were approximately 71 sovereign nations. Today there are 205 nations.


Recently Scottish news agencies announced a movement afoot that would bring independence to Scotland from its august ties to the United Kingdom’s monarchy. Robert the Bruce and his ancestors might call this a legacy long due for a sort of political denouement. Or he might all it the Third War of Scottish Succession. Currently around the world, national legacies are being thrown out the window as soon as they can be blogged about. Think about all the trends that prognosticators have been posting in year-in-review columns every December. What will the near future bring and what will it toss out? Well, I think its safe to say that MySpace is about to go the way of Friendster. Black and white TV with rabbit ear antennae is going to be as relevant as typewriters. You know what else is looking less and less relevant in the new world order? Well, for one thing, the nation-state. The unfettered proliferation of constitutions and armies and national assemblies has kept cartographers well occupied.  It has kept arms traders in filthy lucre. And it doesn’t seem to be abating either.


So what happened here to cause not a convention of mankind but an increasing diaspora of the states from national alliances? In the 60 years since the end of the largest world war, countries have splintered, bifurcated, multiplied, mutinied and declared independence. In the last year alone, we have seen Sudan split into two nation states. Southern Sudan is just the latest in a trend that seems to plough on undeterred by treaties, international laws, international courts, globalism and the constant tension between super powers. Had the Tamil separatists defeated Sri Lanka’s army, there would be another new country in the former British protectorate Ceylon.


Why are so many new countries emerging from the new world order?


There are I think four reasons.


One: The Arms Market And Proxy Wars. These are not two different reasons shoehorned into one. They represent a chicken and egg debate over which one is to blame. It’s a lot easier to overthrow a regime when a group with a political or religious or social agenda and any finances at all can find robust and overly enthusiastic groups that will sell AK 47s, RPGs, surface to air missiles and all the ammunition you can carry. Of course toppling a regime has been typically done by proxy when two super powers arm indigenous groups or states aligned with them. Vietnam would never have had a civil war quite so bloody if China and Russian didn’t arm North Vietnam and the US and France armed South Vietnam. It helped that both sides had well funded public relations campaigns maligning each other’s political formats. The Vietnamese revolution was an attempt to stop an endless series of invaders from interloping in their borders beginning with the 18th century annexation of most of Southeast Asia into French Indochina, and continuing with invasions from their own Asian neighbors.


We didn’t see it that way. We saw it as a titanic struggle between Communism and Democracy. The United States toppled pro Socialist and pro Communist regimes all through South America simply because the bête noire of the US leadership was Communism in our own backyard. Consequently, we overthrew Nicaraguan Marxists Daniel Ortega for example and instead installed a pro US government, the Contras, which was right wing, murderous, and utterly corrupt. Ortega was legitimately voted into power and the US illegitimately put him out of power. One of the Socialist boogey men we couldn’t overthrow was Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and today we see the government on the receiving end of the most viperous ‘reporting’ on cable news channels. I am no fan of Chavez, but the media manufactures consent about his evil because he sits as a defiant symbol of ascendant South American Socialism in this hemisphere. A few decades ago, we almost had a nuclear war with Russia over nuclear missiles in Cuba. The US could not cotton to notion that a country on the other end of the political spectrum would even exist close to our own borders with atomic power. This list could go on. But countries are destroyed and created by the dialectic of competing forms of government.


This was not much different in antiquity as the Roman Empire destroyed rivals for little reason other than they stood in the way of trade agreements. Carthage was destroyed for this reason, and Byzantium was created out of the ashes of Roman imperialism. The Middle Ages in Europe saw countries pop in and out of existence in a complicated jigsaw over endless wars. Borders have always been pawns in the international Chess game of Empire.



The United Nations


After Communism lost its intimidating and fearsome appeal in the United States, a convenient new oppugner was found: Fundamentalist Islam. Now we can realign the borders of the world with a new set of foes to kill and maybe we can dust off some old shibboleths to protect. Most recently, Obama promised $10 billion in aid to Israel, and then consequently sold $60 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the biggest arms sale in the history of the world. Everyone should worry. When school children fight in the playground, do we give them knives and brass knuckles? Not to compare sovereign nations to children, but to make the point that we are giving matches to countries that swim in the oil of ancient hatreds. The Saudis should worry because the US and Israeli paranoia over nuclear weapons might prompt warfare at any time. Their own borders were created at the opening of the twentieth century. The tumult in the region now could easily spark a conflict between this traditional Sunni kingdom and it nearest Shia rival Iran.


One of the unfortunate facts of the history of the Mideast is that these countries were in effect created by western powers around World War I, many of them divided by rival empires seeking advantage in access to oil and fresh water ports. Israel came later but it, too, was drafted on a map by people outside of the region. The rub still exists and the tensions created by these relatively new borders have flared into war at least four times. Once the Algerians tired of the rule of the French empire, they overthrew them. Once they tired of rule by domestically created dictators, they overthrew them as well. The borders of Algeria have remained stable, but stability is an illusion in international politics.


Two: The United Nations. Prior to the UN there was the League of Nations. It was rather weak tea compared to the UN. The UN in America is a shibboleth for internationalists and progressives. For Conservatives, any form of world government is a threat to our sovereignty, the veriest of stupidity. However, the United Nations is a great help when trying to declare independence. When a dozen nations recognize your legitimacy and start opening embassies and trade relations and airports, and once cartographers start reshaping map borders, it’s hard to dismiss or reverse.


