Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Sunday, July 27, 2003
One of the strange things about the post-1991 world is the sense of the contingency of countries and borders. This is really something new; since 1945, the world has been governed in such a fashion as to make it nearly inconceivable that states should cease to exist. There was a period of decolonization, when new states were brought into being out of old empires, but there was no sense in which the creation of an independent Nigeria or Angola was the end of Britain or Portugal. After WWII, there was a palpable sense that if no other evil could be eradicated, at least "aggression" could be outlawed; at least current states and borders could be preserved, and thereby a modicum of international stability assured.

The world is different now. The Soviet Union is no more. Yugoslavia is no more. And there are many other states, large and small, that just might not make it, that might collapse into their constituent parts, violently or no. And this prospect has to have an impact on our foreign policy as we look out at the world for friends and potential problems, or enemies. Here's a short list of states that may not survive for another generation, by region.


Canada is one of the most successful states in the world: healthy, wealthy, peaceful, and largely free. It's been growing faster than its larger neighbor to the south of late, and it has done a much better job of integrating a much larger immigration (mostly South and East Asian) than any European state has done. And though all these developments have moderated the drive for Quebecois secession, they have not ended it. That Canada is perpetually one crisis away from dissolution has considerable bearing on that nation's international posture. It cannot, as Australia has, wholeheartedly join an Anglo coalition, since it has staked its own stability - the resolution of Anglo-French tension - on expanding its multiculturalism to include large new minorities. I have no doubt that Canada will remain a friendly country to the United States indefinitely. But its ability to be a useful country is far more doubtful, and that doubt has everything to do with the difficulty and precarious nature of Canadian national identity.

Belgium, home to the capital of the new European federal order, is itself barely a country. Every election, the Vlaams Blok gains ground in Flanders. Belgium is now, in effect, three countries: the poorer Walloon south, the wealthier Dutch-speaking north, and Brussels, capital of the EU, a city whose main industry is international institutions (the EU, NATO, etc.) and some 30% of whose population is foreign-born. The centrifugal forces pulling Belgium apart are both exacerbated and moderated by the centripetal forces pulling the EU into a more federal structure: under the larger umbrella of the EU, the costs of breaking up a country like Belgium diminish, and the significance of that breakup diminishes as well. Belgium is therefore a good microcosm of Europe as a whole, where the increasing importance of Brussels as a central government is giving increased legitimacy to movements to break up numerous member states (Italy, Spain, Germany) into their pre-national constituents. (France is the big exception in this regard, at least so far.)

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has managed to accelerate the process of breaking up into its pre-national constituents without assenting to the new European political order. Under the Blair government, Scotland and Wales have got their own Parliaments, and the desire on Blair's part to be rid of Northern Ireland is palpable. Peter Hitchens has described this process as the "abolition of Britain," and the description seems apt. While in Europe, the centralization in the EU seems likely to encourage the breakup of existing states, Britain seems likely to get it coming or going, whether they join the EU or no. Thatcher's strident nationalism did much to encourage the growth of the SNP, and it seems clear that if London pulls away from Brussels (as the British population generally would like it to do) then separatist elements will have yet another grievance (since, evaluated on their own and not as part of Britain, they would likely receive a subsidy from the EU). But ceding sovereignty to the EU would, of course, only make it easier for separatists to make their case. "Anglosphere" fantasists like to imagine an emerging world order where America, Britain, Canada and Australia jointly police the less-orderly regions of the globe, but this is not likely to happen if British nationalism continues to wane.

