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Reconciling with Sykes-Picot

NEW YORK – This month marks the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret British-French accord that launched a decade-long series of adjustments to the borders of the post-Ottoman Middle East. Most commentary on the anniversary has been negative, suggesting that the agreement bears considerable blame for the frequency and durability of the region’s conflicts.

That interpretation, however, borders on caricature. Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot aimed to devise a plan that would enable Great Britain and France to avoid a ruinous rivalry in the Middle East. They largely succeeded: Their design kept the region from coming between the two European powers, and it managed to survive for a century.

To be sure, many of the Sykes-Picot borders reflected deals cut in Europe rather than local demographic or historical realities. But that hardly makes the Middle East unique: Most borders around the world owe their legacy less to thoughtful design or popular choice than to some mixture of violence, ambition, geography, and chance.

The unpleasant reality is that today’s Middle East is what it is because its people and leaders have done such a bad job in shaping it. Sykes and Picot cannot be blamed for the region’s pervasive lack of tolerance and political freedom, poor schools, or the unfair ways in which girls and women are treated. Other parts of the world (including those without enormous reserves of oil and gas) have emerged from colonialism in much better shape.