A week ago, the United States faced the likelihood of a third Asian War since 2001. Russia and China could escalate the conflict either directly or through proxies, and a new whirlpool of global and domestic discontent would swallow President Obama’s second term. Patience has (so far) maintained a veneer of reasoned analysis about the deteriorating situation in Syria. The British Parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s argument for military intervention shattered a century of western collaborations to control Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Most analysts have taken note that this increasing isolationism among nations like Germany and Great Britain reflects a larger trend that developing nations will have to take greater leadership in maintaining a safe, stable world system. As a result, this weekend, Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s extended efforts to sustain the Syrian rebels have intensified. Public calls for international support to prevent a larger crisis in the region have reached a crescendo. Yet few have taken a serious look at the broken foundation upon which rest all of the crises the West has failed to resolve since 1945.
The end of the Second World War marked the end of Imperial Europe, and the beginning of the Cold War rivalry to shape an industrial world system between the Soviet Union and the United States. Between these two ideological coalitions, the Non-Aligned Movement of independent, developing nations emerged. The United States’ interest began as containment and later became cooptation. The Russia and China that drove Cold War policy adapted aspects and appearances of western capitalist democracy in response to this shift in the last twenty-five years. Foreign aid and investment have replaced the tanks, planes, and missiles that characterized tensions in the second half of the twentieth century. These shadow conflicts can no longer persist in a world where the largest superpower remains so divided politically that global action is unsustainable.
Instead, regional leaders like Turkey and Saudi Arabia must negotiate controlled military transitions in places like Syria with unlikely partners like Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan. The lingering problem remains the artificial national boundaries created in the aftermath of European colonialism. The maps of Asia and Africa remain fictions, largely perceived only symbolically by the people who live there. Beyond more myopic debates about the effectiveness of missile strikes or new diplomacy, it is time to re-imagine state and community in Syria.
Fragmentation is a long-term strategy to recognize the ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions within a hostile polity. It allows for the democratic reorganization of multiple societies without the extensive oppression and civil war that defined the entire Middle East since 1945. The resulting chaos of reorganization will be devastating for many, but would it be worse than continuing Western imperialism or complicity?
Too often, leaders like President Obama seek the solution that fits neatly into the categories of hard choices. With resilient problems that endure across generations, the illusion of order is insufficient to the task of conflict resolution. Now is the time for a more radical vision where controlled chaos is the goal. The fragmented state solution allows for a fragile peace with smaller outbreaks of sectarian violence over longer periods of time. If successful in Syria, it could work through many of the nations that have experienced the Arab Spring. More importantly, it could provide an extended transitional stage for Palestine and Israel’s negotiations. Fragmentation could also defuse concerns about global terrorism rising from central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
It is not the solution for Americans interested in projecting our influence or using the military to provide additional stimulus to the global economy. It might be a crucial element in balancing the range of military and political solutions already on the table.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).