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"A Peace to End All Peace"

I just finished reading David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, which examines the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and discusses how the Allies' messy handling of the process (primarily focused on turning the region into a collection of protectorates) helped form the Middle East that we see today. It's a very good read, although at 567 pages it definitely demands a certain time commitment. Fromkin does a fine job making the narrative engaging and easy to follow, which is an impressive accomplishment considering the great complexity of the topic.

The book has really inspired me with a lot of great questions and ideas, but there's one in particular that I'd like to share with you all. In his conclusion, Fromkin points out that the Allies (especially the British) were trying to transform the post-Ottoman Middle East into a collection of nation states along the lines of Europe. But they expected to be able to accomplish this in a matter of years rather than decades, let alone centuries. And yet, post-Roman Europe (which found itself in essentially the same position of being a collection of diverse peoples suddenly without the imperial entity that had dominated them for centuries) took well over a thousand years to complete that process. It took centuries for the post-Roman Europeans to create national identities for themselves and it took more centuries for them to determine which nations would occupy what geographic territory. Over those centuries, the development of post-imperial Europe saw tremendous amounts of internal violence and warfare, exercised by the young nations both against each other and against their own people.

What struck me is how this parallels the post-colonial world of today. With the breakup of the European empires over the course of the 20th century, it seems like the new nations in Asia, Africa and the Pacific are going through a similar struggle to define themselves as free political entities. I think it's safe to say that the model of the nation-state has already been accepted by most of the world, but that still leaves the struggle to define one's geographic boundaries without and ethno-cultural boundaries within. We can see countless examples of this in various conflicts between or within nations, such as the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan or the ethnic violence in Rwanda. If the post-Roman example in Europe is anything to go by, post-imperial struggles are inevitably long and violent, and result in the repression or even annihilation of minority cultures within a new nation. And these disputes over identity can be over sacred or secular issues with equal ease: let us not forget the example of France, with the massacre of the Albigensians and the persecution of the Huguenots (religious), and the repression of minority cultures like the Basques, the Bretons and the Alsatians (secular). This does not paint a hopeful picture for post-colonial world, and certainly no one wants new nations, finally enjoying freedom and self-determination, to go through centuries of violence trying to forge themselves.

So what does this mean? Is this parallel simply a coincidence? Will we see the post-colonial world escape the worst of the European national experience? Or are all nations destined to go through some amount of terrible and intolerable violence? I don't have an answer, but I'm curious as to what all of you think about this.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
All men will fight, if that is what they are taught to do.
Jul. 14th, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)
It is a big question, and an important one. Also an old one: long before the Ottoman, when Alexander's forces took over the Persian Empire, they used the principle of homonoia to try to ease unrest and promote assimilation/integration of new territories into Greek culture. Of course, not everything went according to plan when it all fragmented after his death.

The only way I can really see of avoiding violence amongst groups that have been shoehorned together in a colonial situation is by adopting actively tolerant social and governance policy that respects and celebrates the rights of the various groups involved. If each of the various factions/groups feels like they're fairly treated and represented as full members of society, the unrest is likely to be a lot lower.

Said unrest probably won't be completely absent, though, and real stability and national identity may yet take a long time to achieve. Taking New Zealand as an example, I think we've done a reasonable job of managing our post-colonial situation. Some of our challenges were certainly easier to begin with than other ex-colonies, but the modern government has addressed Maori land claim grievances and holds the Treaty of Waitangi from 1840 as an important document whose principles are still relevant today, and our parliament still has seats specifically for Maori representation. Even now, Waitangi Day attracts small protests, however; race and culture relations in the country are still an open issue some 80-100 years after independence.

The other option would be to suppress your minorities hard enough that they don't feel they have any chance at all to fight back, but that's hardly the humane option - and could backfire very badly indeed.

[Disclaimer for anyone else reading: I'm not a political scientist or historian, so please forgive me if there's a certain degree of naïveté in my musings.]
Jul. 27th, 2010 01:12 am (UTC)
I'd also recommend John E. Mack's "A Prince of Our Disorder", a biography of T.E. Lawrence, as well as Lawrence's own "Seven Pillars of Wisdom".
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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