Eagle in a China Shop

July 25, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: United States

Eagle in a China Shop

The U.S. tendency to think of all nations as coherent nation-states has led to repeated disaster.

One pervasive, troublesome feature of U.S. foreign policy is the tendency to view all countries as more or less coherent national entities. American officials and opinion leaders are “map centric.” If they look at a map and see an area bounded by solid lines with a large star somewhere in the center to mark the capital city, they assume it is a real country with a national identity. And the usual procedure is to regard the supposed leader, whether his title is president, king or some other honorific, residing in that capital as someone who exercises authority throughout the country.

But in many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation-state is extremely weak. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is more likely to be to an ethnic group, tribe, clan or religion than to a country. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States too often barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. America is the bull (or more accurately, the eagle) in the china shop, flailing about, breaking delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power. Washington’s ambitious agenda typically is to try to forge or strengthen a cohesive national identity in client states, even when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. The results have ranged from disappointing to calamitous.

U.S. interventions in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya illustrate Washington’s ill-advised approach and its consequences. And there are growing indications that the Obama administration is on the brink of making a similar blunder in Syria.

Even as U.S. officials watched the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, they insisted that the most dysfunctional of the successor states, Bosnia-Herzegovina, remain intact. That obsession, symbolized by the imposed Dayton Accords ending the civil war there has prolonged the agony of an inherent failed state. Bosnia is little more than a forced association of three bitterly antagonistic ethno-religious factions. When armed conflict began, Muslims made up a little over 40 percent of the population, Serbs constituted about one-third, and the remainder were primarily ethnic Croats.

The only faction that favored—and continues to favor—an intact Bosnia was the Muslim community. By having a plurality of the population, Muslims believed they would control a unitary state. Serbs fought hard to achieve independence for their Republika Srpska, those (largely contiguous) portions of Bosnia in which their ethnic bloc had a large presence. Bosnian Croats fought to break away and merge with their ethnic brethren across the border in Croatia.

Although Dayton ended the bloodshed, Bosnia is no closer today than it was in 1995 to being a functioning nation. The national government exercises little power and attracts few supporters. Most mundane decisions are made by two subnational entities, the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation, while an International High Representative makes decisions on important, contentious matters. Bosnia is kept on economic life support by U.S. and other foreign-aid programs, and ethnic-nationalist parties continue to dominate the politics of both subnational entities. The desire for secession remains strong in the Republika Srpska, inhibited only by the realization that the Western powers would again intervene militarily in the event of another secessionist bid. Nearly eighteen years after Dayton, Bosnia is a political mess and an economic basket case. That problem developed and continues to fester because the United States and its allies steadfastly refused to recognize demographic and political realities and accept that Bosnia is not a viable nation-state.

The U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has not turned out well either. Iraq was not a cohesive nation but merely a patchwork dependency that the British Foreign Office created after World War I from three very different provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire. After the British departed, instability prevailed until Saddam Hussein took control of the ruling Baath Party and ruthlessly imposed order. But Iraq remained an unstable collection of Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish communities. The U.S. invasion not only destroyed Saddam, it ended domination of the state by the Sunni Arab minority as well.

But the outcome has not been a stable, united, democratic country, which was the Bush administration’s goal. Instead, the result is a simmering, toxic brew of shootings and bombings among the rival communities, with the Kurds establishing a de facto independent state in the north and the long-oppressed Shiites exercising a perilous control over the rest of Iraq. Shiite dominion in the south has produced a resurgence of religious fundamentalism (which Saddam had suppressed) and led to a regression of women’s rights as well as the persecution of Christians and other minorities. Today’s Iraq is a fractured society experiencing a chronic, low-intensity civil war.

NATO’s meddling in Libya’s internal affairs likewise has led to greater instability. Even more so than Iraq, Libya is a tribal tapestry more than a modern nation-state. And as in the case of Iraq, the tapestry was held together by a psychotic strongman backed by a loose alliance of some of those tribes (in Libya’s case, primarily those in the western part of the country). NATO’s military intervention on behalf of largely eastern-based insurgents badly weakened what little national unity existed. Today, Libya’s central government is a barely credible façade concealing the ugly reality of local and regional militias that are running amok. Once again, Washington’s intervention has managed to make a bad situation even worse.

Similar comments could be made about the lack of national unity in Afghanistan, Somalia, and other arenas of U.S. humanitarian interventions and nation-building projects. One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those experiences, but there is only modest evidence of that. President Obama continues to flirt with launching an intervention in Syria, and advocates in Congress and the media seek to push him down that path. It would be a serious mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Iraq and Libya look tame by comparison. The American eagle should stay out of the Syrian china shop at all costs.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international affairs.

Image: Flickr/sisssou. CC BY 2.0.