The utter failure of nation building

Pluralism, decentralization, rule of law, social justice, building institutions and infrastructure, good governance and what not: The to-do list is obvious. Strategic patience (not to confuse with lethargy) and political vision (not to confuse with “having visions”) are in short supply. Does a shortcut exist?

Can we suggest without falling into traps of amorality, navel-gazing and discrimination that nation building failed and keeps on failing all over the world? Would that be superficial to do so? To put it more timidly and in order to avoid being crucified at the altar can we ask whether there exists one single successful effort of nation building that reached its final destination, “to become a nation” that is? If we add “in recent memory” to our challenge, the picture does not get any rosier. We can even add to the mix the recent failures of once shining examples of peace processes to brood over.

Edward Luttvak, beautifully frames what I am babbling about as “the prolonged farce of ‘counter-insurgency warfare’ (military malpractice institutionalized) with its corrupt ‘nation-building’ twin (a very expensive and impotent form of colonialism)” –indeed. From Burma to Ethiopia, from Afghanistan to you name it where our globe is littered with failed experiments. Furthermore, once successful showcases of peace processes in Northern Ireland, in Colombia and even in South Africa too show signs of distress. Not to mention that Aung San Kyi and Abiy Ahmed are both much esteemed Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Esteemed, unless you ask the Rohingya and the Tigray peoples’ opinions respectively.

Commenting about Afghanistan and touching upon the global immigration issue along the way, “The timelessness of social problems, the perverse consequences of change, the role of futility in human affairs: it is possible to be sublimely educated and screened from these verities," writes Janan Ganesh. Unless I am in a new phase of my mid-life crisis which I thought I had left behind, I believe he has point in underlining futility. As in the futility of trying to come up with problem solving policies when it comes to issues of these gigantic proportions.

Above were my initial musings reading about the latest “velvet coup” or “coup de théâtre” in Iraqi Kurdistan which was in turn supposed to be the subject of this column. Once a haven, a peaceful oasis, the friendly gateway to Iraq, a new Dubai or a new Israel depending on your mood, the IKR does not appear to have moved forward an iota towards a unified democratic administration. To add insult to injury, the newfound riches of oil only appear to deepen and widen the existing corruption. Decision makers in Baghdad, Ankara and Teheran would only be wringing their hands with glee one may add but are they really the only ones to blame for this latest calamity that fell upon the IKR?

“Kurds have no friend but the mountains” the “ad nauseam” cited saying goes. Yet at the same time, Kurds’ worst enemies appear to be themselves as well. In the southern half of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the PUK, inside the ruling Talabani Palace, princes Bafel and Lahur drew their daggers and threw themselves at each other throats. Mam Jalal’s succession battle culminated at last after five years of his passing or so it seems. Does the same fate awaits the northern half controlled by the PDK once Kak Massoud passes away? It is quite hard to discard the contingency of a hardened power struggle between Nechirvan and Masrour at that point in time.

To be fair, there is not much juice in the latest PUK story unless one is particularly interested in Kurdish affairs. Late great English poet Philip Larkin asks: “Where can we live but days?” And then answers his own question almost by throwing his hands up in the air: “Ah, solving that question / Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields.” Thus, the White House MENA Coordinator (a pompous title?) McGurk arrived at last in Baghdad after a slow start and following the full US withdrawal from Afghanistan decision. The much-feared famous “butterfly effect” had already arrived before him and he rushed on to the crime scene -Sulaimaniyah- hoping for what? To pick up the pieces? God knows.

Forget for a moment about who is toppling who in the PUK, what about the sheer absurdity –for example- of the lack of a proper power grid after almost two decades in a country like Iraq sitting atop a literal ocean of cheap to extract top quality oil? Anyway, it should become sufficiently clear to the Kurds of Iraq by now that relying on the US and to a lesser extent to the UK is a relic of the past. That, and old militia power combined with clandestine revenue-generating networks and one’s precedence in one of the two ruling families trump popularity –both within one’s party, among the Kurds and in the western media.

Pluralism, decentralization, rule of law, social justice, building institutions and infrastructure, good governance and what not: The to-do list is obvious. Strategic patience (not to confuse with lethargy) and political vision (not to confuse with “having visions”) are in short supply. Does a shortcut exist? Is it possible to kick start nationhood the way one does with a stubborn old motor with a dead battery on? Which should precede the other: Nation building or democracy? Could the ill-fated 2017 independence referendum be considered as a way to achieve these goals? Yet more futile questions.

Once ISIL erased the border between Iraq and Syria all had cried foul. Nowadays borders especially at various spots in Africa look like getting fractured. Global warming, rampant poverty as well as ongoing, slow burning or imminent armed conflicts will accelerate the pace of immigration. No clever policy or hard power can stop hopeless humans from seeking better conditions elsewhere. Neither sanctions nor engagement appear to work with authoritarian leaders and they are happy to play the transactional partners. Stability comes first everything else is way down the agenda. As for the sole global power the US, we are being hammered day in day out that only China matters.

Reading this column looking for answers is a futile exercise too. We could have well arrived at an existentialist -even Beckettian- moment in international affairs: Everything we do and everybody else does is utterly futile but still we need to soldier on. Democracy is constant vigilance, daily referendum or vote of confidence or something like that a wise man had said somewhere. You get my point. What is difficult though is “to get” democracy right and to keep it properly working by relentlessly mending its fissures. Reasonably, generations will pass before we get there unless everything goes bust and climate change pushes humanity to inter-galactic journeys.

We started this column by asking questions and concluded not by finding palatable answers but adding even more questions to the existing age old ones. As we say in Turkish: “Our job is in God’s hands now.” Shall we then conclude with a prayer –not that I am a baptized Christian but a fan of Tarantino: “Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness.” Come to think of it, this won’t do either perhaps, because Samuel Jackson started shooting each time he recited Ezekiel 25:17. Then, darker days are ahead of us.

September 13, 2021 The new cold war