The Most Dangerous Dumb Idea that Will Not Die

In 1863, in Second Empire Paris, the French Empress Eugenie cornered the Austrian diplomat Richard von Metternich and outlined her proposal for reordering the nations of Europe in what she believed would be a more logical fashion. Under her scheme, the borders of nations and empires would be adjusted to more closely follow the major ethnic and linguistic divisions on the continent. Poland would be reconstituted from those areas of Prussia, Austria, and Russia where Poles were a majority. Prussia would absorb most of the German states; Russia most of the Slavic areas of the Ottoman Empire. Metternich, from an empire that was the antithesis of the ethnically based nation-state, was not inclined to report favorably on the Empress’s plan.[i] Most modern students of diplomacy see Metternich as the consummate statesman and the Empress Eugenie as something of an amateur meddler. Yet the Empress’s ideas for an idealized reordering of national boundaries retain great credence when modern soldiers, statesmen, academics, and interested laymen consider a host of world problems, especially in former colonial areas.

Speakers and writers, from the novice to the professional, when pontificating on the problems of politics and geography in South Asia, the Middle East, or Africa, usually blame the British. After all, the argument goes, the British divided and ruled vast areas of the world, and the post-colonial world has inherited the borders drawn by late nineteenth and early twentieth century British statesmen, and many current problems of Asia and Africa can be traced to these borders. Winston Churchill’s big lunch, in a common anecdote used to demonstrate the arbitrary and callous way borders were drawn, led him to burp that afternoon when drawing the border between what is now Iraq and Syria, causing a strange bump on an otherwise straight border. Critics with a slightly wider perspective blame nineteenth century statesmen in Paris, Brussels, or Vienna, who sat around vague maps while drawing lines that intentionally divided tribes to make them easier for Europeans to rule. The implication is that borders left over from the colonial era are artificial, whereas the borders around European nation-states are natural or logical. The relative prosperity and stability of the West and the comparative instability of many areas of the post colonial world stem from the artificial borders left over from colonial politics. Usually unspoken but implied is that the post colonial areas would be more stable and therefore more prosperous if the borders of those countries were “natural borders,” rather than artificial borders. Hypothetical states such as “Baluchistan” “Kurdistan,” “Moroland,” are spoken of as logical and even inevitable solutions to ethnic tensions in troubled areas of the world.

While European statesmen did divide colonial areas with little or no regard for the ethnicities of the people in those areas, and at times for the specific reason of dividing tribes, inherent in the modern argument is that the nation-state should be formed around an ethnic group, with national borders that encompass rather than divide ethnicities and tribes. The idea goes back to early to mid-nineteenth century European nationalism, specifically to the creation of Italy and Germany as nation-states. Contemporary Europeans saw France, England, Spain, as examples of natural nation-states--states formed around an overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group. To be English, or French, or Spanish, did not mean simply being a subject of the government; it implied cultural, linguistic, dietary, religious, and ancestral links with fellow citizens. The concept was a liberal idea, and directly challenged the basis of monarchies, because it implied that the nation belonged to the members of the ethnic group that resided there, not to the prince who ruled it. Monarchies such as the Austrian Empire were obsolete, because it was a mish-mash of Germans, Slavs, Magyars, and Romanians, not to mention Jews and Muslims, and no ethnic group approached a majority. The Slavs were themselves divided into Czechs, Croats, Slovenians, Slovakians, Serbs, and Bohemians. To make the matter worse, or at least more complex, many of the ethnicities in the Austrian Empire were more numerous outside the Empire, and even dominated other states. The Germans of Austria were a relatively small percentage of all Germans in Europe, while Russia was by far the dominant Slavic state. Thus the Austrian Empire was an anarchism in an age of nationalism, and a reordering of Europe along natural lines would ideally lead to the creation of a host of successor states, some of which would look like the modern states of Slovakia and Croatia, while the areas of the empire ethnically dominated by Germans would join some new state of all the Germans, looking somewhat like Germany did by 1938, after Adolph Hitler had absorbed the rump state of Austria and the Sudetenland.

