View photos of the next wave of new countries.
This year will almost certainly see the birth of a new country named Southern Sudan. It might also witness the creation of an independent Palestine, as Palestinian leaders push for unilateral recognition of their national sovereignty within their country's 1967 borders. And within a couple of years, a sovereign Kurdistan might emerge from a still-brittle Iraq. We could be entering a new period of mass state birth: Imagine an independent South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur too. The trend is nothing new, but it's picking up steam again. The most recent sovereign entrant was in 2008, when Kosovo emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia; nine years earlier, in 1999, it was East Timor gaining independence from Indonesia.
Because of this wave of self-determination culminating in sovereignty, there are today more autonomous political units in the world than at any time since the Middle Ages of a millennium ago. Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world. Moreover, we are gradually returning to the medieval world of thousands of multilayered communities ranging from the supranational European Union to the magnetic city-states of the Persian Gulf to the indigenous communities of the Inuit of Canada and Greenland.
This instability is the cartographic expression of an underlying geopolitical phenomenon afflicting much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia: post-colonial entropy. Except for a few, rare cases, many of the colonies that gained their independence a half-century ago have since experienced unmanageable population growth, predatory and corrupt dictatorship, crumbling infrastructure and institutions, and ethnic or sectarian polarization.
Scenes from the next
wave of new countries.
Whether or not Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo technically qualify as "failed states," their fates are sealed by their colonial inheritance. Indeed, it's often their borders that are the deepest cause of their conflicts. Many of these national borders are in desperate need of adjustment, and the rest of the world should show more flexibility in allowing them to do so. Europe messed it up the first time, but now the West can support the right regional bodies to adjudicate these new borders -- helping others help themselves in the process.
By this logic, today's hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan are not simply "America's Wars." Rather, they are to some extent the unexploded ordinance left over from old European wars, with their fuses lit on slow release. Indeed, the United States had nothing to do with the Sykes-Picot and other agreements that parceled the Levant into French- and British-allied monarchies, or the Congress of Berlin, which drew suspiciously straight lines on Africa's map. Some of these haphazard agreements created oversized or artificial agglomerations like Sudan, which threw together heretofore independent groups of Arabs, Africans, Christians, and Muslims into a country one-fourth the size of the United States but lacking any common national ethos or adequate distribution of resources to sustain commitment to unity. Others did the opposite, like the British officer Henry Mortimer Durand, whose infamous line divided the Pashtun nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This growing cartographic stress is not just America's challenge. All the world's influential powers and diplomats should seize a new moral high ground by agreeing to prudently apply in such cases Woodrow Wilson's support for self-determination of peoples. This would be a marked improvement over today's ad hoc system of backing disreputable allies, assembling unworkable coalitions, or simply hoping for tidy dissolutions. Reasserting the principle of self-determination would allow for the sort of true statesmanship lacking on today's global stage.
In Sudan, the United States has certainly placed itself on the right side of this trend. It has been a key architect of the internationally sanctioned referendum that will likely result in Southern Sudan's independence, making clear that the eventual split is not a U.S.-led conspiracy to hack apart the Arab-Muslim world. Such a legitimate process has given cover to China to reorient its policy as well, balancing its staunch support for the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Khartoum with upgraded relations with the Southern government in Juba, which has in return promised to honor the China National Petroleum Corp.'s contracts. (Sixty percent of Sudan's oil exports currently go to China.)