‘Iraq Is Bound to Fail'


Amity Shlaes summarizes a recent Easterly paper;

“Authors Alberto Alesina and Janina Matuszeski of Harvard University and William Easterly at New York University divided countries into two categories: natural and artificial. A natural state is one defined by ethnicity and geographic features such as mountain ranges. Mountains reinforce ethnic communities -- if only by isolating them. Natural national borders would tend to be bumpy.

The map of an artificial state by contrast looks like it was drawn with a ruler, which it often was. Its straight borders sometimes partition ethnic communities, placing them in two countries. Other times, they place tribes that are hostile to one another in the same nation.

Most nations have borders that are a combination of lines and bumps, so the authors developed a mathematical measure to quantify the extent of border bumpiness, which they called squiggliness. Since borders on oceans are extremely squiggly, the authors controlled for that and studied only the squiggliness of national borders with other nations. Their thesis is that it is better to be natural than artificial, and that squiggliness is good for growth and stability….

Less squiggly countries, the scholars found, generally have lower income, worse public services and higher infant mortality rates. They also found that social unrest, the sort that leads to wars, was also more frequent in unsquiggly places. The net finding, says Alesina, is that artificiality is ``correlated with bad stuff.''

It turns out that squiggliness matters even among countries ranking in the middle of the squiggliness scale. ``When you move from the top quarter of squiggly countries to the bottom quarter you see a serious loss of gross domestic product,'' Matuszeski says.

There are outliers, to be sure. At No. 11, Lebanon is super squiggly, which makes the current war there seem like an anomaly. The U.S. and Canada, as stable as they come, have long straight borders and low rankings. Here the situation is different, Matuszeski says, for ``a key factor is when the border is drawn.'' If it is drawn before settlers came -- as was the case in the near-empty New World -- then trouble is less likely…

There are other aspects of the study to challenge here, starting with the choice of the word ``squiggly.'' (It turns out the scholars thought about ``wiggly,'' but felt that ``squiggly'' worked better.)

The bigger problem with the study is the circularity of the argument. The great powers of a 100 or 50 years ago drew the lines that created the colonies or satellite countries.

Britain for example arbitrarily constructed Iraq, and arbitrarily decided its size, which is a bit less than twice that of the U.S. state of Idaho.

``The worst thing that ever happened to Iraq was the invention of the straight edge,'' Easterly says. ``They took Mesopotamia and combined mutually antagonistic groups in one nation.'' Colonialism or tyranny sets trouble in motion. The lines themselves came later. …``The lesson of history is respect nationality,'' Easterly says. ``For Iraq, at the very least you want to emphasize the federalism established there and strengthen it.'' He and his partners are looking at this in a new study, on wars and squiggliness."

Engaging Fragile States- a new initiative from CGD
State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century with Francis Fukuyama
State Building and Global Development
The Failed States Index Rankings
Squiggly border theory
Count Ethnic Divisions, Not Bombs, to Tell if a Nation Will Recover From War
The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall By Ian Bremmer
Postwar Economics


For anyone possessing a passing familiarity with imperial history and the dynamics of nationalism over the past century and a half, the findings of Alesina, Matuszeski and Easterly should come as no surprise. During the expansion of the European colonial empires, the metropolitan powers frequently divided conquered territories along totally arbitrary lines, with the Congo Conference in Berlin in 1885 being the most prominent and notorous example. There had of course been enduring multiethnic empires in the past -- the Ottoman Empire, for one -- including those that left some members of ethnic groups outside their frontiers. What has made arbitrary borders so problematic in the past century and a half is the rise of nationalism, and its associated doctrine of national self-determination, which suggests that each "nation" (defined as an ethnically distinct people) must have its own political state. The concept of national self-determination came into its own under the Presidency of Woodrow Wilsion, whose own Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, warned that the "concept was loaded with dynamite... It will raise hopes that can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives... what a calamiy the phrase was ever uttered!"

In Europe, national self-determination had been largely accomplished by the mid twentieth century, albeit with a great deal of bloodshed and forced expulsions. Elsewhere in the world, the post-World War II trend toward decolonization, accomplished largely by the early 1960s, created a large group of artificial countries -- or what the Canadian political scientist Robert Jackson terms "quasi-states" -- where the boundaries of the ethnic nation bore little or no resemblance to the boundaries of the territorial state. This has been a recipe for unending wars of irridentism and secssionism. The recent research on squiggly lines would appear to confirm this reading of history.


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on August 31, 2006 4:01 PM.

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