I'm unsure whether to include Russia in "The West" or not, but if I don't I'll have to give it its own section, so I will. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Russia has decisively bottomed, and that this country is going to be expanding, not contracting, its power, influence and, potentially, territory in the future. Whether I am right depends on whether Putin can successfully consolidate central authority; whether the law becomes sufficiently stable to allow for a sustained economic recovery; and whether Russia can reverse its quite severe demographic problems. The first is the most likely; however questionable were the methods by which Putin achieved power, he has done a great deal already to establish that power and ensure it against potential rivals. The second is basically a bet on Putin's objectives, and it seems that these are overwhelmingly in favor of economic integration with the West, which is very positive. But the third is highly problematic. Russia is suffering from a one-two punch of birth dearth and rising death rates. The country is predicted to shrink faster than any other developed country in the next quarter century for that reason (countries with even lower birth rates - like Italy or Japan - also have much lower death rates). Particularly if an economic renaissance is limited to its European territories, Russia faces the dangerous prospect of depopulation in its southern and eastern regions. As these regions border on other states that have been active exporters of population - China and North Korea in the east, and the Muslim states of Central and Southwest Asia to the south - these regions may increasingly be colonized by foreigners. The question is whether these foreigners will have any real incentive to break away from Russia, and that in turn depends on Russia's ability to preserve law and order and to protect these migrants from external threats. British Columbia has only benefitted from the massive influx of immigrants from Hong Kong. Russia could potentially benefit from migrants from North Korea and Manchuria, but is more likely to be threatened as these immigrant populations become a justification for Chinese intervention in the Soviet far east. An economic recovery in Russia, however, could result in two other positive demographic trends. First would be migration of ethnic Russians from other former Soviet republics (particularly Ukraine and Kazakhstan) to Russia, a trend that is already in evidence and that would accelerate under these circumstances. Second would be a recovery in the Russian birth rate. This would not be unprecedented. America suffered a birth-dearth after the baby boom which, if projected in a straight-line fashion, would have given us a significantly negative population growth rate today. But in fact the 1980s saw the beginning of a baby-boom echo, driven by the combination of the maturation of the baby-boomers themselves, immigration (immigrants tend to have more children), and the general improvement in the American economic situation. Russia had something of a baby boom during the mid-1980s, and there is reason to believe that an improving economic and political situation could lead to a significant uptick in the marriage and birth rates. As I said, I'm going out on a limb here, because projecting recent trends means predicting the death of Russia, with its far eastern regions breaking away to join an expanding Chinese empire, its south collapsing in the face of a Muslim onslaught, reducing Russia to a rump European state. But I think those trend lines have extended themselves as far as they are going to go, and Russia will not further contract. Indeed, I think states like Belarus and Ukraine are going to have a far more difficult time maintaining their territorial and national integrity in the face of a resurgent Russia in 20 years.


The big question everyone should be asking themselves is how likely it is that China survives as a unitary state for the next 30 years. China's current borders are not ancient, and regions like Tibet, East Turkestan and Machuria have only been Chinese intermittently and occasionally over the past few centuries. And even the core "Han Chinese" regions have frequently been split up into northern and southern states over the millenia of Chinese history. Should China undergo a spectacular economic collapse, or should it lose a misguided war to reclaim Taiwan, there is little assurance that the Communist government would survive. What's harder to know is whether China would survive. Currently, the leading institution in China is the army, which is a unifying force and one specifically devoted to maintaining the integrity of the nation's borders. A major lost war could change that, though, and split the army. While it remains unlikely that China itself would disintegrate, it's not an off-the-charts possibility; and if it happened, it would radically change the region in every way imaginable.

Two other states with a higher likelihood of implosion are Indonesia and the Philippines. Both archipelagos are dominated by single islands that hold the majority of the population; both are culturally and religiously diverse; and both are relatively recent constructions as states go. Both suffer from separatist movements that have been around for decades and are extraordinarily violent, and which are connected with larger Islamist movements with which the US is at war. Both are located in strategically vital regions for shipping. America has a profound interest in stability in both countries, and that stability is unlikely in the absence of a strong national identity that is felt, not imposed by a central authority. I have no doubt that American and Australian forces will be occupied repeatedly in both nations for the next generation as these countries struggle out of an authoritarian past, and hopefully towards a more democratic and stable future.

