Syria’s civil war: time to call it what it is

I constantly see headlines which say something along the lines of “fears of Syria civil war” or “Clashes in Syria amid civil war warnings” which I have to say confuse me a bit. A quick search for definitions of the term “civil war” seems to suggest that it is “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Wikipedia states that the parties must be organised, but the general theme is the same – war between groups within a country. Surely then Syria is already in a civil war, so why won’t anyone admit that?

My guess would be that Western powers don’t want to say it because they would rather frame the conflict as the Syrian government cracking down on protesters, and that calling it a civil war could be seen to be legitimating government violence against its citizens. Russia doesn’t want to say it because then they would be admitting that the Syrian government is not as strong as they would like it to be. The news media in general reports what officials are saying, so they won’t call it a civil war until someone in power does. Obviously Al-Assad and co aren’t gonna say it – in their view the opposition are terrorists and criminals.

Calling the crisis a civil war won’t actually change anything the ground but it will allow for a more robust dialogue on how this situation can be resolved. However for now it seems as if the emperor has no clothes. Everyone can see that Syria is in the grip of a violent and nasty civil war yet no one will admit it…


The problem with nation-states

After another study-induced hiatus I’m back with a bit of a rant about why I don’t think nation-states should be the last word in human political organisation. This is not to say that I think the end of the nation-state is close at hand – far from it in fact – but the problems I see with the nation-state model mean that I have to hope there is a way to move past it. In part this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a friend about my earlier post which focused on the future of the EU, and this post will further explain some of the positions I took in that one. I’m also not going to go into the history of how nation-states as a concept came into being but it does fascinate me and is probably a good place to start if you want to think more about them as cultural institutions today.

So, first things first: definition. A nation-state is, according to Mirriam-Webster: “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities” – which shows how awkward it can be to define. If this definition was taking as strictly true then how many countries would actually qualify? Most you care to name have some relatively significant ethnic minority which would count them out… but that’s not actually how we conceive of the nation-state when we bandy the term about. Instead, I would suggest that a nation-state is this: a sovereign state (i.e. a political entity which exercises an absolute monopoly on legitimate violence within a clearly defined territory) which defines its legitimacy through some sense of collective cultural identity and shared historical narrative. This definition doesn’t exclude minorities from being part of a nation-state, but what it does do is show how pretty much every state in the world defines itself. Even in  Africa, where colonialism jammed different ethnic groups together and made states out of them, the post-colonial inheritors of these states have attempted to define their legitimacy through the shared experience of the colonial yoke.

This is all well and good, but not everyone is always going to fit into the collective identity and narrative of the “nation” bit of the nation-state, and this is where the problem begins. Right at the start of the UN charter in Article I there is a clear expression of the right to self-determination of peoples – but where does this end? Can any ethnic group which self-identifies as distinct from those around it secede and claim a nation-state of its own? If so, what happens to places like Papua New Guinea, where there are about 800 languages spoken by a population of 6 million-ish? If we assume each language represents a distinct cultural group then I guess Papua New Guinea should become 841 new nation-states. PNG isn’t alone in this either, although it may be an extreme example.The good ol’ CIA has a nice list here of the ethnic makeup of the various states of the world. Interesting reading.

Furthermore, each national identity gets created as an expression of “same” and “other,” so people outside it become marginalised and excluded, not to mention possibly discriminated against. Each time a new nation-state forms and defines its national identity in a certain way then a new group will be the “other” and become excluded and marginalised. Take a look at the breakup of the former Yugoslavia to see what happens when this process gets out of control. Then there is the problem of what happens when to different nations want a state in the same place because that’s what their identity and narrative tells them to do – say hello to Israel/Palestine. The idea that a nation should have absolute sovereignty over the territory of its choosing is undeniably flawed, and yet all over the world people still fight for the independence of their own nation from another, larger one. Clearly, if states continue to gain legitimacy from nationalist identities this will go on indefinitely.

The solution as I see it is decentralised federalisation and pan-national states. Getting there won’t be easy, and certain parts of the world will probably always be organised as nation-states, but the idea that nation-states are the only valid way to politically organise large groups of people needs to be dropped to avoid the violence and suffering which comes from identity politics gone mad. After all for most of history empires, city-states, and tribal-level political units all existed and interacted at one time. National identity can continue to exist but it does not need to be the foundation on which our political units are based.