 This idea of the ethnically-based nation-state has been a powerful and seductive idea. Otto von Bismarck initially feared it, because his loyalty was to the House of Hohenzollern--to the Prussian royal dynasty—and not to some abstract concept of a nation based on an ethnic group. The Prussian kingdom consisted of whatever lands the Hohenzollerns had acquired by conquest, treaty, or marriage. The ethnicity of the inhabitants mattered little. But Bismarck was perceptive enough to see the way history was moving, and rather than be swept aside by nationalism, he mastered it and ensured that the Germany thus created would be a Prussianized Germany, under the House of Hohenzollern.[ii] The idea that the ethnically based nation-state was natural and desirable got its next major boost from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Explicit in his Fourteen Points for ending World War I was the idea that Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans and areas then ruled by the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, should be a series of small nation-states based on a dominant ethnic group.[iii] That this concept of the nation was espoused by President Wilson, who represented the ideal of the artificial nation-state, where citizenship is based on birth and or acceptance of basic ideas rather than genetics, remains one of the great enigmas of Wilson’s tortured idealism.

One problem with the idea of the ethnically-based nation-state is that it is a-historical—based on a false understanding of the creation and nature of the nation-states of Western Europe. France is usually held as a model of the natural nation. But France was hardly more natural than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, a minority of subjects of Louis XVI could be described as ethnically French—an ethnicity created over many centuries through a combination of various Germanic, Gallic, and Roman peoples—who were settled over a large oval in northern France centered on Paris. Most subjects of Louis were, and if they thought about it at all, considered themselves to be, Provencial, Breton, Norman, Alsace-Deutch, Flemish, Italian, or a host of smaller identities. The borders of France in 1789 were the result of a millennium of wars and marriages, wars fought and marriages arranged to expand territory, not out of any consideration for the language or culture of the people who lived in those territories. France became French in the century after the Revolution, when the secular public schools and the conscripted army forced, to borrow a phrase from the historian Eugene Weber, “peasants into Frenchmen.[iv]” Spain and England, the other two examples usually given as proto-typical nation-states, are even more artificial. Spain was created in 1469 by the marriage of the king of Aragon, Ferdinand II, and the queen of Castile, Isabella. Spain achieved religious unity by royal proclamation requiring all Jews to convert, leave, or be killed, in 1492, with a similar ban on Muslims added. Yet even after five centuries of political unity, significant sections of the population remain non-“Spanish,” as Catalonians and even more so Basques are quick to point out. That Portugal is a separate state while Catalonia is part of the Spanish state has no more basis in natural borders or ethnicity than any border in the Middle East or Africa. England, to ignore the other parts of the United Kingdom, is a stew of the descendants of various Germanic tribes (Anglos, Saxons, Jutes), Danes, (descended from Viking raiders and settlers) Normans (themselves descended from Viking setters mixed with Gallic people of northwestern France), on top of earlier inhabitants who were what today we call Celtic, plus a smattering of Romans.[v] None of these nation-states, France, Spain, or England was the result of ethnic or tribal borders.

The borders dividing the Western nation-states today are as misaligned with ethnic lines as any in Asia or Africa. Four contemporary sovereign states are demographically dominated by ethnic Germans (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein), while Germans form significant minorities in several surrounding nation-states, in some cases in adjacent regions (France, Belgium, Luxemburg), and in other cases in small pockets geographically separated from Germany (Hungary, Russia), not to mention the large populations of ethnic Germans in Canada, the United States, and Argentina. Australia and New Zealand, while ethnically, culturally, and historically, very similar, are separate nations, while half the length of the US-Canadian border is as arbitrary and artificial as any in Africa or the Middle East. The ethnically homogeneous nation-state has seldom been realized; perhaps the closest examples are Iceland and Japan. A side effect Japan’s ethnic unity is the conspicuous exclusion of those minorities that do exist in Japan from the national sense of self. Groups such as the Ainu, decedents of the people who lived in the islands before the Japanese arrived, or the Koreans, some of whom have been in Japan for several generations but are still seen as a foreign presence, and Okinawans, are the most obvious examples.

