State of Imbalance

Why Countries Break Up

Map of Iraq. (Kathryn Rodrigues / Flickr)

There seems to be little connecting recent violence in the former Soviet space to ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East. In one place, a neo-imperialist power is attempting to reassert itself in a region that it ruled not so long ago. In the other, sect-based militant groups are grabbing up territory by the mile.

Even so, both conflicts spring from a common source, as do a host of other major conflicts around the world. In each, there is a mismatch between state boundaries and national identities -- a state-to-nation imbalance. The state is a set of institutions that administer a certain territory; the nation is made up of people who, in their view, share common traits (language, history, culture, religion) that entitle them to self-rule. In some parts of the world, there is a good fit between states and nations. In others, there is not. In those areas, at least some of the citizens believe that their national aspirations to be free from foreign rule will be best fulfilled by creating a separate state or by joining a neighboring state whose population is a closer match.

Although numerous Ukrainian citizens prefer independence from “foreign” Russian rule, for example, others -- notably in Crimea, but also in eastern Ukraine -- want to be free from “foreign” Ukrainian rule. In turn, they believe that they must join Russia or create a separate Russia-allied state. In a weak country, such a state-to-nation imbalance can lead to civil unrest, as it did in the early days of Euromaidan in Ukraine. When the imbalance crosses borders, it can lead to regional conflicts, as it did when Russia marched into Crimea.

The same goes for the Middle East, where the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is busy challenging international boundaries. Its efforts are unlikely to produce a formal redrawing of the borders between the region’s nations -- the great powers and regional forces would do their best to oppose it. But existing borders will lose any real meaning as chaos grips both sides.

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