02 November 2017
Creating A New State
The most dangerous and reckless of all political endeavours.
By Neil Tidmarsh
So Carles Puigdemont – having declared a new independent state of Catalonia last week – has now fled to Belgium, and Catalonia is under direct rule from Madrid. And Masoud Barzani – having declared a new independent state of Kurdistan last month – has now resigned as president, while embattled Kurdish forces continue to lose ground to Iraqi government forces. And Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – having announced a new independent Islamic State three years ago – has fled to… well, no one quite knows where (though apparently he is still alive, despite reports of his death during a Russian airstrike on Raqqa last May), and his ‘state’ literally lies in ruins all over Syria and Iraq.
No one knows exactly what Senyor Puigdemont is doing in Brussels (is he seeking political asylum in Flanders? Is he trying to set up a Catalan government in exile?) apart from perhaps contemplating the chaos he has left behind him in Spain and the criminal charges waiting for him there. No one knows what Masoud Barzani will do now that he is no longer president, apart from mutter darkly about being let down by his western allies (although those allies begged him to delay the vote on independence, promising further support for him and his people if he did). And as for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – the words “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair” seem as pertinent as ever.
Nevertheless, all three of them must be thinking the same thing: that the creation of a new, independent state must be the most dangerous and reckless of all political endeavours, a hazardous gamble which only a rare genius – a Bismark or a Cavour, a Lincoln or a Washington – could ever pull off. And all three of them must be coming to the same conclusion: that they – Carles Puigdemont, Masoud Barzani and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – fall somewhat short of that quality.
But even when those geniuses – Cavour, Bismark, etc – did manage to pull it off, the stakes were extremely high and the costs colossal. Some historians tell us that the main cause of war is imperial rivalry, and shudder with apprehension as they look at the current rise of China and imagine an impending confrontation with the USA. But they’re wrong – the main cause of war is the creation of a new country, the birth of a new state or nation, as the history of the last two centuries clearly indicates. And that’s why it’s such a dangerous and reckless gamble.
The most terrible wars of the nineteenth century were those precipitated by the creation of Italy, Germany and the United States of America. In 1850, Italy didn’t exist as a state – it was merely a collection of half a dozen different states, some independent, some ruled from Vienna as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Less than twenty years later it was a single sovereign country. At least three wars of liberation and unification had been fought in the meantime, drawing in the other European powers of France, Austria and Prussia, and including the exceptionally bloody battles in 1859 of Magenta (more than 10,000 dead or wounded – a casualty rate of over 10%) which gave its name to the deep blood-red synthetic die developed in the same year, and Solferino (more than 28,000 dead or wounded – again, a casualty rate of over 10%) which led directly to the formation of the International Red Cross and the drawing up of the Geneva Convention.
Bismark was determined that Germany should be unified, and unified by Prussia, and this set in motion a whole series of wars over the following century. He marched Prussia against other German states, Austria, Denmark and France to achieve his goal – the crowning of King Wilhelm I of Prussia as Emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in 1871. But of course the unification of Germany wasn’t completed (and then only temporarily) until the Anschlus – the annexation of Austria into Germany in 1938 – and the whole process precipitated the two great wars of the twentieth century.
The declaration of the USA as a new country was followed rapidly by the the revolutionary war of independence of 1775-1783. Building and consolidating that new nation sparked off the Civil War of 1861-1865 – the world’s first industrialised conflict, and the bloodiest until the horrors of the following century. More than 620,000 American soldiers died in those four years – as many as were killed in the two World Wars and Vietnam put together.
But to return to the present. Catalonia, Kurdistan and Isis aren’t the only state-creating, nation-building projects being undertaken today: the logical outcome of the EU’s policy of ‘ever closer union’ would be the creation of a single European state and a single European nation. Jean-Claude Juncker and most of his predecessors have made no secret of their hopes and ambitions for a new, united Europe. Of course, the departure of a member state (Brexit), the economic trauma of the southern states, and the internal chaos and fragmentation (Spain and Catalonia) within member states resulting from national authorities losing relevance and status to supranational authority, are nothing compared to Magenta, Solferino, Gettysburg or Königgrätz; but one wonders whether the visionaries behind the drive for a united Europe appreciate that creating a new state and nation is the most hazardous and costly of all political endeavours.
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