The UN is the red headed stepchild of global organizations in America’s mostly conservative quasi news cable channels. Yet when the US intervenes in international conflicts, about half are effective in the long term to end violence. When the UN is involved in peacekeeping operations two thirds of the time it is successful. The general reduction in warfare around the world since the end of the Cold War is arguably largely the result of intervention, programs economic stimulus arrangements launched from the United Nations.


The UN has probably helped more people around the world than perhaps almost any international organization. Wasteful, inefficient, bureaucratic, coddles dictators, unwilling to do what’s necessary to stop unneeded violence, all aspersions cast upon the UN they also describe the United States. That said, when the UN recognizes your borders, it opens doors that otherwise would never unlock.


Three: Irrelevance. Countries must not be supplying the physical, social, ethnic, or religious needs of groups otherwise in close proximity. If countries satisfied large groups of people who shared values, or ethnically or religiously similar groups with what they need to live peaceably, then there would intuitively be fewer conflicts. People act like characters in the brilliant 18th century satire Gulliver’s Travels. Lemuel Gulliver has a nation of Lilliputians war over which side of an egg you crack before you cook it. He perhaps didn’t even know the difference between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, but he certainly was familiar with the incredible bloody history of European warfare that was primarily all wars of the clergy. Catholics and Protestants spilled more blood in the Thirty Years War than almost any European conflict before them, and all of it was over doctrine. The ten Crusades were ostensibly wars born of doctrine and scripture. The irony of course is that if either side had actually read their own scripture, they would have seen these incursions as sin.


Look at Yugoslavia. Under the dark shadow of the Iron Curtain Tito banded them together and kept them fairly well off. When Stalin gave the distinct impression that the Eastern bloc countries would be close Soviet allies, Tito did not contradict him directly. He did deliver a few gasconades about the future of Yugoslavia’s independence and created the Non-Aligned Movement, which was a thorn in Stalin’s side and a source of pride for the Balkan states that had been cobbled together into Yugoslavia and robbed of their own ethnicity and history. However there was a tacit enemy aligned against Slavic rule: Moscow. Moscow did send assassins to kill Tito but the Yugoslav authorities intercepted them all.


Tito responded: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle…if you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”


Like all people under the rule of a sovereign leader, the various members of the Balkan states wanted to live under their own governance, speak their own language and attend their own churches. To ensure the independence of Yugoslavia was more than a few hollow blandishments, Tito even created his own combat aircraft industry and rather than fly solely Soviet MIGs, Yugoslavian Air Force pilots flew Galebs and Oraos. Once he died the country of Yugoslavia unraveled and in fact, it’s still unraveling. Yugoslavia has given the world Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina.


The fall of the Soviet Union produced another dozen countries. What does this portend for future countries that are “aligned”? The United States itself split once already over the issue of slavery. A charismatic president and a smart cabinet kept the country together after the Civil War. However, it is not inconceivable that the United States could erupt in Civil War again and one day becomes not one country but several. Not only is it not inconceivable, it’s very likely to happen to us too.


Today the real enemy is not defined by borders, but by ideology. The stateless terrorist is the enemy; a person who lives nowhere in particular but operates in a matrix of clandestine and pernicious organizations opposed to capitalism, democracy, the war on drugs, authoritarian powers, or anything you name that has power and resources. For them, Twitter feeds and email matter more than borders.


Four. Democracy is hard. People want power over their own domains. We all preach Democracy in America like it was a pansophy; like oxygen, needed for life and freedom. Few here consider that this might not be true for everyone. Who after all would rather live under a dictator? Well for one, people who agree with the dictator. Intransigent dictators can be framed in malevolent tones that exaggerate their faults and ignore their successes. Unfortunately for anyone on any side of the political spectrum, one man’s tyrant is another man’s savior. Assad’s brutal crackdown of the opposition would have one believe that gunning unarmed people in the streets is universally condemned. Yet tens of thousands of Syrians still back Assad, oppose the Arab spring and much prefers the status quo than revolution.


“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


The United States has wholeheartedly rejected this sentiment in recent years. Fences are going up across the border with Mexico because the poor and tired and huddled masses are more than we can sustain as long as we are spending all our money on tanks and planes and weapon systems. That said this country has also rejected habeas corpus and presumption of innocence. It’s important to realize that even core beliefs are subject to change, core beliefs like freedom and opportunity go by the wayside when it means you have to live and let live.


The question is where is this all leading? Will we see 300 much smaller countries in the future? Will those countries band together in new confederations to find power and mutual support? Will countries become a remnant, a symbol of older times going the way of Monarchs? Perhaps digital technology will allow for new configurations to appear that will make lines on a map essentially just a convenient form of reference. Perhaps GPS will define political boundaries. It’s a fascinating debate.



Iraqi Insurgents armed with RPGs

Insurgents in Mosul



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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 11, 2017 at 4:50 am

Also it might be a reaction to too much universalism. I see it in Europe. We had countries, and we now have something like a Super Europe (the EU). But now that we have that over-government, we feel (justly of not) that we do not need several of the ones between the county\city and Brussels. In a way Brussels has made the country (be it France (Bretagne), Britain (Scotland) Germany (Bavaria), Italy (Lombardy (the Po-river region)), Spain (Catalonia), Sweden (Scania), The Netherlands (Frisia) or any other one) redundant. So all those regions feel like they can be better off without the extra burden of the old Country capitol. In a way this has happend in Europe at least three times before, but never (more or less) peacefull. I am very curious how this will turn out.

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