Take a close look at the Persian Gulf. Which states are growing, and which are failing? What I’ve noticed is that the small city-states are outpacing the large nation-states in most regards. Kuwait, Bahrain, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and glistening Dubai have all managed to pursue quasi-free market policies and allow relatively open societies while neighbors such as Iran wallow in theocratic authoritarianism. Full disclosure: this discussion has to be couched in the reality that no government in the Middle East is close to ‘limited.’ The city-states praised herein practice extreme state capitalism. Of course, in this regard they are not that different than the self-righteous Western governments.
As we witness the liberalization, and corresponding economic miracle, of the Gulf city-states, a parallel can be drawn to the renaissance and the Italian city-states. Those advocates of modern political theory, which is built upon the ethno-linguistic nation-state, are constantly baffled that these states remain authoritarian or fail. They look at the American Federal state as an example of large-state success; I would argue that the US Fedgov persists, in spite of its size, because of the centuries of small-state tradition that led to it, as well as the theoretical reservation of power to fifty small states. If theorists could pull their heads out of the landscape as it looks right now, they would remember that the Western World fell apart once. The Near East World is where Europe was a millenium ago. The Italian city-states were the first bastions of freedom in a backward, and theocratically repressive, Europe.
I think we might be witnessing the same thing in the Gulf, the first stepping stone. Though Dubai and its brethren owe some element of their recent ‘success’ to government-manipulated oil money, that state interference is coupled with market reforms that are allowing real growth to move forward. They are able to do this because they are small and independent. Large states are too tempted by the game of interstate power projection. They worry about creating ‘spheres of influence,’ neighboring states that can be manipulated to suit the large states’ needs. Meanwhile, they always maintain themselves by forcing separatist regions to remain within the superstate. Modern political theory, espoused most prominently by the United Nations, encourages such coercive territoriality. States align with nations, the U.N. says, and nations are defined by those in power. It’s certainly a good way to maintain a large membership in your ‘international body’ when financing and participation are decided by those in power, but is it just? For all of the current world order’s talk of justice, human rights, self-government, and the like, is the tacit prohibition of secession severely hurting the most disenfranchised groups? Yes, I say, and the consequences are clear in the Gulf.
Iraq, Isrealestine, Turkey: all of these places are begging to dissolve into a multitude of self-governing mini-states. These states would allow the resolution of conflict because small states are not predicated on force as often as large states are, for a small state cannot build a large standing army and does not need an authoritarian government to keep itself together. Further, it provides more options to have more states. If we grant that governance is exceptional in its connection to territory, as opposed to other services, then having smaller states is the only way to create a semi-competitive market between states. The message is: behave, or your citizens and capital will leave. Globalization has put exactly that kind of pressure on every existing state, and they are liberalizing in return. As the primitive concepts of border control and customs become less popular, the desire to retain capital and citizens through positive encouragement will only increase.
Isrealestine, as I’ve taken to calling it, is nominally divided into two states. One is run by the Palestinian Authority, the other by the Government of Israel. Most diplomats dream of a two-state solution, which is fine except that it requires one of the states to be cleaved in half. Currently, that state is the Palestinian which is separated into the West Bank and Gaza. Recently, nature has taken its course, pre-empting in fact what I’m about to argue for in theory: Gaza and the West Bank are functioning as two independent states since Hamas took over Gaza. Okay, so that will leave us with a three-state solution, if the thick-headed internationalists ever break down and recognize Gaza as a state. But what about four states? Israel could spin off its desert south into a Free State of Eilat. Many may fret over defense of such small states, but any of the four could confederalize with each other to create a situation potentially much more defensible than currently exists (especially if the Jews and Muslims could get over their differences in the name of mutual protection).
Iraq is another prime example. While the US Fedgov tries desperately to hold together the Iraqi ‘nation,’ others have suggested breaking the state into its ethnic components. I think this will just excourage the notion that rights and liberties are reserved only for those of one’s own ethnicity. Instead, Iraq could be dissolved into its respective provinces, or another multi-state mix. I’d put money on the assertion that rebuilding would progress at a glorious rate if these mini-states were abandoned by the US military and left to their own devices.
Turkey is an example of a large state attempting to assimilate a renegade region. Large states always do this: see US Civil War. Turkey would carve into many natural states. The Kurds definely want out, but instead of making an ethno-nationalist Kurdistan which intimidates the region’s superstates, the Kurds could push for a few smaller states (perhaps including some sympathetic Turkish countryfolk, gasp).
Realpolitikers will read this essay and think that I’m hopelessly out of touch with the tribal realities of Middle Eastern life. That may be true, but if we truly want this region to civilize then we should study what will empower and teach them. Our own experience should tell us, as I certainly feel in the States and Canada, that the more distant and ‘super-‘ a government is, the less each individual feels he can make a difference. Mark my words, in an enlightened age the free states thrive, and smaller states, if they can keep their external defenses in order, are more able to maintain freedom. Rome was powerful, wealthy, and free as a small city-state, but it squandered its fruits as a large empire. As we look at ourselves and the new Gulf Tigers, let us learn this lesson once again, and adopt a tolerance for secession and self-government as part of all of our political agendas.