Alert reader Eric McGill has an interesting question:

I’ve been thinking about your blog entry on nationalism, and reading other people’s suggestions for the Middle East, all of which seem to want to give independent ethnic groups their own countries, and I’m left wondering how you would redraw the Middle East. Or, for that matter, Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

 It’s dangerous to ask someone like me to draw maps. 🙂 Drawing maps, especially interesting alternative maps, is all too addictive…

So I think I’ll rephrase your question in two ways.

1. How should the great powers have redrawn the map when they had the chance?

In much larger units.  Africa and the Middle East have suffered greatly because of arbitrary lines (which divide ethnic groups and thus cause endless trouble) and too-small nations (which have few resources and become geopolitical debits, unable either to form large internal markets or to adequately protect themselves).

There are a few exceptions, of course– mostly small East Asian nations that could easily function as nation-states.  Thailand is a natural nation; Iraq or the Sudan is not. 

Large nations can be problems too– Russia took a lot longer to recover from the fall of communism than smaller, nimbler states like Poland or the Czech Republic.  But the problem isn’t size per se.  Once India and China found ways of unleashing their entrepreneurial spirit, their size became an advantage.  

2. What should small independent states do now, if nationalism isn’t such a great idea?

Pension off their nationalist leaders, then form European-style unions.  The first step is likely to be the hard part.  Unions have been tried before, notably Egypt and Syria.  They don’t work because of the big-fish-in-a-small-pond phenomenon: two or more generalissimos would rather lord it over a small country than unite to form a richer, more powerful nation where at most one of them can be big kahuna. 

It’s hard to imagine even this working in the Middle East.  But hey, in 1946 it was hard to imagine it working in Europe.