Nation states and MENA
Remember what Robert Reich, President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, said about the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996? “You know, much of what the federal government does in the United States... is to provide what is almost a large insurance policy for people. And it’s only when you get in trouble... that you realize that the insurance policy has effectively been cancelled. And that’s what’s happened now,” he said. I think this is a good way of thinking about the modern nation state. It’s not only about building roads, schools and military bases but also a regulatory edifice to operate the country, oversee markets, and create an environment for your citizens to freely interact with each other. That is what the Middle East urgently needs.
I first went to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has its headquarters, more than a decade and a half ago. What struck me at that time was the dismal state of the PA’s administrative capacity. At the time, I thought it was the Israeli occupation that eroded the PA. Then I saw Dubai, Riyadh, Sanaa and some other Middle Eastern cities and found out that it’s not the Israeli occupation but something deeper about the region. It’s the absence of the concept of the nation state. This is endemic in our neighborhood with the exception of two countries: Turkey and Israel.
So even in places like Iraq and Syria, where there were coercive domestic apparatuses, there are no nation states. Nations are built by curbing diversity and creating a mythology that for better or worse brings people together. That’s what a cadre of Ottoman officers did to build modern Turkey. We brought Muslim citizens of the empire to Asia Minor and came up with a story to call them Turks. We are an amalgamation of migrants who think ourselves as a nation.
It’s more urgent than ever to think about these things. Why? Because of the technological revolution. Technology is significantly changing the way business has to be conducted, in effect “disrupting” entire industries. We face creative destruction in overdrive, and the Middle East will not be spared. The business plans of oil exporting countries have already become obsolete. Achievements in biotechnology, nanotechnology and information and communications technologies are making non-carbon based growth a possibility. Some leaders with foresight are already taking drastic measures to reform, but it isn’t at all clear whether they will succeed.
It’s important that they think not just as CEOs, but as nation builders. All those transformation programs already underway in so many countries of the region have to go hand in hand with a plausible story that brings people together, that takes them out of their various trenches and that makes it possible for them to steer a state together.
Yet both the American invasion of Iraq and the recent Syrian civil war showed one thing: Nation states are not built by human design. They have to emerge through human interaction. Iraq has been unstable for 15 years, and despite recent elections, won’t calm down anytime soon. The Syrian civil war has entered its eighth year. As terrible as that sounds, that may be the only way of getting there. The political scientist Charles Tilly famously said that “war made the state and the state made war.” Turkey’s founding fathers fought in the Balkans, North Africa, the Arab peninsula, the Caucasus, and finally in Anatolia, before establishing the Turkish Republic in 1923. Fighting may be the first form of human interaction in nation state building. Let’s hope the region advances to other forms sooner rather than later.