What We Don't Get about Sykes-Picot

It wasn’t just about borders. It was about nation-states.

Sykes-Picot is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by France and Britain after 1919, when each imposed governments in Syria and Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan. It was signed by the pan-Arab nationalists of the 1940s and ’50s, when their movement crashed against the surprisingly resilient system that had been established; it was invoked again when Arab nationalism crested in the 1960s and fell back in the seventies. It was signed, too, by the minoritarian governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon when they violently split ethnic and sectarian divisions in the 1980s, ’90s and beyond. And it was signed most recently by ISIS, which in 2014 tweeted that Islamic State was “smashing Sykes-Picot” in establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Yes, old Sykes-Picot, which was ratified one hundred years ago this month, is dead as a doornail.

Yet like Marley’s ghost, Sykes-Picot haunts the present. Death and destruction persist in the Middle East. “Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace,” Vice President Joseph Biden said in Baghdad in April. “They’re places where, because of history, we’ve drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups and said: ‘Have at it. Live together.’”

Interest in Sykes-Picot on this its centennial isn’t simply about borders, which have changed since 1916; it’s about what the borders ought to contain. The nation-state, which seems to be gaining political legitimacy and strength everywhere else, has failed in the Middle East. This idea isn’t new, of course. It was recognized before America’s recent state-building campaigns in the region. This idea was known, for one, by Ernest Gellner, the twentieth century’s premier thinker on nations and nationalism.

In his posthumously published 1997 book Nationalism, Gellner sketches out the five-stage spread of nationalism from western Europe eastward. First, along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard, states and strong cultures had overlapped for so long that the formation of nation-states and nationalism was early and largely unbloodied by significant rivalries. Paris and London, Madrid and Lisbon, relative to later capitals, had it easy. “To understand the political map of western Europe,” Gellner writes, “it is still more important to know about the dynastic conflicts of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to know something of Louis XIV’s campaigns, than to be familiar with the ethnographic map of Europe.”

In the second stage, Germany and Italy each already had a strong, unique culture, to which was added a modern state through unification. So far, the story is pretty straightforward. “It is when we move further east that the trouble really starts,” Gellner writes. In central and parts of eastern Europe, Gellner’s third stage, there was a patchwork of cultures, ethnicities and groups, each contesting to be top dog—that is, to join a modern state and strong culture to create a viable nation-state. Increasingly, violence was the instrument employed to settle these contests, and the resulting divisions took on a stronger ethnic dimension. Gellner approvingly cites another scholar, writing that “west of Trieste, nationalism could be benign, but east of Trieste it was likely to be horrible.” He gets around the thorny issue of Hitler and Mussolini by saying that the “horror of Nazism and Fascism is optional. . . . The horror of nationalism to the east is inherent in the situation.”

Here is where the story becomes more pertinent to the Middle East. In the fourth stage, the area in eastern Europe under the Soviet Union, nationalism as a potent political force had been largely suppressed until recently. It has since flooded in among competing ethnicities and groups. Gellner asks of this region,

“Shall we see the proliferation of small, weak, inexperienced and minority-haunted states, or ethnic cleansing, or a diminution of the intensity of the ethnic intrusion in politics? For much of ex-Yugoslavia, the answer is, alas, clear: it is ethnic cleansing, and indeed this is where the term was coined.”

Now, a “Great Sorting Out” is happening in the Middle East, a slow-rolling ethnic cleansing where areas are becoming more homogenous. This mirrors the sorting in the Ottoman regions of eastern Europe over the last few decades (part of Gellner’s fourth stage). Making matters worse, a century (and more) of surprisingly resilient borders, grievances and territorial claims have accumulated in the region, and untangling them promises to be even more bloody than in the Balkans. Finally, a century of distrust in the idea of the Western-style nation-state has accumulated. Why would Middle Easterners turn to such a model of governance now, or turn to it even after a deadly and costly ethnic sorting that could take decades more? Gellner believed, for example, that there was something intrinsic in the culture in the Middle East that made it more resistant to nationalism than in his stages one through four in Europe. This, the Islam-dominated Middle East, was therefore part of a unique fifth stage.