Bill Gaede, a famous Soviet spy during the last breaths of the Cold War, worked in America as a high-level computer engineer and programmer. Always one step ahead of his Western handlers, he famously bragged that in chess “a novice makes moves until he gets checkmated, a Grand Master realizes 20 moves in advance that it’s futile to continue playing.” It is time for the Western world to understand that the post-World War II global map, depicting chessboard squares and straight-lined borders, is an inadequate representation of the ethnic patchwork that was carelessly dissected.
Western foreign policy must evolve to one that encourages genuine organic separation; one that takes into account the ethnic and national complexities of peoples now being forced to live in a common state. Whether it is ISIS, the Crimea, Transnistria, or Catalonia, allowing the map to self-correct, albeit uncomfortable to imagine and pride swallowing to watch, will eventually lead to a more just, long-term global stability.
The most compelling evidence lies in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The story of how the once great empire crumbled into intractable conflict and chaos is no different than that of the contemporary ethnic conflicts of today. It was just as bloody, just as violent, and contained just as much propensity for peaceful resolution.
As Croats attacked Serbs, Serbs attacked Albanians, and Albanians attacked Croats, towns and villages that had mixed ethnic neighborhoods began to transform into separate entities. Once the phenomenon began to snowball, the various Balkan states began to flesh out on the world stage. Rather than intervene politically or militarily, the rest of the world took on a position of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. This allowed the conflict to create natural divisions that would later form the basis for unified territories – a prototype of a new Western model for redefining borders. The only exceptions to this were the bombing campaigns in Bosnia and the Kosovo conflict (states which still happen to be plagued by ethnic conflict today). All other former Yugoslavian countries now live amongst each other in harmony. Just a decade ago, ethnic hate was so widespread and deep seeded, it seemed like an intractable ethnic struggle on par with modern Syria.
Back then, peace between Croatia and Serbia seemed like a far off pipedream. Today, the two ex-Yugoslavian provinces have budding relations. In addition to engaging in commercial trade with one another, the two nations are cultural partners as well as patrons of the Western sphere of influence. Croatia recently joined Slovenia in ascension to the European Union, and Macedonia and Serbia membership will only be a matter of time. A known prerequisite for Serbian accession is an eventual peace with Kosovo. Essentially, the states of this former Union fought a gruesome war in order to separate, cooled off, and are now reverting back to a mutual secession of authority under the auspices of the European Union. All of this occurring in just 15 years!
Fast forward to 2014 – with multiple Sunni offshoots, Shia, Kurdish, Alawite and dozens of other ethnic groups, it becomes more and more apparent that the artificial state borders drawn a few decades ago simply aren’t important or relevant to the people in control of these areas.
In my opinion, this is all reactionary to previous western policy, which stifled organic separation. There was no need for ISIS until Al-Malaki decided to break the fragile calm, and there was no need for Al-Qaeda in Syria until Assad decided to suppress manageable, non-violent protests with an iron fist – just like there was no need for a breakdown of Yugoslavia until Milosevic. I don’t see these monsters as obstructive in the long-term progression of their societies. On the contrary, they speed up what must inevitably be done.
If a country’s ethnic groups are totally interwoven, the initial result will inescapably be violence, human rights abuses, and mass exile. The alternative is a policy of trying to keep fragile states together, or even worse, neoconservative state building. This will only further cement the distrust between groups, making it that much harder to reconcile once the nations within the state inevitably split. The silver lining is that once they divide, it’s only a matter of time until a culture develops that could foster peaceful relations similar to that of modern day Croatia and Serbia.
If we have enough courage not to intervene, but to steady our hand and look at the larger context, then ten years down the line, from Israel to Iran, the new Middle East will be a region conducive to peace building.
The desire for self-determination speaks to the very essence of humanity. I believe it is one of man’s natural precepts to crave control – control of his own family, clan, order, group, and by extension, nation. Every single country (or loosely collected hodgepodge of ethnic groups, depending on your framing) mentioned in this article would be better off in terms of economics and security if they were able to coexist peacefully and trust each other with shared power. Sadly, they cannot. Europe was no different. The great schism of 1054 tore medieval Europe in two and just 200 years later, The Papal Schism divided it even further.
Not even modern Europe is impervious to these ills. Countries that have cultures and institutions of democracy like Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy still fight rumblings for self-determination from the Catalonians, Scottish, and Venetians, respectively.
What Bill Gaeder said about the makings of a good chess master also aptly applies to foreign policy. The Western world must recognize that the state system they created almost a century ago is rapidly changing, and the current policy of trying to keep these nations together with glue and rubber bands ignores that this policy was already checkmated 20 moves ago.