But even ignoring that few if any nation-states are based on an ethic group, the real danger with the idea that national/political borders should follow ethnic or tribal borders is that such a concept is the basis for ethnically discriminatory policies, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. When the nation is based on a tribe or ethic group, non-members of that dominant group are by definition not part of the nation. Jews prospered in the Austrian Empire, based on the territories ruled by the Habsburgs, while the fate of Jews in the hyper-ethnically based Nazi Germany is well known. The dissolution of Yugoslavia, and specifically the misery in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, was at heart over the question of whether Bosnia was a Serb state. If Bosnians were Serbians, then the Croats, Slovenians, and Muslims who lived in Bosnia were not Bosnians. If Bosnians were simply the people who lived within the borders of Bosnia, then ethnicity would not have mattered. The ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs, with its attempted repeat in Kosovo, was the concept of the nation-state organized along ethnic lines taken to its logical and deadly absurdity. History is replete with examples of the horror visited on minorities—ethnic, linguistic, religious—during efforts to create nation-states based on homogeneity. The Khmer Rouge’s slaughter of Viets and mixed populations in eastern Cambodia in the late 1970s, the driving out and killing of Hindus from areas destined to become Pakistan in the late 1940s, to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, all stemmed from the same insidious idea. Yet again and again, the division of ethnicities and tribes by national boundaries is listed as an underlying cause of unrest, from the tribal areas of Pakistan, to West Africa, where tribes such as the Hausa are split between Nigeria and Niger. But the real problem is the inability of central governments to project power over areas within their borders distant from their capitals—the persistence of ethnic and tribal identity that is stronger than national identity is a symptom, not a cause, of government weakness.[vi]

Despite it faulty assumptions and deadly affects, the idea will not die. In briefings, conference panels, informational lectures, and classrooms, it has become the default argument. The border between India and Pakistan was arbitrarily drawn by the British when they partitioned India; the Baluchs are divided by the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Kurds are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yes they are. And that is simply the way most nation-states are. For Americans to push for the ethnically based nation-state is truly bizarre, for in such a world, Boston’s North End would be part of Italy, and sections of Los Angeles would belong to Laos. National borders drawn for whatever reasons are national borders. The problems that plague so many nations in post-colonial areas stem from the inability of some governments to extend control over all areas nominally under their sovereignty, not from the thwarting of some idealized alignment of borders with ethnic divisions. Yet the non-alignment of national borders with tribal, ethic, or linguistic groups remains part of the introduction for a host of issues and problems. It sounds sophisticated but in practice its implantation has been destructive. It is an idea that needs to be added to the scrap heap of history.

[i] Wellesley, Sir Victor, and Sencourt, Robert, Conversations with Napoleon III (London: Benn, 1934).

[ii] Pflanze, Otto, Bismark and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).

[iii] Wilson, Wilson, Speech to Joint Session of Congress, 8 January 1918, “A Program for Peace,” points X, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII.

[iv] Weber, Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1976).

[v] For a genetic study on the origins of the modern peoples of the British Isles, see Sykes, Bryan, Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Great Britain and Ireland (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2006).

[vi] Herbst, Jeffrey, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).


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I mentioned the following paper in another thread and I wonder if the paper can be read in support of this SWJ article?:

In 1953, a book on Jammu and Kashmir titled The Grim Saga (Dasgupta & Co. Ltd.) came out in Calcutta, India. Its author, S. N. Shivpuri, lamented “the triple tragedy of Kashmir–local, subcontinental and international.” Almost five decades since then, a great deal has been written about the local and subcontinental tragedy(s) in Kashmir. This article instead turns its gaze towards the international aspects that accompanied the evolution of the first India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir from 1947–49, which sowed the seeds of the enduring dispute between the two countries. Focusing on the British policy towards Kashmir during this period, it contends that the impact of three wider, over-lapping contexts of international geopolitics, namely, British fears about unrest in the north-west of Indian subcontinent along the border with Afghanistan, British involvement in the Middle East, and British plans against the former Soviet Union, affected the official interpretation of British interest in Kashmir. These contexts, in turn, were created by the two themes of decolonization in South Asia and the Cold War in that pivotal year of 1947.