Show trials and war crimes

I admit to having some reservations about the trial of Ratko Mladic and others like it… and that’s a hard thing to say because from the evidence I am aware of there does seem to be a very strong case against him. War crimes and crimes against humanity are obviously a big deal and should be punished but the very nature of them as political, high-profile events makes the trials of accused perpetrators very tricky affairs. For a start, the accused can use them as a place to bandstand and promote more hate in a semi-legitamised context. Then there are, as always, the questions about the fairness of such trials in the first place. The delay in the Mladic case as the result of errors in the handling of prosecution evidence was unfortunate but at least shows the tribunal is not overtly biased towards the prosecution. However, has any defendant ever been found not guilty in a modern high-profile war crimes trial? Not as far as I’m aware, and that is slightly worrying for me (if anyone knows of an example, please let me know).  I’m willing to bet that Mladic will be found guilty too, which does make you wonder about the extent to which war crimes trials are really show trials, enforcing the victor’s justice. Of course there is nothing new about this. After all, no Allied airmen or leaders were ever held accountable for the crime of carpet bombing Germany and Japan (not to mention twice nuking Japan) in WWII despite such actions clearly being in violation of the principle of proportionality as laid out in International Humanitarian Law.

The best way to dismiss these worries would be to bring some of the West’s alleged war criminals up for trial at the ICC (that’s the International Criminal Court, not the International Cricket Council) – but that particular body seems more concerned with Africans, and the US and others are not party to it anyway.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: is it better to have a system which selectively tries war crimes in a seemingly biased fashion, or to have no system at all? If the only war criminals who get caught and convicted are those from marginalised or weak states it clearly is not fair, but not convicting anyone at all is even less fair. So we end up with the current situation, as imperfect as it is. Mladic will be found guilty, his supporters will claim it was never a fair trial, and people in powerful states who are responsible for violations of the war of law will go unpunished. Such is the nature of the international political landscape – liberal institutions only operate in as far as it’s in powerful states interest for the to do so. At least some war crimes are punished, and that fact alone should be applauded. It’s just a shame that moving beyond this point seems so unlikely at the moment.


The future of the EU… and the world

I’ve been thinking about the European Union and Europe a bit recently – partly because of the obvious reasons, such as the media saturation of the Hollande/Merkel showdown and the Greek crisis, and partly because I’ve applied for a job working with the EU delegation here in New Zealand. This has led to ponder on the future of the EU and what that means for the world in general. With the Eurozone on shaky ground, little has been written about what any sort of rush for the exits will do for the wider EU as a whole (at least that I’ve seen) but to me this raises some very serious questions.

The EU can be viewed as an experiment in liberal international relations theory and the results of this experiment could influence global politics for years to come. Should the EU manage to evolve and strengthen through dealing with the current crisis then other regional unions such as ASEAN might see it as a reason to pursue closer economic and political cooperation. However if the Eurozone crisis damages the EU’s credibility and weakens its institutions then the future of regional unions as important units in international relations will presumably be less rosy. On top of this, there is the simple fact that Europe is still a major player in global affairs even in the post-colonial era. The EU is home to half a billion people and represents 20% of global GDP. Although some experts think its influence is in decline these numbers alone show that it is still a big player, while the impact of its history on the way the rest of the globe works today is undeniable.

So where does theat leave the EU today? Even if we assume that Greece exits the Eurozone in the near future and triggers the other troubled countries (Ireland, Spain etc) to do the same, would that necessarily be bad for the EU? Some say it would, some say it wouldn’t.

I would personally answer this question with a definitive “maybe”. Sure, that’s a cop-out but with no real precedent to compare to that I’m aware of this is all dangerous new territory. The EU is already considered by some to be undemocratic, and there is at least some popular support for its dissolution, but whether this would reach critical mass following a Eurozone collapse is hard to say. I think the safest thing to predict is that the EU would continue to exist but its powers would be limited to what they are today (excluding the Eurozone bit of course) and it would take a very long time for Europe to move towards closer integration again, if it ever could. While Russia at least would probably welcome this move, from a broad historical perspective it would be a rather tame and sad end to one of the first real attempts to develop a post-nation-state way of approaching global politics. On the other hand, if the EU deals with the Eurozone crisis well it could signal a way forward for states to surrender sovereignty to a higher power in order for economic and political security – which is after all the whole point of the EU anyway.

In some ways the EU’s current problem with the Eurozone shows that it is stuck in the  middle of the pull of nation-states and state sovereignty on one side, and the push to closer integration and a possible federation of Europe on the other, and the halfway point has not been a compromise that has worked. At a deeper level though I think this reflects a constant in European history – the diverging sides of the European experience as it were. There’s the Europe of the enlightenment and humanism, and the Europe of bloody conquest and rampant nationalism. Not that I’m equating nation-states with evil deeds, or saying that a post-nation-state way of governing peoples would be superior, but simply that it is mistake to think of Europe purely in one sense or the other. Although Europe has historically been progressive, it has also historically been reactionary. Another example of this duality is the fact that Europe itself was the birthplace of the modern nation-state yet it still retains some pre-nation-state entities, such as the city-state of Monaco, or San Marino, or even the Vatican.

