Failed States

Posted on


The most salient characteristic of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century was its decentralization. In fact, the Ottoman state can only be considered an empire in the loose sense in which the term is used to refer to such medieval states as the Chinese under the late T’and dynasty. Its administrative establishment, economic system, and social organization all call to mind the structure of a premodern state. On paper, Ottoman territory at the turn of the nineteenth century stretched from Algeria to Yemen, Bosnia to the Caucuses, and Eritrea to Basra, encompassing a vast area inhavied by some 30 million people [MY note: this was a lot at the time]. In practice, the reach of the Ottoman government in Istanbul rarely extended beyond the central provinces of Anatolia and Rumelia, and then only weakly.

That’s from M. Sükrü Hanioglu’s A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire which would probably sell better if it adopted the pithy-title, long-ass subtitle format seen in, for example, my book, Heads in the Sand.

What’s more, to prove that even a seemingly far-afield topic can be turned into a book plug, consider that this sort of herky-jerky governance across the breadth of the Muslim world would be deemed intolerable today. Contemporary Americans feel — and not wrongly — that in the wake of 9/11 we can’t just be indifferent to what happens elsewhere. Anarchic conditions, or worse nuclear weapons programs, in far-off places could get people killed right here in the United States. The Bush administration’s proposal to deal with this reality is to try to turn the United States into a kind of universal empire that will tell other countries what they may not and must do, and will mandate compliance through military might. Well, it doesn’t work. The alternative I advocate in Heads in the Sand is liberal internationalism — governance by agreement, non-proliferation and other goals achieved through legitimate multilateral processes that respect the interests of others and are capable of gaining the adherence of others.

In the wake of 9/11, that path was abandoned out of a combination of the sense that it was too laborious and the sense that it was politically untenable. But we’ve seen for the past seven years that the “shortcut” alternative of universal empire is no shortcut at all — casting off international restraint hasn’t empowered us to do new and exciting things, it’s been counterproductive at great cost. Politically, the path of cowardice and timidity didn’t achieve anything noteworthy for Democrats in 2002 and 2004, and with the Bush doctrine discredited the moment is ripe to try and offer people some serious ideas rather than merely “Serious” ones.

Photo by Flickr user Coltharp used under a Creative Commons license