Independence and interdependence

It is Independence Day in the US, which marks 239 years since the representatives of the thirteen colonies declared in 1776:

That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

The war that had begun the year before at Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts) continued, ending only in 1781 at Yorktown (Virginia). The peace was signed only in 1783 in Paris.

The United States and the United Kingdom fought again in 1812-15, but the UK did not intervene in the American civil war. By then British sentiment was mainly anti-slavery but the UK still relied on cotton produced in the Confederacy and feared industrial competition from the American north. It was only in the 1890s, more than a hundred years after the revolution, that America’s familiar friendly ties with the UK began to be established.

I tell this story not only because it is July 4, but also because it provides perspective on some of today’s problems. Kosovo and South Sudan are the world’s newest “independent” states. It would be easy to bemoan their current situations. Kosovo is suffering from economic doldrums and serious corruption. South Sudan is suffering a ferocious civil war that overshadows the economic doldrums and corruption that would otherwise be much in evidence.

Neither country is yet 10 years old. Kosovo has made good progress in normalizing its relations with Serbia, which is potentially Kosovo’s biggest market and its most obvious security threat. Khartoum may be aggravating South Sudan’s problems, but they are mainly internal. If only because of the Nile, which flows through both, Sudan and South Sudan will need eventually to establish what the Europeans like to call “good neighborly relations.”

Other trouble spots in the Middle East are also relatively young independent states: Libya (1951), Egypt (nominally 1922, but British troops didn’t leave until 1956), Yemen (British soldiers left in 1967, but the current state dates from the unification of north and south in 1990), Syria (1945) and Iraq (1932). They are suffering mainly from internal conflict, all too often precipitated or aggravated by outside powers. It is tempting to think that 100 years is still a reasonable time frame for state consolidation. Some of these states may not make it to that milestone.

Ukraine is in a similar situation. It achieved independence only in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would have had internal problems in any event, but Russia has aggravated them by annexing Crimea and invading two of Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

Independence is hard, but many countries figure out how to govern themselves if left to their own devices. It is the interdependence dimension that often causes problems. The Saudi/Iranian rivalry has aggravated internal conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Egypt and Libya have generated most of their own problems, which Islamic State affiliates are exploiting.

I can only wish that the evolution in the Middle East will follow the course that US/UK relations took, with many ups and downs, during the 19th century. Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are doing so much to fuel conflict today, have good reason to come to terms. Both are spending too much to achieve too little in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. ISIS challenges them both. It is not hard to imagine a positive-sum outcome to their current negative-sum rivalries. Interdependence may be hard, but it is a lot better than war.

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