Even if the EU comes out of the Eurozone crisis stronger, there are still a number of challenges facing it. Foremost among these is where to stop expanding – check out the GIF on this Wikipedia page to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Will Turkey become a member? Georgia? Armenia? How far can the European Union expand and still be European? As it expands eastwards it also run up against the Russia’s sphere of influence and this could be a very difficult relationship to manage, especially considering the partnership between the EU with NATO. If the EU stops admitting new member states will Europe fall back into a division like that between communist and capitalist, or Orthodox and Catholic? As well as these concerns, there is the question of the way forward for the EU – how should it develop its institutions to be more democratic? How much sovereignty are its members willing to cede, and what can be offered in return?

The rest of the world will learn lessons from how the EU handles this crucial point in its history. This isn’t Eurocentrism but simply a reflection of the fact that the EU is sailing into uncharted waters. How it navigates them will ultimately decide if anybody wants to follow in its wake.


China’s awkward rise

China’s rise to being the world’s most powerful state makes for some awkward posturing from Chinese leadership. China has taken a position in world affairs as a leader of developing, post-colonial states but this means that China’s leaders have to play down their own neo-colonial ambitions (securing diplomatic support and resources for continued economic expansion). This makes for some interesting interactions between China and other developing states, especially in Africa.

Western discourse continually paints China as a boogie-man and a threat to freedom and liberty. If China’s rise continues on its current trajectory then its narrative of the Middle Kingdom as a developing post-colonial country will become unsustainable, but it’s hard to see it dropping its role as a counterbalance to Western powers (Huntington FTW!). Managing the perception of China’s role in the world will be a priority for both Western powers and China itself, and with the West’s massive head-start in global cultural presence and the fact that English has become the lingua franca China is already on the back foot. As China continues to expand economically and militarily, its soft power needs to catch up. I’m not sure that the current Chinese narrative about its role in world affairs can be maintained, and with similar pressures growing internally an evolution of China’s portrayal of itself seems both necessary and inevitable.

NB: I got thinking about this subject again when I uploaded an old paper I wrote which was an analysis of China’s official discourse on its engagement with Africa. The full text is in PDF form under the “Essays and Papers” section at the top of this blog, if anyone wants to read it.


Post-conflict trauma: who deals with this?

When I went to Bougainville last year to conduct research the region had officially been in a state of peace for a decade and yet the effects of the war were still obvious. A lot of this was physical: burnt out buildings etc;  several parts of the island where there are still warlords operating;  gun crime is common, even against aid agencies such as Oxfam (whose truck was stolen at gunpoint while I was there). Aside from these issues there was an obvious psychological aftermath as well.

The people who had been adults when the fighting started in the late 1980s seemed to have dealt with the trauma of the conflict through a variety of ways, including traditional reconciliation ceremonies (check out the documentary Breaking Bows and Arrows if you want to know more about this). However those who grew up in the decade of fighting have not been as able to cope and this has caused huge social problems. Violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and anger and depression issues seem worryingly commonplace amongst the youth, and the older generation are painfully aware of this but do not have the capacity to deal with the scope of the problem. These children grew up seeing violence and suffering everywhere and now it has become part of their personalities.

So I’ve been thinking: who deals with PTSD and other trauma issues in post-conflict environments? Ex-combatants were offered counselling by church groups and international NGOs in Bougainville but there was not the resources to help civilians at the same time. Without addressing this issue the long-term security and prosperity of Bougainville is at risk, and I imagine it is similar in other post-conflict areas. Trauma has serious long-term consequences yet addressing it is much harder than the reconstruction of infrastructure and so on. Specialist training and a lot of time is required. Also, as a long-term issue it is harder to get internaional funding. Sadly there are a lot of places where people are suffering in the world and high profile cases get more aid for obvious reasons. The general public donates to causes based on what they know of them, and NGOs, IGOs, and states operate where there is pressure from the public to do so or there are other gains to be had. This sucks, but it’s hard to see it changing any time soon.

This raises more questions for me: how did the trauma of war affect the civilian populations who suffered during the world wars? How have civilian populations in places like Vietnam coped over time since they endured war? Is Bougainville particularly bad because of the nature of the conflict there (which saw it cut off from the outside world for years by a naval blockade) or is it representative of most post-conflict states? Are there any NGOs or other groups dedicated to addressing trauma issues out there?

Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions? I’d like to think Bougainville will pull through because there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing work, but the scale of the problem is immense and the resources at their disposal are, well,  not so immense.


My theory on why the USSR collapsed

Ever had to deal with a government department to sort out your taxes, get a driver’s license etc? Notice how frustrating and annoying the paper-pushing process is? Now think about a whole country where everything you do goes through that process….

Exactly.

NB: Before anyone thinks I’m a crazed anarcho-capitalist or something, I’m not against the government providing social welfare, healthcare, etc. I don’t think the free market can provide those things well enough for all citizens, so dealing with government bureaucracy is a necessary evil sometimes. But a whole country like that? Yikes!