Wednesday, May 18, 2016

There Were No Good Borders to Draw

This guy has a point:

Today, May 16, is the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, and inanities and assorted stupidities about it are pouring out of the media woodwork faster than I can keep up with them. Let me get right to the point: Sykes-Picot did not—repeat, did not—establish the borders of the modern Middle East. That ought to make it hard to blame Sykes-Picot for anything, since it never came into effect. And what is falling apart today is not the Sykes-Picot interstate system but increasingly the units themelves; the bloody interstate clatter we see is not the source of the core problem in the region but a symptom of it. This is a lot to get wrong, and certainly it is foul fare to pass around to the uneducated like so many weird-tasting cocktail hour hors-d’oeuvres.

Long-dead white males are not that powerful, eh? Do read it all.

"Sykes-Picot" was always shorthand for outside divisions of the region, as far as I'm concerned, rather than a specific document that drew today's borders. See the last two links in that post to check out how the Ottoman Empire and France first drew borders for Syria.

And really, given the complexity of human relations that don't stop at lines, any borders drawn by anybody would cause problems with pesky complicated--dare I say nuanced--people failing to divide up neatly by those borders:

The Middle East in 1919, no less than in 1519, was a very heterogeneous mosaic of ethnicities and sectarian affiliation, the Levant more so than most of the rest of the region. Any borders drawn there would have been “artificial” if by the opposite of artificial one means either understood and legitimate pre-Ottoman historical borders or borders that created homogeneous nation-states. Neither existed or were possible.

So even if Sykes and Picot did draw today's lines, it would be misplaced blame, notwithstanding their being dead, European, and males--the hat trick of modern guilt for whatever is wrong today.

And even though the borders drawn over several decades are not neat, those borders have molded the demographics since being drawn. So drawing new borders is tough and makes new victims and problems. Ask those who lived in Yugoslavia. Or in the USSR. Or in British India. Or in British Palestine. Or in Sudan.

Or in Europe in 1945.

Perhaps you can say that trying to create templates for modern states in a region dominated by pre-modern tribal divisions was a mistake. But what was the alternative in a world system based on the state--if not the nation-state--as the basic unit? Consign these regions to perpetual tribal status until they apply for membership in the international system by proving their worth and state-i-ness?

And if that division by Europeans of the Middle East (and Africa and other parts of the world) was so bad for the non-Western world, let's see a show of hands for those governments who will give up their UN seats and dissolve state governments and borders in order to allow locals to organize themselves separately or together as they wish?

Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?