The struggles by ethnic and religious groups left behind by empire cannot be resolved by outsiders. These competing groups need to find their own way – even fight their own way – to arrive at boundaries and arrangements they can live with. Any foreign intervention risks alienating one side or the other.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
Multi-ethnic empires don’t seem to end well. Within the last hundred years we’ve seen the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet empires, and of the Western colonies in Africa and Asia. During their day, these empires managed to allow a mixing and cohabitation of peoples held together through inertia and autocratic rule. In their wake, they left ethnic groups forced to live together in – or divided by – states with largely artificial borders. These states – including Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq – were held together by ideology, co-optation of ethnic elites, outside pressure and repression. But they all turned out to be fragile and easily broken with the removal of leaders able to impose central rule. After Tito, Yugoslavia went into its spiral of fragmentation. (Mishandling by the West – led by Germany and the US – helped speed up the final break-up.) The same in Iraq after Saddam and Ukraine after Yanukovych. Bashar Assad has sought to buck this trend and hang onto power despite outside efforts to support “democracy” in Syria.
President Obama recently made headlines by admitting that the US has no strategy for Syria. But he should not take the rap for this alone. The West has never had an effective strategy for dealing with the end of empire. The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires left some groups squeezed as minorities into another’s nation-state, some stranded beyond the boundaries of their “homeland” and the mishmash of Yugoslavia. The fall of the Soviet Union let some peoples achieve nationhood but with substantial minorities – especially Russians left outside of Russia. This is not to mention the carve-up of Africa into states with multiple sources of ethnic conflict or the historic and violent break-up of British India. Since Napoleon brought forth nationalism as a state-building force, the tendency has been for people with shared ethnic or religious identity to want to live in their own. Nobody has had a consistent, coherent strategy for dealing with this dynamic.
The record of the West in the collapse of Yugoslavia suggests that – contrary to Churchill – the Balkans produced too much history for Europe to consume. It’s the EU that still holds together Bosnia. The final act in Kosovo still requires – after 15 years – large numbers of NATO troops to preserve ethnic peace. The Serbs in northern Kosovo remain defiant but await the reaction of Kosovo Albanians when/if they finally sort out their internal leadership issues. But beyond this, the precedent set by the NATO intervention on the side of the Kosovo Albanians – however “legitimate” the West believes – is clearly in the mind of the Russians as they view Ukraine. Putin is following – in his own manner – the NATO playbook: unilateral intervention to protect an ethnic group that sees itself as unrepresented by the state they now live in. He appears ready to take eastern Ukraine with its large Russian population. Whether he follows the Western model and opts for an “independent” New Russia or simply annexes it seems to be the only real remaining question.
No one can stop Putin. It’s too late for Kiev to seek NATO membership and the NATO powers have no strategic interest in actively entering the war against Russia. By default, the Western “strategy” comes down to letting the Ukrainians and Russians sort it out themselves. There will eventually be a border of some sort between them and that will mark the eastern edge of “Europe.”
If only the Western “strategy” for Iraq and Syria would be so clear. Washington remains hopeful it can somehow hold Iraq together with words of encouragement to the Sunni, Shia and Kurds and an air war against the Islamic State (IS). Hope and bombs do not make much of a strategy. IS also has learned lessons from the West. It water-boards its prisoners, makes them wear orange jumpsuits – just like in Guantanamo – and fights effectively with US equipment while Tweeting and running it on Facebook.
With Syria, the US doesn’t even have hope. Having encouraged the fall of Assad, the West (including Turkey) has tied its hands there. It can’t fight IS effectively without some accommodation with Bashar. When Obama says he has no strategy for Syria, he means his staff has found no way to effectively fight IS there without ground-personnel or Syrian cooperation. And this is probably a good thing.
Debate over intervention strategies begs a question, why does the West need to intervene at all? Perhaps the best strategy is simply to work within the international community to develop common diplomatic and humanitarian approaches? The struggles by ethnic and religious groups left behind by empire cannot be resolved by outsiders. These competing groups need to find their own way – even fight their own way – to arrive at boundaries and arrangements they can live with. Any foreign intervention risks alienating one side or the other. Intervention in the Islamic civil wars raises even greater risks by immersing us in the very core issues of identity that fuel the struggles and engender extremism. The best counter-terrorism strategy may be to do everything possible to not help create more terrorists.
In the best of all possible worlds, people would not kill each other to settle differences. In the next best, if we tried hard enough, we could fix all such problems. But we are a long way from both. Peace still seems to come after war. Doing no harm – keeping out of other people’s fights – may still be the best way to achieve it.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.