Apart from these three countries, most countries in East Asia have fairly stable national identities based on a dominant ethnic group. Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, etc. - while these countries may experience more stable or more violent domestic politics, they seem unlikely candidates for ceasing to exist. Three countries, however, are acutely vulnerable to that fate, not through implosion but through absorption. They are: Taiwan, North Korea and Singapore.

The odds of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next 20 years have to be reckoned very high. I happen to be a pessimist on the Chinese economic miracle; I think the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and China is going to face all the troubles of crony capitalism that felled so much of East Asia in the past decade, and in China's case these troubles will be added to a country with a huge and angry mass of unemployed rural migrants. The odds of China evolving from a Communist Party state to a military dictatorship strike me as very high. And one thing military governments almost always do is engage in aggressive wars, because these wars lend them legitimacy that is otherwise unattainable. They often lose these wars, of course; Argentina lost the Falklands, Pakistan lost every conflict with India; the various Arab military regimes lost wars with Israel; etc. It is not obvious to me that China would easily win a war of conquest against Taiwan. Clearly it could obliterate Taiwan, but this would not serve its interests at all. If the objective were to conquer and hold the territory by force, it's not clear that even with its overwhelming numeric superiority it would win. But the odds of them trying have to be reckoned as high.

North Korea, meanwhile, seems destined to self-destruct, the only question being just how many people have to die before the state does. I have no doubt that the collapse of the North Korean state would result in the reunification of the penninsula, which in turn would result in dramatic turmoil and depression in the South. (It seems clear that South Koreans know this, and would like to prop up the North for as long as possible for that reason.)

Singapore, meanwhile, is remarkably stable given its ethnic diversity and vulnerability. In the context of a stable East Asian environment, there's no reason to think the country won't continue to be an authoritarian capitalist island, but in the context of major war in the region the country would be a tempting prize for China, Malaysia, Indonesia - whatever state was best positioned to seize it. The city-state is indefensible, after all, and therefore ultimately exists on the sufferance of the US Navy.


There are few countries in this region that are decidedly stable, but least stable of all must be Pakistan. A hodge-podge of different ethnic groups thrown together by partition and held together only by an Islamist ideology, Pakistan has never been a likely prospect and has only gotten less so with time. The Baluchis of the west and Pashtuns of the north of the country are perpetually restive, and America's war against al-Qaeda will only make them more so as the escapees from Afghanistan have largely fled to these regions. Pakistan has already fissured once, losing Bangladesh in 1971. The loss of another war with India - which could go nuclear - would likely spell the end of the country. That prospect should not hearten anyone; someone, after all, has to govern the 150 million people who live there. But it is far from clear how the country can be stabilized long-term. It's an economic basket-case, has no national identity to speak of, no history of stable government, and has raised a generation of fanatical terrorists who will no doubt turn on the central government should it ever seriously try to make peace with India and ends its claims to Kashmir. American reliance on Pakistan for assistance in its war on al-Qaeda is leaning on a thin reed, and however necessary it may be short-term, we have got to be thinking longer term as well if we don't want to be at war forever in the region.

India is not without centrifugal tendencies itself. As specifically Hindu nationalism grows as a force, inter-religious conflict within India becomes a bigger and bigger problem. However, India's Muslims are not a plausible separatist force because of their geographic distribution. Rather, the risk is that a major crisis - nuclear war with Pakistan, for instance - delegitimates the state and results in wholesale devolution of India into its regions constituent parts. The prospects for escalating civil strife in India are not low, but the likelihood of the breakup of the state itself are much lower.

It is hard to know what the ultimate disposition of the Central Asian states - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, Kirghizstan and Afghanistan - will be. With the exception of the last, all are relatively new, but these all have the advantage of representing definite ethnic groups within the Central Asian region. The great danger in the region is ideological: that Taliban-style Islamism (espoused by the IMU, for example) will become a significant force, aiming at regional conquest and the formation of an Islamic Central-Asian super-state. America's aggressive presence in the region since the Afghan war will hopefully do something to reduce the likelihood of this outcome, but it cannot be discounted entirely.

