LONDON — In global affairs, nothing can be so hard to see as the obvious, if it is big enough. Nowhere is this truer than in the transformation of the international diplomatic and security system now underway. Before our eyes — if not yet in strategic planning — the map of the world is rearranging itself.
Some have said that we are in a period of strong, rising states, like China, determined to push their claims for territory and influence, challenging norms about honoring established borders and territorial sovereignty. Others insist that multi-state groupings like the European Union will determine the future, creating a new system of peaceful, pacifistic players. Still others point to non-state actors motivated by politico-religious ideology or narco-profits as pushing states aside.
The truth is that one state after another is facing a crisis as provinces and populations seek greater autonomy or even try to break away. With that change, the three-and-a-half century old international system that emerged from 1648’s Peace of Westphalia is changing, too, and a new system — call it “Eastphalia” — is coming to life.
Recent news out of a particularly weak nation — Pakistan — shows this alteration in operation. It concerned an American drone strike that killed a Taliban commander in South Waziristan. According to multiple press accounts, the Pakistani military classified the commander as a “good Taliban,” meaning he waged war against Americans in Afghanistan, not against Pakistan itself. Fighting at least five separatist movements in three of the country’s four provinces and two of its territories, including Waziristan, Pakistan considers anyone “good” who stays out of those battles.
For decades, westerners saw Pakistan as having emerged spontaneously from India as three centuries of British rule ended. But recently Pakistan has come to be understood as the final creation of British imperial policy, a Cold War buffer between the Soviet Union and Soviet sympathizing India. As with most British colonial creations, incompatible tribal groups were stuffed into a single political entity. Over nearly half a century, Cold War imperatives held Pakistan together. Now, with those geopolitical pressures nearly two decades past, ancient forces are reemerging and nearly every section of the country except the core Punjab province has spawned rebellion.
In its factiousness, Pakistan may be extreme, but it is not alone. Throughout Asia, as well as in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe, global forces that began emerging three centuries ago and climaxed with the Cold War and that produced most of today’s troubled states are now reversed. Many of those states are unraveling.
From the Westphalian settlement through 1900, first Europe and then (through European colonialism) much of the world underwent political consolidations. States formed: the United Kingdom (with the 1707 union of England and Scotland), modern France, modern Spain, unified Germany and Italy, Russia, even the United States. Empires grew: British, French, German, Italian, Belgian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian.
In the 20th century the imperial process slammed into reverse. First, the new empires, plus the old Ottoman one, broke up. After World War I, League of Nation mandates took over former German and Ottoman-controlled territories. In mid-century, the British and French divested their global holdings. And in the 1990s, the Soviet (formerly Russian) empire was thrown on the ash heap of history.
The end of the Cold War inaugurated a new “country” stage of deconsolidation.
It started in Europe, more than a decade ago, when Czechoslovakia broke in two — creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia — and Yugoslavia broke in four. Then Kosovo broke from one of the four, Serbia. Today Belgium grapples with secessionists in Flanders, Spain with the Basque County and Catalonia. Italy has confronted similar, though less extreme, discontent in Venice and Lombardy, Germany in Bavaria, Denmark in Greenland. In the United Kingdom just a few months ago, Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to an independence referendum for Scotland in 2014.
But Europe is the least of the story.
In the former Soviet Union, Russia has struggled with Chechnyan secession. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan have their own would-be breakaway provinces.
In Africa, we read almost daily of deadly regional rebellions — including in the Congo, Somalia, Mali, Zambia and Nigeria. In the Middle East, post-Gaddafi Libya is grappling with the Toubous of the south. If successful, Syria’s current national uprising may produce, in a turnaround, an Alawite secession. Turkey, Iraq and Syria are all resisting Kurdish independence. Israel (perhaps the most humane country in countering violent separatists) struggles with the Palestinians. Sudan (among the least humane) fights to hold Darfur. Oman, Yemen and Morocco struggle with separatists, too.
In Asia, in addition to Pakistan, India has at least seven secessionist movements, Bangladesh two, Sri Lanka one. The Philippines appears to have reached a peace agreement with the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front, at least for the moment. But in China, from Tibet to Xinjiang to Inner Mongolia, many, perhaps all, western provinces would secede, given the chance. Meanwhile,Myanmar (also known as Burma) faces rebellions on a scale comparable to Pakistan’s, fighting five secessionist movements, one of which has been called the world’s longest running civil war (it started in 1948 at the country’s independence from the British Empire).
Outside of Europe and the constitutional democracies of Israel and India, weakened states go hand in hand with the world’s worst human rights abuses and economic stagnation for both rebelling and non-rebelling populations. Some of these states — China, Russia, Pakistan, for example — are showing new belligerence in international affairs, perhaps in part to shore up domestic support. Others — among them Mali, Sudan and Yemen — are too weak to prevent global terrorist organizations from finding safe haven within their borders. Weakened countries are proving themselves potential threats to global security.
For that reason, in at least one way the emerging “Eastphalian” system is destined to be very different from the old Westphalian one. The new system must take greater interest in the internal affairs of states. This shift has already begun.
In the 1970s the democracies embraced the global human rights movement, not just for countering the Soviets but in relations with all nations. A decade ago, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, western forces entered Afghanistan to root out the non-state al Qaeda organization, and have since done the same in other nations, Somalia in particular.
It is not hard to imagine that an Eastphalian system will also involve international intervention in the governance of struggling nations before a crisis of violence. For example, Canada may rank as the world’s most successful country at dealing with a secessionist crisis. French-speaking Canada’s grievances were largely resolved without violence. High levels of autonomy had already been given not just to Quebec but to all provinces. Canada also embraced bilingualism nationally. Similarly, at least for governance, Britain has moved toward greater autonomy within the union for Scotland and Wales, making them more like Canadian provinces. Russia, China and Myanmar, among many others, could benefit from Canadian diplomats explaining how their country devolved power and became stronger as a result.
But the most critical challenge the transformation of the international system presents us is just to see and understand it. The changes are epochal and driven by epochal forces. We must grasp those forces and where they are leading not in terms of old facts and old standards, or of our current obsessions, but as they are and as they will be. Then we can deal with them.