It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. In January 2022, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[i] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. Few experts anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel and material from the country before the military withdrew.
Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse; it is still a shambles. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.
Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica”[ii] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.
It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[iii] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.
The Fallacy of the Nation-State
The central argument of this work is that such common ground does exist and can be found in a fundamental misperception of what polities such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria actually are. According to the prevalent model of global geopolitics, these countries—like all others—are fully realized nation-states. The hyphen signals the idea that the nation, a self-conscious political community, precisely aligns with the state, a sovereign government ruling a clearly demarcated territory. In this view, the residents of any given country are assumed to feel a profound bond with their co-nationals, regarding them as fellow members of an imagined mega-community. By the same token, it is taken for granted that almost all of them view their state as the legitimate container of that national community, regardless of what they think of those running their government at any given time. Notionally, the nation-state earns such respect by serving its people, gaining legitimacy by providing security, infrastructure, and other public goods.
But commonplace though these expectations may be, cases abound where they simply do not apply. Over large swaths of the earth, the nation-state is more of an aspiration than a historical fact,[iv] and in some places it is little more than a cruel charade. To be sure, many nation-states are firmly established and highly functional; a country like Denmark or Japan has sufficient cohesion to survive even an extreme crisis. But others, including Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, are far less united. While not lacking national foundations entirely, their nation-stateness is continually contested; when push comes to shove, centrifugal forces can easily prevail. In practical terms, viewing all countries as members the same geopolitical species turns out to be a fallacy.
Yet this fallacy is just the tip of a deeper problem. If the nation-state is questionable, so too is the larger concept in which it is embedded: the sovereign state. Quite a few members of the United Nations do not function as coherent countries governing their full territorial endowments, regardless of whether they are nationally cemented by sentiments of common belonging. Somalia has been essentially a diplomatic fiction since 1991. Or consider Iraq in early 2003, just before the regime-change gambit. Most of the Kurdish northeast had been a de facto independent polity for a dozen years, abiding no governance from Baghdad. Although Iraq appeared on the map as a normal country, crisply cut at its borders, it did not function as one. Yet the optimistic post-invasion scenario of the U.S. war-planners was apparently predicated on the idea that Iraq’s division was merely a temporary aberration caused by inept and autocratic governance: remove the powers-that-be and install a representative government, and Iraq would quickly be restored to its rightful shape and place.
One could argue that effective Iraqi statehood was eventually restored, even if the cost was high and the reunification process prolonged. The country today has a functioning national government and ranks well below the worst position in the Fragile State Index.[v] But to the extent that Iraq has been patched back together, it has been accomplished through a combination of raw force and pretense, carried out largely at the insistence of the international community. Tellingly, the U.S. government believes that it must retain troops in Iraq to maintain security. Non-state militias remain potent, omnipresent corruption corrodes trust in the government, and sectarianism regularly overrides national identity. More important for the long term, the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the northeast accepts its membership in Iraq on a mostly notional basis, its people overwhelmingly rejecting membership in the Iraqi nation. In 2017, the KRG even fought a brief war with Iraq’s central government over what is supposedly a mere internal border. As it achieved victory, Baghdad expelled the Kurdish Peshmerga military from Kirkuk,[vi] the city constitutionally deemed by the Kurdish Regional Government to be its rightful capital. Needless to say, this is not how a sovereign state, let alone a nation-state, is supposed to function.[vii]
Iraq may be an extreme case, but it is not the only one, and even stable countries often fail to fulfill the expectations of the sovereign state. Many do not extend their effective power and legitimate authority across all their lands. A few do not enjoy the complete independence that sovereignty ostensibly entails. Defying diplomatic conventions, ultimate authority is not always fully lodged in the 193-odd sovereign states that formally constitute the global political community. To the contrary, it is often intricately distributed among a variety of polities and networks of varying characteristics. The global political architecture of our day, in other words, is more ambiguous and convoluted than conventional models would have it. It is also far less modern than we think.
The idea that the world is (and should be) neatly divided into a set number of equivalent independent nation-states that embrace their position in a structured international order is a recent one, fully globalized only in the mid twentieth century. The new geopolitical structure was designed to facilitate a transition away from a world of warring empires into a more just, equal, and peaceable interstate system. At its core was an earlier premise that sovereign states enjoy the status of personhood, allowing them to function as individual members of a cozy community of their peers. As spelled out in the influential 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, each sovereign state “constitutes a sole person in the eyes of international law,” and each is “juridically equal, enjoy[ing] the same rights and hav[ing] equal capacity in their exercise…”[viii]
There are good reasons for classifying sovereign states as fictitious persons of equal standing for juridical purposes. Recasting an anarchic realm of global politics into one of rule-bound community relations has no doubt helped ease global strife. But it is one thing to embrace state personhood as a legal ideal, and quite another to treat it as reality. In their most important attributes, independent countries are nothing like persons. To begin with, they vary in size by more than five orders of magnitude. More important, countries, unlike human beings, are eminently divisible. Their (geo)bodies periodically break apart, merge with others, or exchange appendages with their neighbors. Although great efforts have gone into stabilizing the post-war geopolitical system by guarding against such territorial changes, those efforts have not always been effective.