Iran and Turkey are unquestionably the most stable states in the region, and the least likely to disappear as geopolitical entities. Between them lies a region of considerable uncertainty. The American presence in Iraq will serve to hold that country together, so long as it remains in place. But once we leave? It's anybody's guess. Everyone has reason to be heartened by the lack of organized anti-American violence outside of the "Sunni triangle" and by the willingness of the Kurds to cooperate in the creation of a functioning Iraqi state. But Iraq is going to be threatened from the east by Iran and from the west by Turkey, as this region has been for millenia, and someone is going to have to defend the state against these encroachments. Right now, that someone is the US Army (and the British, Polish and other allied forces). If the Iraqis are to take over this responsibility for themselves, it will require a considerably stronger armed forces than is currently contemplated. And any such standing army of considerable strength will be in a position to overbalance other central government forces, and become a threat to the stability of the government. This is the danger of all artificial, divided states like Iraq, and there's no easy way out of it. A state without an authentic national character will always be vulnerable to civil war or to military rule. The best hope, short-term, is that American troops remain for a generation - not as governors, but as guarantors of Iraq's freedom and independence. I'm doubtful they'll be permitted to stay that long. If not, I strongly suspect they'll be back.

West of Iraq are five more precarious states: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are both artificial states ruled by a dominant tribe. In Jordan's case, the dominant tribe and its leadership are friendly and moderate; in Saudi Arabia's case, the dominant tribe is equivocal in its friendship and decidedly immoderate. Neither state can be called stable. Iraq has historically treated Jordan as something of a vassal state, and that relationship could easily reemerge in the context of a resurgent Iraq. Saudi Arabia could easy collapse into several mini states, and whether this would be good or bad for America depends on what one assumes would be the character of the new custodians of Saudi Arabia's chief assets: the world's largest oil fields and Islam's two holiest places. Syria, meanwhile, has an authentic ancient identity (as does Iraq) but no modern expression thereof. The country is a garrison state ruled by a religious and ethnic minority (the Alawites) under a system of hereditary presidency (like North Korea's and, possibly, Egypt's). While Syria has a centuries-long history of instability, however, it is not neatly divided along ethnic and religious lines as Iraq is, so it's harder to see how the inevitable turmoil there would result in the elimination of the state. Lebanon, by contrast, has descended once (a generation ago) into fratricidal civil war, and the odds of that happening again in the context of a Syrian disengagement have to be counted as high.

It pains me, of course, to include Israel on this list of precarious states. I do not think it is highly likely that Israel will cease to exist in the next generation. But it is not impossible. Israel's Jewish majority is more cohesive than it has been for many years, a cohesion forged in the teeth of terrorist warfare waged against it by the Palestinians of the territories. But this cohesion is not necessarily going to last forever, and it may not be enough in any event to prevail. Israel needs to get rid of the Palestinian population of the territories to ensure its own survival. It can do this only three ways: expelling it, which is immoral and practically impossible; giving the territory away to a neighbor, presumably Jordan, who shows no signs of being willing to take it; or negotiating a division of historic Israel/Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian Arab. Israel has been pursuing the last option for the past ten years, without success, and the reason is that structurally such a negotiation favors the Palestinians, since Israel *needs* an agreement more than they do (assuming they don't care about how much they suffer from lack of an agreement). Israel is currently in the process of building a security fence to cordon off the territories from Israel. Major Jewish settlements - including Ariel, which is deep into Samaria - will be included on the Israeli side of the fence. This is, effectively, Israel's unilateral option: withdrawal to defensible lines and the imposition of a division of the territory by fiat. Whether or not Israel pursues this option to its logical conclusion, the fact that it is pursuing it this far is an index of how little faith Israel has that the other side has accepted the two-state solution. And even if Israel can survive another 50 years behind a wall - and I think it can - it has its own internal divisions to deal with. I think Israel deserves good odds for long-term survival. But the threats to that survival are not trivial.

