Political Decentralization Might Help in Conflict-Ridden Countries

What do Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan have in common? Although it’s true that the United States has conducted recent military interventions in all of them, the more fundamental answer is that they are all artificial countries. That is, they are each made up of feuding ethno-sectarian groups or tribes.

And perhaps the instability caused by those realities has been a beacon for the American superpower’s imperial attention. Of course, solving all of these countries’ “issues” would probably not stop the United States government from finding chaos elsewhere to police, thus continuing to squander tens of billions of its taxpayers’ dollars. However, resolving the conflicts in those nations would likely help the war-ravaged peoples who live there.

In the long-term, to deal with such quarrels–which are usually caused by ethnic, sectarian, or tribal clashes—one needs either to address the underlying causes so that the various peoples can live together or to move toward a separation of warring groups and political decentralization. The former solution is often difficult because the various groups are usually fighting over control of a strong central government that can be used by one group to oppress the other or others politically, economically, or militarily. Thus, those attempting to solve such crises should give more attention to the second solution.

Yet the second solution is often avoided because some of the great powers, often meddling in such local disputes, get nervous about eventually succumbing to any precedent for breaking up existing states. For example, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom all have restive areas that might benefit from more autonomy. Although not having the same problem, the American superpower believes that such political decentralization sets a precedent for destabilizing the entire international system.

However, the great powers are denying reality. Political decentralization has been an international trend since at least the de-colonization movement began in the 1950s, has continued through the break up of the Soviet Union and East Bloc in the 1990s down to the present, and has not been stopped by movements for economic integration—for example, the European Union. In fact, the efficiencies of economic integration have made it more feasible for smaller political units to have greater autonomy or even become independent. In the European Union, Scotland may go its own way from the United Kingdom, and Belgium may break up into smaller political entities.

Also, in the case of Iraq and doubtless other cases in which talk of separation and political decentralization would arise, elite Westerners espousing multiculturalism would probably yell “apartheid.” Yet apartheid in South Africa was forced separation at gunpoint by one group (whites) against African and mixed race groups.

Voluntary separation of warring groups can ameliorate conflicts. For example, during the Sunni-Shi’i civil war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, various areas became less mixed, more homogeneous, and more peaceful. People should have voluntary association, and if they feel safer or more comfortable living with people of their own group, the political boundaries should recognize it. The recent resurgence of violence in Iraq has occurred because the informal separation was never formally recognized with adjusted and autonomous regions and because governmental power has not only remained in Baghdad but is being consolidated—this time, with a Shi’i government oppressing other groups. The area of Iraq that has been the most peaceful is the Kurdish region, which not coincidentally has the most political autonomy and the best defined boundaries. However, the latter is not perfect and has been a source of conflict with Sunnis and the Shi’i central government over oil.

A model that Iraqi groups, as well as those in all of the other countries mentioned, might examine is political decentralization—that is, reducing the power of the central government so that groups will not fight to control it–combined with economic integration. All of the countries could remain legal entities on the map but would allow their various groups to have autonomous regions and provide their own security and judicial services. All such autonomous political regions could have free commerce with the other areas of each country in what would amount to a loose political confederation.

This solution is not perfect and doesn’t have to be. Any separation and political decentralization must be voluntary amongst the parties themselves and not imposed by outside powers. However, mediation by impartial entities might be used to facilitate such a settlement. And the boundaries between autonomous regions don’t have to render perfect homogeneity of populations; but research shows that drawn boundaries in each decentralized area should not leave a minority population above 10 percent to threaten the majority. For example, the Protestants in Ireland, with less than 10 percent of the population, have lived in peace with the Catholics for decades; but Northern Ireland has been a mess, with a two-thirds/one-third split among the Protestant and Catholic populations, respectively.

Recently, South Sudan has separated from Sudan, and Kosovo has separated from Serbia. The first separation is a better model than the second. In the first, the United States mediated a voluntary separation, although boundary issues are still an issue and may need to be adjusted. The two parties were also able to work out an arrangement on how resources—principally oil—would be handled. In the second case, boundary issues are a major issue, with a significant Serb population still living in the detached Albanian-dominated Kosovo. In addition, Kosovo is the cradle of Serb civilization and was involuntarily ripped from Serbia as a result of an outside intervention by the U.S. military, thus dramatically lessening the separation’s legitimacy in the eyes of Serbs. But instead of working to give the partition the best long-term chance of working by redrawing the boundaries of Kosovo so that most Kosovar Serbs can go back into Serbia, the West, by holding Serbian membership in the European Union hostage, is strong-arming Serbia to accept Kosovo’s current unworkable boundaries. Look for more violence in Kosovo.

So partition and political decentralization into a confederation of autonomous regions could be a solution for almost any violent artificial country, as long as this solution is voluntary and not imposed by an outside power.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.