In short, while we tend to treat countries as singular entities, in fact they are composite constructions. Geopolitical stability and popular legitimacy are noble ideals well worth supporting. But to the extent that we regard them as achieved, we delude ourselves about how the global political system really works. Mistaking norms for facts can easily lead politicians and foreign policy experts astray.
All these problems are compounded when the nation-state is assumed to be the product of an ineluctable evolutionary trajectory, one that culminates in representative governments the world over. This idealistic vision, closely associated with the United States, is also attractive, and there are good reasons for pursuing it. But in an age of rising autocracies and faltering democracies, the notion of its inevitability can no longer be taken seriously. More important, trying to force such an outcome on a resistant society can backfire spectacularly, as Afghanistan so well demonstrates.
Yet the ill-fated Afghanistan venture was predicated precisely on the idea that a modern democratic state can be compelled into existence by a combination of raw force and money, even one as seemingly ill-fitted for the role as Afghanistan. What had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II could supposedly be replicated anywhere. All nation-states, after all, are commonly regarded as entities of the same fundamental kind, subject to the same forces of social development that can quickly lead, with adequate prodding, to the same destination.
When the Afghan war was initiated, such an overweening worldview had recently been reinforced by global events. The first Gulf War had been a walkover, fanning greater ambitions. At the same time, the stunningly rapid yet wholly unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union and of its Warsaw-Pact allies encouraged over-confidence. For many, political evolution clearly pointed in the direction of the neoliberal nation-state; for some, that was nothing less than the preordained destination of history’s grand arc. A decade before the invasion, Francis Fukuyama, drawing on the grandiose ideas of Hegel, gained global renown for arguing that humankind’s central story was coming to its culmination, as there was no longer any real rivalry between competing economic and political systems.[ix] The market-oriented nation-state had vanquished all rivals, and likely for all time.
Although such a teleological view of history had long been thoroughly debunked by philosophers and historians alike,[x] it has evidently retained more than a little intellectual appeal.[xi] Widely celebrated in foreign-policy circles, the “End of History” thesis had clear implications for military interventions. If the final results are inevitable, why not jump-start the process? Surely the Afghan people would quickly learn to appreciate the benefits of living in a self-determining developmental state and would come to thank the Americans and their allies for their sacrifices and generosity in bringing it to fruition ahead of schedule. For many foreign-policy mavens, the regime-change fantasy was compelling if not intoxicating. Neoconservatives reveled in the power of war to create a geopolitical playing field more advantageous for the United States, while their neoliberal allies warmed to its purported ability to install representative governments that would build globally integrated national economies.
The manifest failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in pervasive if inconspicuous reassessments of foreign-policy options. Regime-change is no longer on the table, and neoconservatism has lost its luster. Global events and trends have thoroughly undermined the “end of history” thesis. But for all of this, the underlying geopolitical model on which such dysfunctional ideas rest has not budged. It is now time to dislodge it, as it thwarts our ability to understand the globe and deal with its problems effectively. Misconceptions and maladaptive actions are inevitable if we view the world as a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle[xii] divided into 193 basic units, all of which are characterized by the same essential features.
(Note: Many of the endnotes refer to a bibliography, which will be posted separately)
[i] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/30466/after-russia-invasion-ukraine-shows-that-small-states-can-fight-back
[ii] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue. https://web.archive.org/web/20090721015335/http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=533
[iii] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.
[iv] As Arnold Hughes (1981, 122) argued, “Though we loosely refer to the recently created countries of [sub-Saharan] Africa as ‘nation-states,’ and their peoples as ‘new nations,’ it is by no means certain that such formal appellations have any substance.”
[vi] According to a report in ArmyTimes, U.S.-donated Abrams tanks were crucial in this Iraqi victory over the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. The article concludes by noting that its reportage “counters much of what U.S. officials have said about the incident.” Furthermore, it highlights the unintended consequences of “U.S. weapons in the region that may have upended the balance of power between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” See “US Abrams Tanks Sway the Battle in Kirkuk,” by Shawn Snow, ArmyTimes, Oct. 19, 2017. https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/2017/10/19/us-abrams-tanks-sway-the-battle-in-kirkuk/
[vii] Relations between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional government improved significantly after this event to the extent that by 2021 Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi could reasonable claim that “Now is the golden age of relations between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” In strictly logical terms, however, this formulation implies that the Kurdistan region is not part of Iraq. See: “Erbil-Baghdad relations in a ‘golden age’: Kadhimi to Rudaw.” Rudaw, May 5, 2021. https://www.rudaw.net/english/interview/090520211
[viii] The quotations are from Article 2 and Article 4 of the declaration. See https://www.oas.org/juridico/english/treaties/a-40.html
[ix] Fukuyama 1992.
[x] See, most notable, Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957).
[xi] See Graeber and Wengrow (2021) on the ubiquity of teleological reasoning in accounts of geopolitical evolution.
[xii] Evidently, the first jigsaw puzzle, made U.K. in 1766, was map-based. According to Linda Hannas (1972) jigsaw puzzles were originally used to teach students political geography.