Monday, 3 February 2014

Multi-ethnic States: Disasters Waiting to Happen

For any nation-state to endure and succeed, it needs a sense of identity and purpose.  This is much easier to establish if the people in the nation-state in question have certain things in common, such as language, history, religion, values and customs.  I would argue that most nation-states that have most or all of these common characteristics are usually successful, while nation-states that have few or none of these characteristics are usually doomed to fail.

If you look on the globe at the countries where most violent internal conflicts occur, you will notice that most of them are multi-ethnic states - in other words, states in which there is no one ethnic group that forms a majority of the population.  For the most part, states like these are usually not the product of popular will, but rather the product of imperialism, colonialism and conquest, mostly done in the name of European colonial powers who would routinely carve up the territory that they conquered without regard for the local population.  The ultimate result after the colonial era had ended was the creation of countries composed of several, often countless groups of peoples who had no affinity for each other and who were never meant to live together in the same nation-state.  Today, many of these countries are what are sometimes referred to as "failed states" - countries without effective governance beset by armed conflict, poverty, disease, famine and destitution.

Ironically, however, the most successful nation-sate in today's world is itself a multi-ethnic state.  I speak, of course, of the United States of America.  What began as a loose federation of British colonies eventually became the vast empire that it is today.  It boasts the greatest military in the history of humankind and its economy has been the dominant force in the world for the better part of a century.  Yet, the U.S. may suffer the same fate that befell its former rival, the Soviet Union, or other empires before it, simply because of its multi-ethnic character.

Like most multi-ethnic states, the U.S. has what I like to call a "core group".  That is, a certain ethnic group that does not make up the majority of the population, but does hold most of the power in the country.  In the U.S., the core group is made up of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPS as they are often called in a derogatory sense.  These are the descendants of America's "Founding Fathers", the people who broke away from their fellow countrymen in Britain to form their own nation.  Today, this core group continues to be the dominant sector in American society, but its dominance is slowly waning in the face of America's growing multiculturalism, which has seen and will continue to see groups of visible minorities become the majority in many parts of the country.  These visible minorities, specifically blacks, Latinos and native Americans, form the majority of America's underclass.  Hence, in the future, I would not be surprised if these groups, having had enough of being exploited and dominated by the core group, try to break away from the American empire, eventually leading to a situation in which the U.S. is broken up into ethnic and racial mini-states and fiefdoms - a situation that would be similar to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The situation in Canada is similar though different in the sense that there are two core groups, namely Canadians of British descent and those of French descent, which have fought each other for supremacy since European settlement began.  This struggle was further complicated when under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada adopted the ideology of multiculturalism.  Trudeau meant to create a more inclusive Canadian identity with his new policy of multiculturalism.  Ironically, however, he may have given Canada a death sentence, because although the new ideology has made it easier to accept anyone as a Canadian regardless of their race, religion or cultural background, it has also been increasingly used as an excuse for not integrating into Canadian society, not learning the official languages and not conforming to certain values that are consistent with a modern, democratic country.  The philosophy of multiculturalism has also given a new sense of urgency to the Quebec independence movement.  From Bill 101 in the late 1970s to the recently proposed Charter of Values, Quebec nationalists have done everything they can to prevent the Quebecois nation from being diluted into Canada's new multicultural mosaic.  There is, however, some good news.  If Canada does come apart, it will probably not do so violently.  Quebec will simply break away from English-speaking Canada, leaving the two solitudes to go their separate ways in very much the same way Czechoslovakia split into two states in what was called the "Velvet Divorce".  As for the rest of Canada, it may yet survive if it can hold onto its democratic values as well as its social values that will keep it from being absorbed by the United States.

Just to be clear, I do believe that people of different races, cultures, religions, languages, etc. can live together in the same country, but this is conditional upon building a national identity that is based on common values and interests rather than ethnicity, religion and so forth.  Switzerland, for example, is a multilingual federation that has existed for centuries because the Swiss have come together and stayed together based on shared interests and values.  And believe it or not, any nation-state that manages to forge a national identity that isn't based on blood or some other primordial characteristic has a chance to survive and thrive.  This includes countries like the United States and Canada.  The problem is that creating a sense of identity that doesn't involve the colour of one's skin or the language one speaks is extremely difficult.  It requires a lot of time, good leadership and the ability to educate the populous so that they buy into the national identity that the country's leaders strive to create.  Unfortunately, I cannot see this happening in most multi-ethnic states.

For the vast majority of countries that do not have a national identity based on ethnicity, religion, language, etc., the best possible outcome is probably a partition amongst the competing groups in question.  In Iraq, for example, there does not appear to be anyone or anything that can unite the people of that country, who were only united forcibly under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.  It would be best, therefore, to partition the country into three separate states; one for each of the three main competing groups: Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds.  I would not think for a second that doing this would solve all the problems in the area, but I believe that it is a necessary step. 

This kind of partition is possible in many multi-ethnic states, but unfortunately not all.  There are cases where partition is simply not possible because in some countries, different competing groups are not concentrated in specific places that make it easy to draw borders between them.  Lebanon, for example, is a country rocked by divisions between competing religious sects.  But unlike Czechoslovakia, which was neatly split between the Czechs and Slovaks with clearly defined borders, Lebanon does not have clearly demarcated, contiguous territories controlled by its different sects that would allow a tidy partition of the country.  In other words, the country's people are simply too mixed up to allocate a territory to each competing sect.  This leaves Lebanon with no other option but to allow the violence within its borders to continue until someone or something can facilitate the creation of a new national identity that overrides sectarian divisions.  Unfortunately, I don't see this happening any time soon.

As for the United States, its collapse would probably bring about an upheaval that would rival the fall of the Roman Empire.  I believe that the country can avoid this upheaval, but first, the American people have a decision to make: do they want to alleviate the grievances of the country's underclass even if it means that they will no longer be a global superpower, or do they want to remain a global superpower even if it means that the American underclass could rise up and bring about the fall of the American empire and the country itself?  If the American people choose the former, they may yet save their beloved republic because tending to the grievances of the underclass, which as I said is dominated by the black, Latino and native American racial minorities, will bring about a more inclusive American identity.  But if they choose the latter, their country could soon resemble the killing fields of the former Yugoslavia - on a much bigger and more brutal scale.      



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