Why the Middle East and Africa are having such a hard time with nationhood

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2015


One of the foundation assumptions in the post-World War Two developed nations is that nationhood is the most desirable form of government for people all over the world.

But as good as it has been for the Americas and Western Europe for the last couple centuries, some parts of the world have had a hard time making nationhood work in modern times -- violence-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa come to mind.


Why does vibrant nationhood seem to fit well in some regions of the world, but not others?

That is what this essay is about.

Betrayal versus Cooperation: A key ingredient

Based on the patterns of where nationhood seems to work and where it doesn't one of the key ingredients to making it work seems to be a culture that supports widespread cooperation among diverse groups. The converse is supporting widespread betrayal between groups that are considered "Them" in Us versus Them situations.

The more it is OK to betray strangers, the harder it is for many modern institutions to thrive, and one of these is nationhood.

Many possible solutions versus many possible betrayals

One consistent characteristic of those regions and cultures where nationhood doesn't work well is the high rates of betrayal in dealing with "Them"'s -- people who aren't part of a person's trusted circle.

This kind of betrayal works well in the Neolithic and Agricultural Age environments so it is strong instinctive thinking. But it doesn't work well in Industrial and Information Age environments. In these more modern environments more widespread and more diverse cooperation is needed for society to function. Think of the difference between paying for something with silver and gold coins and paying for something with credit cards and Paypal. There is a big difference in the level of trust and cooperation required. Where betrayal is routine, bigger and diverse organizations can't thrive -- routine betrayal is too damaging to allow progress in building larger organizations.

When this routine betrayal happens in the modern organization context it is criticized as corruption and organized crime. And the betrayal can easily lead to lots of violence as well in the forms of feuding and vendettas. Once again, these forms are hard on Industrial Age style progress because they make building larger and diverse kinds of organizations so difficult.

Loyal dissent

The Industrial Age style cultures need a lot of cooperation, and they need a lot of non-betrayal-style dissent -- they need it to be OK to argue about the right ways of doing things. They need this because there are so many ways of doing things in Industrial Age cultures, and some work much better than others. Part of discovering the best ways of doing things is to argue over facts and plans for projects.

In the well-functioning Industrial Age environments, people can have vigorous arguments, and then cooperate heartily once a choice as been made. This change-to-cooperating happens instead of deciding that other person is beyond hope, pulling knives and going for a kill.

And, to be very clear, this cooperating instead of betraying is a learned skill. This is very much something which has to be part of the community's educational system at all levels.

If you can't make nationhood work...

So, if a community hasn't learned how to cooperate in Industrial Age style ways, is nationhood the best governing choice?

Probably not. It is a governing style that is going to have to wait a few generations before it can be implemented. In the meantime some form of "I've got the biggest stick. We are doing it my way."-style of governing is going to work better.

If this Big Stick governing style (my term) is producing rising material prosperity and helping the community learn how to cooperate in Industrial Age-style ways, then it is doing a good job. The contemporary showcase example of this kind of progress is Singapore under the ruler Lee Kuan Yew who just died this year.

But his example is not an easy one to follow. Contemporary failures at following his example include the currently chaotic regions of the Middle East and Africa. There is so much betrayal going on in these regions that building diverse and thriving Industrial Age communities is not happening. Instead violence and chaos are thriving.


Until the peoples of these violent and chaotic regions have learned how to cooperate more and betray less, the governing form of nationhood is not going to work well. This leaves one of the Big Stick governing forms as better choices -- typically either small-scale warlordism or large scale imperialism of some form.

Those organizations that want to help these regions evolve into regions that can support nationhood should devote their efforts to educating the people on the virtues of tolerance and widespread cooperation, and they need to recognize that this is a social skill that won't happen instinctively -- betrayal is what instinct teaches. Cooperation will require training and education.


--The End--