The Middle East, Africa, and the Power Void
In a Christmas visit to Lebanon, I observed a country whose own national state formation since the nineteenth century has been marred by violent conflicts punctuated by colonial and imperialist interventions, the latest of which took place in 1982, with the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli occupation of its capital, Beirut. Years later, Lebanon’s fragile state is kept alive on a respirator suffering from the spill-over effects of the failure of the “Arab Spring” to bring about the socioeconomic and political changes to which the people behind the movement aspired. The Arab Spring emerged within a backdrop of U.S. imperialist intervention in Iraq and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi state and its national integrity. The Arab Spring also came at a moment of a crisis in the capitalist system that forced the most vulnerable populations in the global economy to carry its brunt. Facing unemployment, underemployment, lack of job opportunities, and increasing police repression, the youth affected by the Arab Spring radicalized rapidly, becoming main protagonists in the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. In the case of the first four, the revolts spurred regime changes without tackling the socioeconomic structures falling behind the popular expectations; in Syria the revolt escalated into a full-fledged civil war whose end is not yet in sight. In Egypt the situation is still in flux, approximating a condition of open violent confrontation between the military-backed regime and opposition. In Yemen and Tunisia, the pervasiveness of the political instability and violence offers little hope for timely resolution.
An element that may explain the crisis of the national state in the Middle East and significant parts of Africa is the condition of a hegemony that is less monolithic by the day: within the power vacuum left by the United States and its colonial allies, a host of non-state violent actors operating across territorial states’ boundaries are carving their own new political-territorial formations. As the United States confronts its deepening economic crises and the exorbitant cost of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—wars that have exceeded $1 trillion—U.S. imperialism has begun to retreat; coupled with the emergence of new global power brokers such as China, India, Brazil, and the re-emerging Russia, the current global distribution of power is one I consider a “diffused hegemony.” In the absence of a common hegemonic world project, the diffused hegemony of the global political landscape has created opportunities for non-state actors, including violent ones, to gain footing, such as the al Qaeda of North Africa and al Maghreb of Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, and Mali. In countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Chad, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, non-state violent actors control entire territories and are establishing authority over the feeble power of central governments. These actors are undermining the colonial national-state system across a vast geographic terrain; as a result, millions of people live today under an authority other than the formal national state.
In Syria, for example, millions of people are now living under the sway of extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front, both associates of an al Qaeda terror group funded by Saudi Arabia with the acquiescence of the United States and its other regional allies. These two groups are now carving territories in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, thereby redrawing the inherited post-colonial national state boundaries—this, while the state has collapsed in Libya since the removal of the autocracy of Qadafi in 2011, succumbing to tribal competition for the control of the natural resources.
Sudan’s solution to post-war instability has been through an attempted project of nation-building—one that has ended, disastrously, in the formation of South Sudan. Created largely by the encouragement of Western powers including the United States, the country is now witnessing a bloody confrontation between different factions that are activating what Donald Horowitz has termed “ethnopolitics.” The current conflict proves that dividing Sudan was not the solution: both countries are now forced to contend with the same centrifugal forces contesting access to power and resources. Instead, a better solution would have been to democratize wealth and access to political power in Sudan, rather than create yet another feeble national state that is dead at birth.
In all of the aforementioned instances of the insecure status of the national state—almost all within a descending U.S. imperialist era of diffused hegemony—any way forward must unite the populations bearing the weight of a crumbling national state system with democratic-progressive political forces.
Latin America and the Emerging Order
The turbulence hitting the national state in most of the Middle East and a number of states in Africa has also been affecting the weakest states in Latin America and the Caribbean countries for some time. In Central America, for example, in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, powerful criminal organizations have succeeded in forming a duality of political-territorial power within their respective states, controlling territory and establishing legitimacy in the eyes of the populations they control, creating a peculiar political economy. This power duality also applies to Mexico, where the state and criminal organizations have coexisted for decades, leading to the creation of a dual power structure in a number of Mexican states. And in Haiti, an example par excellence of the ludicrous idea of nation-building, the national state collapsed after the earthquake, never recovering—Haiti today is colonized by a host of NGOs backed through financial support by the United States and the UN. An imperialist idea based on the belief that “nations” are created by fiat rather than by a historically long and complex socioeconomic political processes, the project of nation-building in Haiti has been a dismal failure.
Within this complex panorama of the deepening crisis of the national state, we might ask: what about Colombia after 50 years of civil war?
The Colombian state and its opponents in the Marxist insurgency face a choice in their ongoing negotiations: to consolidate the national state by accommodating the contending forces within the current war system by building a new social pact; or to continue the war system by entrenching elements of diffused hegemony that Colombia witnesses around the globe. As the latter has served Colombia to supposedly negotiate conflict and dialectically concentrate and redestribute resources for almost a half-century, the jury is still deliberating, and the malaise of the “national state” continues.
Nazih Richani is Associate Professor of political science and Director of Latin American studies at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is the author of Dilemmas of Political Parties in Sectarian Societies: The Case of the PSP of Lebanon (St. Martin’s Press, 1998) and System of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia (State University of New York Press, 2002). He blogs at "Caudernos Colombianos."