In the Age of the Nation-State, exactly who gets to join the charmed circle of nation-states and who does not get to join this charmed circle is a question of some importance, and there is no one, single way in which the question is settled. Some nation-states were “grandfathered in” as conventionally recognized political entities when the League of Nations or the United Nations was founded. Some nation-states fought for years or for decades to gain recognition. Many political entities have remained in permanent geopolitical limbo for years or decades — like Taiwan or Palestine or Transnistria or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Turbaned Tuareg Man near Hirafok, Algeria, by Thomas J. Abercrombie

Theorists of the nation-state system (who are, more often than not, advocates who rarely acknowledge the fact that they are advocates) have proposed all kinds of criteria for what constitutes a nation-state, but we know from the above-mentioned fact that very different political entities become recognized as nation-states by very different means, and that this is an explicitly political process, that there is no essentialist way to separate the wheat from the chaff, because there is no essence of the nation-state. Self-determination is only recognized when it is imposed by force; the ethnic unity of a people is acknowledged as a legitimate basis of a nation-state only when it is convenient for existing powers and does not encroach upon their claims; territorial sovereignty is subject to routine violation at the whim of powerful or technologically advanced nation-states.

When Southern Sudan recently split away from Sudan as an independent nation-state this was widely recognized by the international community. In fact, we have several recent (and diverse) examples of changed governments that have achieved recognition, as, for example, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not so for Azawad. The declaration of the independence of Azawad has brought more jeers than cheers.

Here are some of the statements (as they have appeared in various press reports) that have been made about the declaration of Azawad sovereignty:

● French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet: “a unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us.”

● President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou: “Mali is one and indivisible.”

● African Union Commission chief Jean Ping: “firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever.”

Of course, when you carve your nation-state out of existing nation-states, this is going to be very unpopular, and it sets a precedent that no existing nation-state wants to sanction: that nation-states are divisible into legitimate states rightly claiming self-determination of a national group. If this principle were acted upon, it would result in the fissioning of most existing nation-states, because most existing nation-states, despite their claim to uniquely represent a people, in fact are multi-ethnic and multi-national political entities whose borders were established through armed conflict and are maintained in existence through force or threat of force.

Thus we see that there is a principle at stake in the matter, but it is the principle of a political Ponzi scheme: if you’ve gotten “in” early and you’ve gotten your share, you certainly aren’t about to share your share with anyone else, and certainly not with any late-comers.

The MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad), which is the military entity behind the seizure of the territory they now identify as Azawad, has a website where they have posted a declaration of independence (in French). In their declaration of independence they have promised:

Recognition of existing borders with neighboring states and their inviolability

Full adherence to the UN Charter

The firm commitment of the MNLA to create conditions for a lasting peace, and to initiate the institutional foundations of a state based on a democratic constitution for an independent Azawad.

The MNLA is here obviously trying, despite its marginal position, to position itself as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community. For the same reason MNLA representatives have strongly denied any links with AQIM or other trans-national Jihadist organizations. No doubt many will be skeptical, but then one must ask how responsible currently recognized nation-states have been as stakeholders in the global community. We would be justified in being skeptical both of the MNLA and the international community that rejects an independent Azawad.

I have given several reasons above to be skeptical of the international community, given its manifold hypocrisies. Why should we be skeptical of the MNLA? Well, the media is filled with reports such as I have quoted above, giving nothing but a negative evaluation of the independence of Azawad. Such assertions are of little interest in the long run. What is of significance in the long run is how a people’s way of life interacts with the conventions and institutions by which nation-states have divided up the globe among themselves.

In so far as the MNLA and their nascent political entity of Azawad represents the Tuareg people, what is essential about contemporary political developments is the way of the life of the Tuaregs, and this is a way of life that is not easily reconciled with the ideology of the nation-state. The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists, and they have long made the Sahel their home without much concern for the borders of nation-states. But the Tuaregs of the MNLA are political realists: they know that if they are going to win a homeland for themselves, that they must seize it through violence, and that, once established, they must conform to the norms and conditions of the nation-state, because that is the way that the world works today. It would be more accurate to carve out a Tuareg homeland that covered the traditional lands through which the Tuareg peoples moved, crossing the borders of many nation-states and with no recognition of the inviolability of such borders. But this is not possible at present.

The are (and have been) analogous dilemmas in many parts of the world. The Kurds, for example, have carved out a de facto homeland in what was Northern Iraq, but a more accurate representation of Kurdistan would include parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iran, and Northern Syria. This, however, is a bridge too far, so the Kurds do what they can within the context of contemporary political realities. And in many of these and similar cases, peoples reconcile themselves to the politicized borders of nation-states and learn to live within these boundaries. The same could well happen in Azawad, but the MNLA has no more of a commitment to the inviolability of borders than the international community has a commitment to self-determination, regardless of what each may say.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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