Borders set by colonial powers are the problem

Published 8:42 am Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Here is what is wrong with the world: the borders.

Not everywhere, just in the places where the people living there didn’t have control in setting those borders.

We industrialized nations determined our own borders, through war, diplomacy, brinksmanship, purchase. “The Prince,” by Florentine theorist Niccolò Machiaveli in 1513, told about the principalities of the Apennine Peninsula vying for wealth, power and resources. Eventually, those little nations became, in 1861, a united Italy. The people who lived on that peninsula united it.

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The United States indeed were colonies, and they struggled with union and identity. But we largely were able to determine our fate and expand westward. What would our country be like if during the Civil War an outside power occupied us for the sake of peace? Perhaps, to preserve peace, the power would have allowed the Confederated States of America to exist.

Preserving peace was the idea in allowing Pakistan to exist instead of a united subcontinent, and now India and Pakistan are nuclear enemies. (As a little kid, I had wondered why the Indus River wasn’t in India.)

Many struggling nations, on the other hand, are former colonies that had their borders set by empires, not by themselves.

The Philippines were many kingdoms before the Spanish came in 1565. The United States won the colony in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and granted independence in 1946 after winning the archipelago back from the Imperial Japanese in World War II. Outside forces united those islands, not the people who live there.

That’s an easy example because at least the Filipinos have a geographic identity. The archipelago unites them as a people.

Many nations of Africa have borders set by European powers at arbitrary places. People there identify more with tribe than country because, at the base level, a true country is nothing more than a tribe that has grown to establish its boundaries. The Franks in France. Anglo-Saxons in England. That’s why nation often means tribe, too. The Sioux Nation.

Let’s take Nigeria. That area had several kingdoms before colonialism. The most well-known was the Songhai Empire of the northern reaches of the Niger River and southern Sahara Desert, including Timbuktu.

The British had claims in West Africa and in 1886 the Royal Niger Co. sought to consolidate the empire’s hold there. When the people were granted independence in 1960, it was left with borders set by a trade company. People from primarily three tribes were left to run a country together.

Now everyone play nicely.

Today, it is an oil-rich country yet mired in poverty. Tribal loyalties often prevent progression.

In America, I suppose we don’t comprehend that. Being a melting pot is our identity, but perhaps the Iraq War has helped us a bit. We no longer naively ask: “Why can’t the Kurds, Sunni and Shiites just get along?”

I wonder what West Africa would look like if the tribes of West Africa would have been able to fight, negotiate, swindle and buy their way to agreeable borders. If only one tribe at a time had to figure out how to handle its oil, there would be greater progress. Kids could have to know the capital of Yaruba.

I wonder what the Mideast would be like if European powers hadn’t been so eager to divvy up the Ottoman Empire. What if upon the fall of the Ottoman in 1922, the sheiks, imams, sultans and other leaders the Middle East got to vie for power, rather than have it established for select men and with select borders by the French and British? Or perhaps, would the Turks have regained rule, which today looks like it might have been a good thing for human rights?

Why are we — as a planet — so transfixed on maintaining the present borders? Sure, earthlings these days allow countries to break off within established borders — Lithuania, East Timor, Croatia, Bratislava, Eritrea, almost Quebec — but what Saddam pulled in 1991 in Kuwait (between two Arab countries over borders establish long ago by colonial powers, no less) isn’t tolerated.

Here’s the hardest part: Would we be a more peaceful world if we let wars happen? Our country did a lot of fighting and a lot of taking, but it can be argued it has resulted in a peaceful North America today. The same goes for much of Europe and East Asia.

What if the industrialized nations stopped meddling in the affairs of developing nations so they can determine their own borders, so they can, um, develop?

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.