As for the rest of the region, all the small states of the Gulf - Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait - exist on the sufferance of the US military, and are vulnerable to conquest by larger neighbors. Egypt has a relatively robust national identity, but is certainly vulnerable to serious domestic disturbance; the same is true of Algeria. The Sudan has suffered a decades-long religious civil war that has claimed millions of lives; the odds for the ultimate division of that country, following the prior example of Ethiopia/Eritrea, are not negligible. The region as a whole, then, is characterized by instability. Only a handful of states - India, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Iran, maybe Morocco - have strong national identities. Several states - Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan - are deeply divided and highly unstable, vulnerable to a complete crack-up. A number of other states - Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf monarchies, the post-Soviet Central Asian states - either have narrow tribal leaderships, are practically indefensible, have little history or experience as independent states, or are under active external threat. It seems overwhelmingly likely that, given the geopolitical importance of the region and its endemic instability, American and other foreign interventions in the region will be a fact of life for many, many years. The architects of American foreign policy should be asking themselves to what extent and how we can anchor our presence in the region more stably, to avoid a situation where the American occupation of Iraq becomes the template for how the entire region is to be policed, a situation which is going to be fiscally and militarily untenable if extended to its logical conclusion.


In terms of borders, Latin America has remained remarkably stable for generations. Even chronically failed states like Argentina or Peru have never faced serious risk of dissolution. There's no reason to think that the future will be any different from the past in this regard. Mexico might conceivably lose control over its Mayan states, Venezuela might fight a war with Colombia, but no Latin American state is likely to cease to exist in the next generation, nor is there any plausible supra-national ideology (certainly not Chavez's Bolivarian revolution) likely to sweep the region and turn it into something more unified than a collection of rival states. America has a strong interest in the success of the major countries of the region - Mexico especially, but also Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela - but while the risks in the region are bounded.

Africa is another story entirely. It probably better to try to count the number of countries that are likely to endure for a generation than those that are not. It is difficult even to predict the future of Africa's borders, because if it becomes acceptable to change them by force then there is virtually no state that is secure. The two major countries of the continent - Nigeria and South Africa - suffer from serious ethnic and religious divisions. South Africa has managed to avoid civil war since the end of white rule, but that is a relatively short time, and the country has not yet suffered a major crisis of legitimacy. A South African Lebanon is still very possible. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the very heart of Africa, is currently divided between the armies of several neighboring states: Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad and Namibia. Zimbabwe's government is currently waging war on its white minority; the prospects for similar conflict between the governments of Tanzania and Kenya and their ethnic minorities (white, Arab and Indian) are significant. And the bloodly line between Christian and Muslim communities, which has so devastated Sudan and Nigeria, runs through the whole continent. Successful countries like Uganda or Ghana are relatively recent and precarious success stories. Between the the twin epidemics of AIDS and chronic warfare, Africa is suffering today worse than Europe did in the 14th century; perhaps the 5th century is a better comparison. I take an optimistic view of Russia in spite of the very negative trend lines, and a pessimistic view of China in spite of very visible successes there (though I certainly don't predict China's breakup). In Africa, I think even the optimistic case still has to predict a very high likelihood of further inter-state conflict, the breakup of existing states and the creation of new ones. The United States has more of an interest in the region than we like to admit; it is, among other things, an excellent place for our terrorist enemies to hide, train and achieve financing through illicit trade. And the potential of the region, with its natural bounty and young populations, is huge. Of late, the American tendency has been to bet on "winners" - spending time and energy on countries like Uganda that seem to be doing better than average - and encouraging stronger states to take a leading role in policing smaller and less-stable neighbors. In other words, we're encouraging Africa to divide itself into blocs: a Nigerian bloc, a Ugandan bloc, a South African bloc, etc. We'll see if that is any more effective than previous strategies towards the continent.