If you look past arguments about past colonization or those rooted in some kind of communalism or ethnicity, then you have varied national interests playing out and the "usual" messy business of state building or extending its writ. I really think the linked paper is supportive of this article if looked at a certain way.

How many of the trouble spots around the world are simply a projection of our own self, meaning the US and our allies and our fears and habits? Are these spots really any more trouble than others or are we simply making more of it than is warranted?

Let me clarify my argument a little: the point is not to blame the British or anyone else but to try and see if the narratives created can be looked at in a fresh way with newer research or new material?

I'm always interested in connections and the "either/or" nature of much commentary around military issues always fascinates me. It's either one thing or the other (I realize I am grossly simplifying) but what about the connections?

It's not to blame the British or Jinnah or Nehru in my example but to understand the connections to our era in a fresh way. So, no blame, only understanding. And as we watch a "system", seemingly separate and distant from it, we are a part of it too, meaning the US. There is a strange duality where we study other nations and yet divorce our own complicated history from this study or rely on a status quo narrative.

The author makes some good points here, but permit me to get technical for just a moment: The notion that state borders and sovereign relationships should be aligned with ethnodemographic groups is an idea that belongs not merely to the "tortured idealism" (I do like that turn of phrase) of the Wilsonian world view, but also of paleocon neorealism and of structural functionalism (qua Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons) as pertains to the European Community - and potentially elsewhere. I initially wrote "neofunctionalism" rather than structural functionalism, but thought the better of it, since the EU-style integration of necessary and overlapping functions, while compromising traditional state boundaries, does not necessarily recognize ethnodemographic relationships. All one really needs is protocol - and agreed upon principle by which different ethnolinguistic groups may interact within the integration framework. At the same time, the "Europe of the Regions" tends to decompose that functionally integrated framework in a fashion that breaks down the power, legitimacy and authority of the nation state. In the UK, the process is known as devolution, even as Scotland and Wales stand, all in Europe, but partway in and partway out of Great Britain.

Why care about this ? Well, there are many, many situations where ethnodemographic boundaries do NOT coincide with political boundaries, and neofunctional integration offers a strategy, albeit a compromise strategy from the standpoint of the nation state, by which such situations may be resolved. I would further cite the example of Israel and Palestine, where the rubric of the two-state solution only offers the dilemma that Stentiford poses, since the presupposition is that functional integration is a secondary concern, and that a negotiated peace settlement that recognizes Palestinian sovereignty (and inevitably moves a substantial number of Israeli Jews west of the Green Line)must precede any integrative efforts. And yet, within the boundaries of the Israeli-imposed secured areas, that integration proceeds forthwith. And this is just a singular example.

I am always supportive of ideas that challenge facts that are presumed to be established. There is research, however, that lends credence to the idea that the presence of "natural" borders strongly correlates to stability and civil success. For example:

The Israel/Palestine conflict is an obvious illustration of the author's thesis. See

I agree with the author, but his vehemence likewise obscures some nuance. I think Graham Robb's "The Discovery of France" is a good book to read to see what the creation of national identity looked like in Europe. Charles Tilly, FC Lane, and Robert Carniero also provide great insight to the struggle of state creation and the idea of state creation as organized crime. When considering the arbitrarily drawn borders, we must understand the time and effort it took to make the nation-state, as well as understanding that it was no neat exercise that would have stood up to the liberal litmus tests we use today to hold others to our standards. Additionally, while the borders of European states may be somewhat arbitrary, they were not fixed by international norm and intervention. They moved back and forth until they found some permanence in defensibility, international agreements, and norms. Arbitrary borders are not the root cause of problems in the developing world, nor would ethnically aligned borders (there would be none that could be agreed on anyway) create some solution to these problems. Yet, arbitrarily drawn borders, fixed by external institutions, the lack of a narrative to drive real national cohesion, and the inability to control one's own territory are all contributors to problems. Tilly wrote something to the effect that as the security of borders went up in these states, the amount of internal insecurity went up as well. When there is no external protection racket to be run, the rackets are internal, I guess. In sum, borders are not THE cause of instability, but they are a contributor. Redrawing borders is not a solution; in that, I agree fully.