Home/Daniel Larison/Redrawing Borders and “Real” Countries

Redrawing Borders and “Real” Countries

Ross Douthat thinks it is time to “let go” of the post-WWI borders in the Near East:

Prior to 2003, the goal of general regional stability had served American interests reasonably well — better, certainly, than the Iraq invasion’s architects believed. In 2007, such stability was something that we could still plausibly hope to regain — and did regain, however temporarily. But in 2014, it’s harder to make that argument, and I wouldn’t want to be in the position of asking anyone, American or otherwise, to be the last man to die for the sake of a hundred-year-old map [bold mine-DL].

This is an odd way of thinking about the problem. The belief that the current political boundaries in the region are nothing more than “a hundred-year-old map” is a widely shared one, but it is mistaken. As Reidar Visser explained in a post from late last year, the boundaries drawn after WWI paid more attention to local politics and older administrative divisions than is commonly assumed, and these boundaries are not dissolving as much as many people believe. Outside governments could choose to contribute to the region’s instability by encouraging separatists and recognizing new countries that declare independence, but I don’t see why they would want to do that.

All national boundaries are ultimately artificial, but we tend to treat the boundaries of some states as being more inviolable and unchangeable than others. It is also common to think of some countries as being more “real” than others. When we look at a modern state that has existed in its current borders for more than ninety years, as Iraq has, there is still a tendency to dismiss it as nothing more than a colonial-era creation and thus not a “real” state. Because Iraq is considered to be less “real” than some other countries, it is considered more acceptable to consider carving it up among its different ethnic and sectarian groups. This seems to offer a more “natural” arrangement, provided that one decides that a particular interpretation of self-determination and political independence is the same as what is “natural.” It seems better to carve out new states this way only if one buys into the misleading assumption that the state to be split up is a “fake” one. It is no accident that the people contemplating schemes of partition are outsiders that have no attachment to the “fake” country.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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