Middle East: More Fundamental Problems

As I was finishing a piece for the Orange County Register on Iraq a year after hostilities began (if you’re interested it should be available on the Register web site) on Sunday morning, or maybe even on Saturday if they post earlier) I got to thinking about some of the more fundamental problems that make what the United States and even the UN are trying to do in Iraq unlikely to succeed.

My concern just now goes well beyond the fact that democracy as a way of governing carries very little cultural resonance in the Middle East, or even that insofar as it refers to choosing leaders via elections says little or nothing about whether the ensuing government could be despotic in the absence of institutions of civil society that limit the reach and scope of government as an institution. It also goes beyond my usual concern that from the perspective of the band of looters that make up what the standard media choose to call the “international community,” the kind of state they want to establish in the “nation-building” process is a replica of the modern European welfare state, with all kinds of programs to help the poor in countries that have experienced virtually no economic development and therefore don’t have wealth to be taxed away to support all these bureaucratic helpers.

Even more important than these underlying politico-cultural problems is the very real possibility – I think it’s a fact but I’m not sure I can prove it to a disinterested observer just yet – that the nation-state as an institution is not suitable for the Middle East, or for a great deal of the world. I would go further and suggest that the nation-state hasn’t been all that great for Western Europe, where it was born, or the United States, where it was transplanted, but that’s an argument for another day.

This is not an argument for society without government or governance, although that’s worth discussing some other time as well. Most societies since “prehistory” of which I’m aware have had some kind of hierarchy of power and/or authority, if only a chief of a tribe who carried authority because of family or tradition, or so long as nobody else could or would kill him. I’m not sure enforced leadership or power is inevitable in human society, but some kind of authority evolves in most human societies or organizations. Even if the power is strictly consensual and at least theoretically held in check by the ability of members to quit at any time, as is the case in most voluntary organizations like Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, chambers of commerce and the like, organizations tend to work better if they have acknowledged leaders.


An institution that includes authority, leadership and power, however, doesn’t have to be a state or a nation-state. The great American essayist of a couple of generations ago, Albert Jay Nock, insisted a distinction between government and the State.

Nock posited that there are two basic ways of getting what you wanted in this world, the economic means and the political means. The economic means involve producing desirable goods and services and trading voluntarily with others. The political means involve the use of force – taking form those who produce through indirect force like taxation, or direct force like expropriation or conquest. The State, Nock said, echoing political sociologist Max Weber, was the organization of the political means, and the title of his classic 1936 book, Our Enemy the State expressed his attitude toward it.

The modern nation-state came into being in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s as kings consolidated and centralized power that had been held by medieval fiefdoms run by dukes, earls and the like. The great theorist of the nation-state was Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan attempted to prove that the powerful centralized nation-state was the most feasible way to prevent the violent “war of all against all” that would ensue without that power being held by somebody (Hobbes’ preference was a monarch).

By the time I was taking political theory classes in the 1960s, the standard definition of the state was the institution that held a monopoly of legitimate power in a given geographical territory. It was assumed by most political theorists that chaos would ensue without some institution having legitimate power, and that only one could exercise that power without creating even more confusion, chaos and uncontrolled violence.

The only questions available for discussion in most political science circles were how that state was to be legitimated, whether through election or by some more indirect means, and how extensively the state would choose to exercise its power. There was also some discussion of whether the power would be seized by or exercised on behalf of special interests rather than on behalf of the people as a whole. Eventually I came to the conclusion, based on most of the cases I analyzed, that it would almost always be exercised on behalf of special interests, because special interests would have more incentive to influence the decisions, and the interest of “the people as a whole” was an abstraction rather than a concrete interest able to make itself felt in political or bureaucratic processes.


Most political observers act as if the modern nation-state is a universal concept, the necessary structure to fix whatever ails a society in any part of the world. I think a case can be made that the modern nation-state is not only a culture-specific institution – with roots in Western Europe that don’t necessarily transplant well elsewhere – but a time-specific institution as well. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that Western Europe is in the twilight of the era of the nation-state – the Staterdaemmerung? The powers of the European states are being replaced by large bureaucracies in Brussels as the European Union – a distinctly non-democratic and perhaps even markedly anti-democratic institution – becomes the real power in the continent.

Simultaneously, of course, we are seeing increasingly active local secession movements, some of which will establish imitations of modern states, like Slovakia when it removed itself from Czechoslovakia, and some of which simply seek more local autonomy without being too picky about how that autonomy will be exercised. Perhaps paradoxically, in the age of the Internet and instant communications, in which any part of the world can be in contact with and trade with any other part fairly conveniently, globalization will make increasing localization increasingly feasible.

Whether the nation-state was really the best way to deal with the problems and opportunities that presented themselves in the Europe of the 1600s – more discussion, please – it seems fairly clear to me that it wasn’t appropriate for other parts of the world, especially those that had strongly-established tribal or familial forms of governance. I made the case a few months ago that Somalia is actually better off without a nation-state of the kind the UN and the “international community” spent so many years trying to impose.

I think a nation-state is almost certainly inappropriate for most of the Middle East as well. I have argued elsewhere that the main mistake Jews seeking a homeland made was to insist that it be a nation-state on the Western European model (ignoring the ample wisdom Yahweh tried to instill in II Samuel, when the Hebrews wanted “a king like other nations”). Once the Jews had a state, of course, the Palestinians wanted a state, and the stage was set for more or less endless conflict. I don’t know exactly what the shape of alternative institution might have been, but some creative thinking some decades ago might have prevented a good deal of bloodshed.

You might be able to argue that Egypt has something resembling a nation-state, and maybe Jordan. But otherwise, while they maintain some of the forms and lingo to keep the international community pacified, I think a case can be made that no Middle Eastern country has a real nation-state. That doesn’t mean what they do have is necessarily preferable. Saddam Hussein essentially ran a tribal fiefdom – but with the ability to use the concepts and technology of oppression of the nation-state to magnify and justify his power over a larger region. Saudi Arabia is a family business, though it’s a very large business by now. And so on.

The nation-state as a concept may well have had its day already in the “developed” world. Certainly most of the activities of the UN and the “international community” are directed toward breaking down the myths and the remaining realities of “national sovereignty” that are such a significant theoretical and practical underpinning of the nation-state system. We don’t know yet what will replace the nation-state. I would like to see it deconstructed and rule made more local – with the trade ties to elsewhere that are more feasible today than anytime in the past – but I suspect the next step before such a sensible course is considered is the strengthening of largely unaccountable international institutions.

If the nation-state is in eclipse, why do we want to work so hard to foist one on Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries? Why not let systems evolve based on local traditions, customs and current needs rather than having them imposed by wise international bureaucrats who become international bureaucrats mainly so they will get out of the hair and leave alone the countries in which they happened to be born?

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).