The new Iraqi government faces a formidable task – to create a unified “nation” out of a state containing three disparate and widely divergent groups.
A state’s borders are not engraved on the surface of the earth and fixed for eternity. Legal boundaries between countries are made by men, can be changed by men, and have been changed again and again over the years by men. For centuries the borders between states were fixed by kings, wars, invasions, and conquests. State boundaries shifted as rulers gained or lost ground. The occupants of the territory had no choice in the matter; they went with the land. The borders of present-day Iraq derive from that tradition; the country was carved out of the old Ottoman Empire after World War I. Embraced within its boundaries today are three distinct and disparate “national” groups – the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.
With the rise of liberalism and individual rights in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea gradually took root that peoples should have some say in their government and the state under whose jurisdiction they lived. Thus the concept of the “nation” developed. A state’s borders were concrete and definite; the boundaries of a “nation” were not. A “nation,” as opposed to a “state,” was an intangible concept, based on ideolog)’, culture, ethics, religion, language. Language was perhaps the most important, for it is through language that men communicate. But for a “nation” to endure it must be composed of persons who share a common bond and come together voluntarily. Its inhabitants must enjoy common ties and interests. Ideally the boundaries of a “nation” and borders of a “state” coincide.
Transforming several separate ideological units into a single harmonious Iraqi “nation” will not be easy. Witness, for instance, other attempts to form nations out of groups with widely different interests: British India, after gaining its independence, engaged in bloody conflicts and broke into three separate nations – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In Nigeria, thousands were killed in conflicts among its various sections and with the Ibos of Biafra. And Sri Lanka and Yugoslavia both broke up and engaged in bloody and lengthy civil wars.
The idea of a “nation”, as opposed to a “state”, arose during the Renaissance and Reformation, alongside the concepts of freedom, limited government, individual rights, and classical liberalism. In the hope of achieving nationhood, revolutions against statist governments erupted all over 19th-century Eu- rope – in France, Germany, Italy, and the Balkans. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points reinforced the concept that governments should consider “self-determination” and “the interests of the population.” As a result, after World War I, the many polyglot countries of Europe began to break up, each linguistic group seeking independence and autonomy as a “nation,” and union with others speaking the same language.
The state of Iraq now consists of what are essentially three separate “nations,” each a cultural, religious, linguistic entity. Conflict among them is bound to develop unless Iraqidom can become an ideal, a unifying factor under which the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds can all come together and live at peace with one another.
Accomplishing this will not be easy. As they form the new Iraqi government, today’s Iraqi officials might well consider Ludwig von Mises’ proposal, made during World War II, for the establishment of an Eastern Democratic Union comprising the many small nations lying between Germany and the U.S.S.R. To some extent the present Iraqi situation, with its three different and distinct ideological and cultural entities, parallels that of wartime eastern Europe, which was composed of many separate nations. Mises believed it would be to the mutual advantage of those many different and linguistically distinct nations to cooperate for their mutual defense against potential foreign threats. He proposed the establishment, under a newly-drawn constitution, of an impartial central government.
Each of the original “nations” would retain the forms of its previous nationality – flag, coins, stamps, songs, etc. – plus responsibility for local, economic, and interpersonal affairs. But legally they would become mere provinces under the central government. To prevent conflicts from arising there would be complete free trade and freedom of movement for all citizens within the state’s borders, and absolutely no tariffs or economic interventions or special privileges. All schools would be private, lest government schools be turned into propaganda mills for one or several special interest groups. The central government would control finances, collect taxes, and distribute funds among the separate “nations” according to the population. All languages and all religions would be treated equally; disputes that could not be settled by the local authorities would be submitted to a court established by the overall government. The central government’s role would be strictly limited to defense against inside and outside aggressors and to the support and defense of the freedom, individual rights, and private property of all citizens equally. Mises hoped that in this way conflicts could be avoided among the different “nations” within the borders of a single state, so that its citizens could live in harmony, and the state could be blended into a unified and cohesive “nation.”
Perhaps a similar set-up in Iraq would allow the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to resolve their differences and avoid internecine conflicts. In any case, creating a unified nation in a state consisting of three such distinct and separate “nations” as the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will be a formidable task. Success will depend on finding a common bond, such as Iraqi patriotism, or dedication to freedom, on which they can all agree.