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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The Coup in Mali

23 March 2012


The coup in Mali, which I wrote about yesterday in Trouble on the Periphery Comes to the Center, was discussed in The Old-Style Coup Makes a Comeback in Mali by Jennifer G. Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Coups making a comeback? by Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine.

I find it interesting in both of these analyses that the writers have treated the coup as a kind of Cold War throwback, Ms. Cooke by calling it an “Old-Style Coup” and Mr. Keating by asking if coups are making a “comeback.” And this geopolitical nostalgia does not yet even take ingto account the rumors of a coup in China discussed in The Lesson Behind China’s Coup Rumors on Stratfor and Chinese coup watching on Foreign Policy and Damaging coup rumours ricochet across China on the BBC.

I‘m not sure how helpful it is to trot out Cold War analogies in a very different world in which the perennial verities of the Cold War no longer hold. A Cold War-era coup in Africa would mean a change in sponsorship of the leadership of the nation-state in question from American to Russian or from Russian to American alignment. Either the nation-state in question would stop receiving M-16s and receive AK-47s instead, or they would stop receiving AK-47s and receive M-16s instead. Of course, the writers of the above-cited pieces were careful to point out the differences from the “old-style coup” and the present coup in Mali

I have several times written about the lack of imagination displayed in socio-political thought (most recently in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I argued that the moral evolution of human beings cannot yet have stalled, as against the idea that everything has been tried). Everything about the coup in Mali points to the dangers sticking to the “tried and true” (or, if you prefer, always doing the “same old, same old”). The government of Mali, despite receiving high marks for its democratic operations, was focused on the capital and allowed the situation in the north of the country to get out of control; the coup plotters did what coup plotters always do, and the commentariat responded by contextualizing the events in Mali in terms that emphasize the non-uniqueness and non-originality of the events in Mali. In a sense the commentators are right, because both the government and the coup plotters were engaging in politics as usual, but this is not exactly the sense in which the commentators cast the coup in terms of its unoriginality.

Is is any wonder that one of the most predictable facts about history is that people will be surprised by events? Of course, history is intrinsically unpredictable, except for certain parameters, so we will always be surprised by what happens next. But there is a big difference between being surprised by the unexpected (but being prepared for the unexpected) and being surprised because one thought that one knew what was happening. Relying on familiar narratives simply because they are familiar and not because they accurately capture events is a sure way to be overtaken by events.

I predict that the Sahel will hold surprises, and that events will develop in unanticipated ways. Perhaps these developments will not constitute strategic shocks on the order of the Arab Spring, but the unpredictable developments in the Sahel will be sufficient to make world powers scramble to catch up and not be overtaken by events. Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré has yet to make a statement since the coup, though he is believed to be under the protection of loyal elements of the military (the “Red Berets”). When and where and how he reveals himself will have a significant impact on the development of the coup.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:

The Gaddafi Diaspora

David and Goliath

Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny

The Survivor: Saif al-Islam Qadhafi

Trouble Brewing in the Desert

Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:

Sand and fury: Mali’s Tuareg rebels

Mali clashes displace nearly 130,000, UN warns

Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup

Mali soldiers loot presidential palace after coup

The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.

There is reasonably detailed account of events in Mali at Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), MALI: Rebellion claims a president, that gives some background to the story.

The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.

The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.

The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:

“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”

Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.

Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.

Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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