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Friday, December 1

Logistics and the nation-state

“Pundita, you mentioned Robert D. Kaplan in your post about tribalism and nationalism. I wonder if you have ever read his article, The Coming Anarchy. It was published in 1994 but remains relevant. He addresses many important issues related to defense and foreign policy including the impact of environmental scarcity on defense strategy.

I would be interested in your view of Kaplan’s claim that the two-dimensional mapping of nations fails to reflect the current reality of population movements that do not recognize borders, and that the notion of the nation-state does not really apply outside the West.
Leticia in Seville”

Dear Leticia:
Thank you for bringing the article to my attention; it is very well researched and I agree that Kaplan puts forward several important arguments, whether or not one agrees with his conclusions. He crams an incredible amount of information into the article and in the most beautifully written fashion -- verging on lyrical.

I printed out the article as a Word document; for readers who want to do the same, the passages that Leticia refers to start on page 17 under the subheading, The Lies of Mapmakers. The following paragraphs don’t do justice to Kaplan’s full argument but they’re good enough for my purpose:
In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, of Cornell University, demonstrates that the map enabled colonialists to think about their holdings in terms of a “totalizing classificatory grid. […] It was bounded, determinate, and therefore -- in principle -- countable.” To the colonialist, country maps were the equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. Maps, Anderson explains, “shaped the grammar” that would make possible such questionable concepts as Iraq, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

[…] The state, recall, is a purely Western notion, one that until the twentieth century applied to countries covering only three percent of the earth’s land area. Nor is evidence compelling that the state, as a governing ideal, can be successfully transported to areas outside the industrialized world. […]
Counting is not only the basis of accounting. It’s also the basis of logistics, on which civilization is built. The very challenges to civilization that Kaplan starkly warns about -- environmental scarcity, crime, overpopulation, and disease -- can only be met by governments efficiently delivering services to their populations. To put it another way, if the nation-state didn’t exist, a modern procurement specialist would invent it.

Think of adequate government in this era of big human populations as boxes inside of boxes: If you want to serve the people, first you need to find out how many people you’re talking about serving. For that you have to slap citizenship and a census on people. For that, you need to define your borders.

Then you have to tax the people you count. For that, you have to figure a way of collecting taxes. Then you have to deliver services with the taxes you take in. It’s at the point of services delivery that weak governments break down.

But the way is forward, not back. Just because nomadic tribes, international crooks, and guerrilla armies don’t honor borders is no reason to go along with them. Their way of doing things is lousy at providing services except within narrow bounds; e.g, dock widening to accommodate contraband ships.

Of course many modern national borders are tragically irrational, as Kaplan argues very well. Just look at the way Korea was carved up, or at the creation of Iraq and Iran. But if you stay focused on the issue of logistics in the deployment of government services, you’ll realize that dispensing with the nation-state is not the solution to the problem.

And of course the idea of good government is not a Western concept; nor it is it the exclusive province of industrialization. It’s all about getting stuff, people and services from point A to many different points on a grid. The only efficient way to do that in the era of megapopulations is to establish limits on where the deliveries will be made; i.e., establish and maintain borders.

Now one can argue that national governments are not the only ones handling the delivery of services during any era, including this one. Kaplan writes:
Like the borders of West Africa, the colonial borders of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, and other Arab states are often contrary to cultural and political reality. As state control mechanisms wither in the face of environmental stress, “hard” Islamic city-states or shantytown-states are likely to emerge.
Point taken but now think of the shantytown of Sadr City. Think of the money that is siphoned by the militia guarding the city -- money that does not go to basic services, such as garbage collection, for the residents.

The general rule is that the smaller the area of turf in a heavily populated region, the more funds have to be diverted from basic services to defending the turf. This truth is so evident that all you have to do is keep repeating it until it sinks in with the residents of the shantytowns. Then the only route for the crooked cops, militias, or gangs that control the turf is oppression: expending yet more funds to prevent the residents from revolting.

As to the city-state, generally it's built on one export such as oil, or one service such as banking or money laundering. The city owes its existence to one commodity. If the commodity fails, poof goes the city-state. So I don’t foresee future city-states as serious competition to the nation-state.

Most importantly, the shantytowns and city-states can’t carry their fair share of providing global aid. This is a crucial issue for the 21st Century. As Kaplan points out, and as Hurricane Katrina amply illustrated, no human population is insulated from environmental disasters that put a huge strain on a regional government’s finances.

The future for humanity, for a long time to come, is an aid version of the rolling blackout to preserve electricity. As the impact of global warming deepens, nations will be turning out their pockets and sharing even more the burden of providing ‘rolling aid’ rescues for populations all over the world.

Again, logistics play a huge role in such rescues -- as do the census, tax collection, and map coordinates. You can’t deliver significantly helpful aid to a region unless you have an idea of how many people are affected by a disaster and where to reach them.

The governments in the poorer nations need to be strengthened so that they can participate more, and more efficiently, in providing internal and external aid in times of disaster.

Many might observe that while my heart’s in the right place, Kaplan’s article tells it like it is. But humanity did not get out of the trees by saying, “Sleeping on a branch is the way things are for us.”

We have to struggle; understand? If the nation-state is not working well for a population, then it has to be made to work because it's the best means for serving a large population. If the nation-state is not the best means for preserving clan affiliations or ancient nomadic traditions, that’s too damn bad for tradition because there are now just so many of us to worry about. We have to keep repeating that observation and acting on it, until those who are deaf unplug their ears.
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