Aberrations of nations-states



Aleppo, September 18, 2003


Both the Afghani and Iraqi wars have brought a burning question to light: Is the nation-state a universal entity? Is it possible for non-nation-states like Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, and Angola to become nation-states under a de facto U.S.-led occupation? In other words, is it possible for societies that historically never had a nation-state through their own indigenous effort to metamorphose into one under foreign occupation?


Such questions are important because they’re at the heart of the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan and in particular Iraq. While the occupation of both countries comes already at a hefty cost of $5 billion a month, president Bush has requested an additional $87 billion from Congress (which it approved, but with a scandalous $10 billion in “loans”) to finance Iraq’s infrastructure from scratch—and more could be on its way. Since modern warfare is also fought with public opinion—or opinion polls—a minimum number of casualties among the military, a respect for the “enemy”’s civilian population (which means no more cities leveled down the German way), and the cost of bills to be paid by the taxpayers back home, are all factors that sooner or later will push the Bush administration to make a better case for its Iraqi enterprise.


Clearly the common predominant view—primarily in Middle Eastern and Arab-Islamic countries—that the scope of U.S. imperialism is one of pure domination, control and hegemony, misses an essential aspect of the American civilizing mission with Iraq as its current center point. What is really missing, and tends to be easily forgotten—not only by Middle Easterners, but also by Europeans and Americans alike—is that without that crucial attempt (or experiment) to create a nation-state from scratch, the whole Iraqi enterprise would altogether become meaningless. Why is then the nation-state so important? Is it possible for non-nation-states (which is the current status of roughly 30 to 35 countries of the U.N.) to become one under external pressure and coercion? And, finally—that’s the crucial question—why now? Why is it that it has become so important—at least from an American perspective—for Iraq to become a nation-state? Why not simply let it go?


With its excessive—if not abusive—emphasis on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), terrorism, and Saddam Hussein’s criminal personality, the Bush administration did not present its case for its occupation of Iraq all too well. There is still that broad feeling for at least half of the U.S. population that the occupation of Iraq must have emerged out of a “national strategic interest,” but it’s also all too unclear why this must be the case. The WMD must have existed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, but they seem to have been destroyed in the past few years. (It remains a mystery why Saddam behaved as if he still possessed them. Arab pride? Fear of the Ayatollahs regime?) There’s no empirical link between Iraq and international terrorist organizations like the Qa‘ida; and Saddam’s craziness was definitely not worth the trouble. On the other hand, those with “noble” goals (Kagan and Co) think it’s enough as an argument to bring a new democratic regime and create a market state on the basis that Iraqis must surely be better off under that new regime than the preceding one. Why would they refuse such a thing?, the argument goes. The argument fails, however, when it comes to see whether Iraqis and other in the region have such a “noble” understanding of the process, whether they need it, and more importantly, whether it “fits” with their history and culture. In sum, we’re raising the very universality of that concept of nation-state: Is it possible to push its current borderlines from Europe and North America towards other parts of the world? Are we witnessing, for historical and strategic reasons that need to be uncovered, the universalization of the nation-state?


I’m probably among a minority that would like to think of the American mission in Iraq (and Afghanistan) in terms of the possibility of the modern nation-state. What does that mean, and why has that become such an important mission right now? The Cold War has accustomed us to such cynicism in politics among Soviets and Americans that it has become difficult to imagine “nobler” goals than those propounded up to the 1980s.


It would be misleading to trace the history of the nation-state in Europe to earlier than the nineteenth century. In effect, if we consider that the beginning of the modern state goes back to the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries with the Italian princely states, several other stately forms had to follow prior to the nation-state: the princely states of the Italian cities, the kingly states (primarily France), the territorial state, and the state-nation (l’État-nation). To simplify, in all those forms “sovereignty” was assumed and the state embodied that sovereignty and protected the “territory.” By the eighteenth century, the state-nation now took care of a single and unified “nation.” There was still the primacy of the state as the agency that brought unity to the nation and protects the national territory. “Sovereignty” was, however, still taken for granted in that the people was sovereign because protected by the state. The nineteenth-century notion of nation-state inversed therefore that relationship. Society was composed of individuals whose sovereignty—the general will—had to find mechanisms for political representation. The state now portrayed itself as the legitimate representative of society whose mechanisms of representation (general assembly, universal suffrage, etc.) gave legitimacy to the state and its institutions. Public opinion, individual rights, social cohesion and the like took since then a new meaning and role since they all provided the “nation” with a sense of cohesiveness. Not only cohesiveness was no more taken for granted, but a lack of cohesiveness implied a de facto civil war: that is, when groups within society denied the legitimacy of the state and hence threatened the civil order.


