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Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable?

Submitted by on May 6, 2010 – 3:07 pm 2 Comments |  
Ralph Peters’s “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” is more than a troubling and provocative work. The article and the controversies surrounding it illustrate the central paradox of contemporary geopolitical discourse: as malformed as existing borders may be, mere talk about changing them can be harmful. Peters prods us to “think the unthinkable,” but to write the unthinkable is to provoke fast fury abroad.

For all of Peters’s miscues, many of his core ideas are sound. His initial assertion – that misplaced boundaries often generate injustice and strife – is spot on. And he is right to point out that the foreign policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the violence engendered by geopolitical misalignment for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of separatist demands. Because of that fear, any suggestions for alternative arrangements tend to be dismissed out of hand. Such a stance, Peters argues, is intellectually dishonest. New countries sometimes do appear on the map without ruffling the international order. Think of Montenegro, 2006. Such neophyte states must, however, come into being through the channels of global diplomacy if they want international recognition. Should they emerge on their own, their existence will be denied by the powers that be. In this way the system of international diplomacy that Peters mocks can indeed become a masquerade. Grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, the only effectively administered territory in the bedlam called Somalia? Impossibly destabilizing: surely anarchy would be loosed across the Horn of Africa!

The existing geopolitical framework—the division of the world into recognized sovereign countries—is indeed, in many areas, an unwholesome mess. Misplaced boundaries, stateless nations, and nationless states spawn perennial violence or repression. Iraq does not mend, regardless of the lives lost and the monies squandered. But if Iraq is, as Peters argues, “a Frankenstein’s monster of a state sewn together from ill-fitting parts,” does his conclusion necessarily follow: that Iraq should therefore be divided in three? That is a different question altogether. But even if the answer is a firm “no,” surely one would allow that the case for partition can at least be made. Should we not question poorly functioning structures, asking how they might be improved? Might curiosity not lead us to entertain alternative schemes of geo-division? Aren’t scholars, if not diplomats, almost duty-bound to “think the unthinkable” when confronting a quandary like Iraq?

Yet almost any suggestion for changing a particular geopolitical structure will generate troubles of its own. However problematic they may be for the larger society around them, all existing state boundaries serve one or more interest groups, which are bound to fight change. Moreover, modifying geopolitical structures to resolve one ethno-national dispute often spawns another. Hitherto stateless nations gaining sovereignty frequently find their own minority groups pining for independence or union with another state, as happened with the Serbs in Kosovo. There are good reasons, in other words, for deeming certain ideas unthinkable.

Going beyond merely imagining geopolitical restructuring to actually advocating it raises the stakes, especially when such recommendations come from a former U.S. military intelligence officer. For Ralph Peters to remap the polities of the Middle East was a perilous undertaking. The publication of “Blood Borders” intensified anti-American sentiments across the greater Middle East, especially in Turkey. Telling the Turks that justice demands ceding a quarter of their country to Kurdistan was bound to rouse fury. According to one poll, Turkey—a NATO ally traditionally known for its Western orientation—is now one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Only 12 percent of Turks reportedly maintain favorable views of the United States—a figure below even than that of Pakistan, another ostensible U.S. ally that Peters would seek to dismember.

Yet as Ralph Peters reminds us, borders do change and new countries do appear, regardless of what diplomats want and are willing to acknowledge. The world political map seemed stable enough in 1990, but how many new countries have emerged since then? The number is 26, higher than most people realize. In addition to the fifteen republics that gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, seven new countries appeared in the space of the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia gave rise to two, Eritrea split from Ethiopia, and East Timor hived off from Indonesia. Countries also disappear occasionally; South Yemen, for instance, was annexed by Yemen in 1990 (although many South Yemenis seek its rebirth). In all probability, the official map will continue to change; next year may see the birth of Southern Sudan. But any changes that will occur will likely be piecemeal and gradual, worked out not by audacious scholars ready to redraw the map at one stroke but by cautious government officials, persistent separatist leaders, and wary international diplomats, negotiating on a case-by-case basis. Wholesale restructuring of the kind envisaged by Peters is a pipedream. As the response to his thought-experiment has shown, imagining alternative geographies may be a useful exercise, but trumpeting any single alternative as a blueprint for change is something else altogether.

Next week we will examine Somaliland, the real but unmapped country that exists within the unreal but mapped country of Somalia. But first we must take one more look at the Iranian-Azeri issue that initiated this discussion of Ralph Peters. Why do Iranian Azeris identify so much more closely with Persians than with their fellow Azeris of Azerbaijan?

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  • Anonymous

    I'm not sure I understand your stance, are you suggesting that Ralph Peters should not share his views and ideas because they will be poorly received in some qurters of the Middle East? I'm uncomfortable with that idea of self-censorship.

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Sorry for the ambiguity. I do think that Peters should feel completely free to share his views, even if those views prove damaging; I too am uncomfortable with self-censorship. The situation, it seems to me, is intrinsically paradoxical.

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