The world has recently seen what seems like a sudden eruption of violence and disorder, from civil war in Ukraine and Iraq and Syria to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. There is also Boko Haram attacking young men and women in Nigeria, violent militias doing as they please in Libya, renewed Taliban assaults on Kabul and in Pakistan, and attacks on the Rohinga Muslims of Burma. Disorder and deaths continue in Mali and the Central African Republic, overshadowed by the violence closer to Europe and in the Middle East.
What has happened? Sadly, all of this violence was contained in embryo in the political settlements of the early and mid-20th century.
The 19th century revealed the power of aspirations for nationalism. People everywhere began to fight back against supra-national empires. By the mid-20th century, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the British and Dutch imperial empires were gone, replaced by dozens of newly independent states, from India, Pakistan, and Indonesia to Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Israel and Egypt, Algeria and Libya, Afghanistan and Burma all emerged from the shell of past imperial territories.
Yet in many, many places, the break-up of empires did not lead to the emergence of true national states, with a dominant ethno-national identity. Instead, the great powers who dominated at the end of WWI and WWII drew up borders to suit themselves: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine were thus not national states, but multi-national entities that combined different and often antagonistic groups. The same was true of Yugoslavia, which broke up violently into true national states in the 1990s (excepting Bosnia which still remains an unstable multi-national entity). Today, the Russian Federation still aims to hold on to diverse national minority groups in the Caucasus (leading to the Chechnyan wars) and wishes to continue as the dominant influence in Ukraine, central Asia, and other parts of the former USSR. Similarly China continues to incorporate Tibet and Xinjiang, where nationalist aspirations remain strong.
The inevitable result of suppressing or denying nationalist aspirations in a world based on the legitimacy of nationalism is going to be outbreaks of violence. Whether expressed through religious extremism (as in much of the Middle East and increasingly in south Asia), tribal hatreds (as in Libya, Somalia, Sinai and Yemen), or ethno-linguistic clashes (as in Ukraine, former Yugoslavia, and much of Africa), groups who feel their identity and culture are being threatened are fighting to control their own future.
For many years, nationalist aspirations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia were suppressed by authoritarian regimes, backed by foreign powers (or by the superpowers themselves). The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a series of declines in the power and reach of authoritarian regimes; this has set off a free-for-all of both moderate and extremist nationalist and ethno-religious movements struggling to create new states.
In Syria and Iraq, it seems almost inevitable that Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds will no longer tolerate being forced to share the procrustean bed of a single state. Nor does there seem to be any future in the world’s powers trying to preserve such states.
We may be moving toward the “Kosovo” model, where even tiny communities, if they share a sense of national identity and feel oppressed by being part of a larger entity, will demand and fight for their own state, and seek international support in doing so. Under such conditions, we can expect identity groups everywhere — from Kurds to Palestinians to Tamils and Pashtuns and Baluchis and many others to periodically take up arms and ask foreign powers to support their cause.
What is the way out of this explosion of violence? In some cases, the answer may lie in referenda and secession. In other cases, autonomy or federalism may suffice. Europe has its own experience in Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain where ethnic and/or religious separate movements adopted violence and terror tactics. The lessons of these conflicts were that finding solutions takes time, and takes a two-pronged approach: fight against violence and terror with precise, proportionate force, and negotiate with political representatives to find acceptable levels of autonomy or federalism or representation. Protection of minority rights and cultural expression is essential; all that can be negotiated is whether such protection and expression can take place within the boundaries of a larger state, or only through separation from that state.
So the violence we are seeing today should be no mystery. Whether it is Israelis suppressing the aspirations of Palestinians (which can never be met as long as they include seeking the end of Israel), or Russia seeking to influence events in Ukraine, or Iraq’s Shia government aiming to exclude and suppress Iraq’s Sunnis, the clash between nationalist aspirations and governments seeking to overcome them has been written into the fabric of the last two centuries. We will likely see much more conflict until national borders that accord with nationalist aims are established and respected. Until that day, which still seems distant, the bodies will continue to pile up.