When Napoleon fought his European wars, the French system was still one of state-nation, and the successive wars against Spain, Austria, Prussia, and the British contributed in that nineteenth-century push towards the nation-state. In effect, the French Revolution was seen as having brought the notion of the sovereignty of the people over that of the state; the latter deriving its legitimacy from the former. Hence the monarchy, based on chance and feudal rights, had to be abolished. The French nation, now perceived as having created new political forms of rights and duties, had to be protected by the state against possible external aggressions commanded by states of an “inferior” political heritage. The Napoleonic wars were thus fought with the eighteenth-century heritage of the state-nation: the state protects a sovereign nation internally and externally.


The ubiquitous notion of nation-state thus spread in nineteenth-century Europe through a combination of warfare, political strategy, ideology, and constitutional reforms that coordinated inter-state relations. But the Napoleonic wars notwithstanding, the nation-state did not go without much internal resistance across Europe. If the notion was not—and still is not—that popular, it could be because it goes hand-in-hand with free-market capitalism. Is it possible to imagine a modern nation-state without that laissez-faire capitalism? Doesn’t the nation-state assume, as one of its core beliefs, that its system of cultural and economic exchange rests on a free and open market? It goes without saying that there has been much resistance in Europe and the rest of the world to such radical ideas whose roots go back to the Enlightenment and the heritage of the French Revolution. To begin with, Europe witnessed two world wars, in the aftermath of which a cold war up to 1989 instituted the inter-state relations between the two superpowers. The twentieth century was therefore one of a Long War (1914-89) in which the free-market powers fought a long protracted war against fascism, totalitarianism, and communism, all of which were initially developed and fermented in Europe, prior to spreading like a disease to the rest of the world. Through that long and bloody struggle, the nation-state developed into a welfare state that looks into the well being of its citizens, which provides them with free education, medical insurance, and pension plans. But as the welfare state took more the allure of a public corporation whose clients want more than noble principles and promises, and ever since the performance of the state institutions and their ability to satisfy the conflicting wishes of individuals has moved to the surface of politics, the nation-state has transited into a market-state.


Nation-states in their modern revamping as market-states have first and foremost to satisfy their own citizens and protect their national territories. But it would be erroneous to think of their task as mainly internal—the national territory. With globalization borders have become ever more porous, with capitals, ideas, cultures, and terrorists circulating ever more easily than at any time in history. The American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is therefore one of the expansion of the nation-state beyond its traditional borders into countries where the nation-state was implemented by the colonial powers only formally. Those who criticize the Bush administration for failures in good planning forget that there’s much at stake here than normalizing the daily lives of Iraqis: it’s whether the nation-state as a universal model can succeed in that part of the world. But let’s begin by asking the most trivial question: Why should the nation-state expand into areas that historically have thus far remained outside its scope?


Throughout human history we see people enshrined within their own cultures and incapable of positing higher motives even if their cultural systems are deteriorating. Thus, although “internal” long-term changes are historically possible—for example, Europe of the last millennium—those were the outcome both of outside pressures (among them, in this case, the Islamic conquests) and of counter-conquests designed to stop such pressures (the Crusades, and later the colonial wars). Cultures, societies, nations and regions could be the subject of external hegemony and/or colonization for a variety of reasons. Either the culture in question is too weak to survive on its own, hence causing regional disturbances, or else it lacks the dynamism to compete regionally and internationally. All the old colonization movements of the past (Roman, Islamic, Mongol and Ottoman), as well as the modern ones (French, British and American), have redefined trade zones and barriers, opened populations to one another, and molded cultures, languages and ethnic groups. Above all, they have reshaped political, legal, and economic systems. The idea, therefore, that “cultures” should be looked upon “internally”—through their own indigenous sources and self-images—may have some epistemological value—at least as an academic exercise in the study of cultures—but it’s historically invalid, simply because self-containment is a fiction.


Every hegemonic power attempts to impose its own political, legal, and economic systems in a process of colonization. Such attempts are generally met with mixed results on the ground. Down end the road, even if colonization is successful, the colonial framework is met with resistance. It’s less a question of “understanding” the natives, than one of assessing how much of the old and obsolete socio-economic infrastructures can be reconstructed from scratch. That’s precisely what is at stake in Iraq today: Can Iraq move into a free-market economy? Is that feasible? It’s one of those big moves that would require a habitus change from every Iraqi citizen—the move from an uncompetitive, authoritarian, and state-owned economy, where decision making was in the hands of few incompetent politicians, to one where everyone must have a share, make his own decisions, and above all, compete. So why not give all Iraqis a share? Let’s openly pose the principle of full citizen’s rights over public assets—in the form of tradable shares—so that each sale of a public institution de facto becomes the ownership of the majority of Iraqi citizens. Each eligible citizen would be granted a limited number of shares, which would be listed on world stock exchanges, and which everyone would be free to sell or keep. Not only the region as a whole might benefit from such an economic experiment, but even the civilized world may too have something to learn.




copyright ©2003 by zouhair ghazzal