PARIS – Could the world be on the verge of a new period of re-ordering itself, similar to the one experienced nearly 20 years ago?
In the 1990’s, the fall of the Soviet empire and the brutal implosion of Yugoslavia led to a spectacular increase in the number of independent states. To follow the Olympic Games or the World Cup, the world had to learn to recognize new flags and new national anthems.
Now a new wave of identity fragmentation, spanning Africa and perhaps Europe, may be approaching. In January, a referendum on independence is scheduled to be held in South Sudan. If it does actually take place, there is little doubt that it will lead to the creation of a new state within the African continent, a first since the breakup of Ethiopia in 1993. Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, and even Nigeria may also give birth to new states.
For decades, Africa’s boundaries have been denounced as the artificial and arbitrary work of ignorant and cynical colonial officers, which has contributed to a long train of tribal rivalries, if not ethnic cleansings. But no one, especially not the pan-African organizations, wishes to redefine borders. The more fragile and unstable the balance, the more imperative it is to maintain the status quo.
So, is a new Pandora’s box about to be opened in Africa, freeing demons that should be contained? Or is it the artificial status quo itself that has caused organized violence to explode with fateful regularity?
The brutal behavior of the Sudanese regime based in Khartoum has made the country’s evolution towards partition both inevitable and legitimate. The main question now is whether partition will be held up as a model and a precedent elsewhere in Africa.
In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, former President Laurent Gbagbo takes inspiration from Zimbabwe’s autocratic President Robert Mugabe, clinging to power after his clear defeat in the last presidential elections. As a result, the country’s division on a partly ethnic and religious basis along north-south lines is no longer unthinkable; on the contrary, it is increasingly likely.
This trend towards identity fragmentation is not only an African phenomoenon. Much closer to where I write, in Europe, it affects Belgium, a country that seems resigned to live with absolute political paralysis as the price of its survival. But entropy in Belgium has sent tremors into Spain, in Catalonia, where last November’s elections to the regional parliament turned out the left-wing alliance that had dominated for seven years in favor of a pro-sovereignty coalition.
The economic crisis affects all parts of Spain. But, like supporters of the Northern League in Italy, a significant number of Catalans are starting to oppose their supposedly serious, hard-working character and relative success to the “laziness of the Spaniards.” Why should they work for “them”? And, of course, a growing number of Germans speak about the rest of Europe the way Catalans speak about Spaniards.
Of course, Europe is not Africa, where violence and despair are the engines of fragmentation. In Europe today, if there is violence, it is only economic in nature. But, as the economic crisis persists – and perhaps even worsens – we may witness further explosions of populism and nationalism that could translate into a new wave of fragmentation.
A Europe of 27 states is already very difficult to manage. The European Union, which is in the midst of a profound identity crisis, does not need new states, but rather new ideas and a new narrative – a qualitative, not quantitative, change. Of course, one can dream, as some once did, of a “Europe of Regions” based on the model of the city-states of Renaissance Italy.
The American sociologist Daniel Bell once famously said that the state is too big for the small problems and too small for the big ones. But, in a global age, “the nation” becomes a more powerful form of identity protection, just as “the state,” following the crisis of Western financial capitalism, nowadays appears stronger than a “market” destabilized by its excesses.
At the same time, the quest for identity that is causing some states to fragment is pushing others to envision neo-imperial vistas. Each reflects the same logic. The imperial nature of identity in Russia, for example, is deeply ingrained. And Turkey, encouraged by the power vacuum that exists all around it, as well as by the obstinate resistance of most EU members to admit the Turks to their “Christian club,” is starting to think in neo-Ottoman terms. Imperial traditions never fade away completely.
Maybe one day people will look at the first decade of the twenty-first century as the logical continuation of the last decade of the twentieth century. If so, ours will be an era worthy of careful study, a moment when the world was in the midst of a difficult and uncertain process of re-composition.