Bengin Ahmad



Flexible Identity Constructs and the Need for Organic State Construction

Through the migrant crisis that started in late 2015 we are witnessing a symptom of a far deeper issue that has been growing under the world’s eyes. We are seeing a continuous shift in identity construction from populations in Africa and the Middle East. These shifts are not the sole results of wars, and the reason for emigration out of these areas is not purely for prosperity or security issues. There are far deeper human condition forces at work that need to be teased out if we are to gain a deeper understanding of why tens of thousands are risking all to get to Europe.

The right to rule is not an inherently simple concept to tease out of societies. Numerous philosophers and academics have sought the true meaning or reason behind why populations willingly give up rights and freedoms to prevent bodily harm to themselves or their way of life.

“That a man be willing, when others are too, as for defense of himself he shall think it necessary to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”

This powerful statement made by Thomas Hobbes regarding the human state of nature or relationships to social contracts throughout the world has become closely tied to the Westphalian state, but does it still apply to the contemporary state structure?

To form a better foundation for the argument ahead we must touch on a few important aspects of the social contract tradition in the global environment in which the state is the primary actor. This discussion will also look at building on a key question that has been asked again and again since the ending of the Cold War: can state building actually occur in this globalized world? We will move forward on the assumption that an artificial state, one where the social contract between a government and its people was created by external entities, cannot survive or even function within this contemporary geopolitical environment.

This argument challenges that within this contemporary geopolitical environment, the traditional paradigm of the state and the social contract relationship are being challenged. This is made evident by the massive migrations from Africa and the Middle East to Europe and the Americas.

Is a narrower lens needed in order to find any utility in a traditional definition of the social contract. Or must we open up the aperture to such an extent that flexible identity constructs that live within the larger social contract tradition must be viewed on a regional if not global scale? This argument will venture to make a proposal on how the international community must look at these flexible identity constructs if they hope to gain a deeper understanding of why their borders continue to be flooded with immigrants.

Since 1648, the Westphalian state has been the normative holder of the social contract between a person and their “entity” that they have elected to keep them out of a state of nature so that their lives need not be “nasty, brutish and short.” With European states forming first, this image of how societies should be built was thrust upon the majority of the world with the outward expansion of the European states during colonization. This competition for resources and power led to an offensive realist’s dream; states competing with one another for power within the international system. It is the nature of this system that is important at this point of the argument as the anarchic system that states live and operate within sets the scene for the changing nature of identity constructs.

The European states quickly converted the world to their image in true civilization architect fashion, and many traditional identity constructs were broken or interrupted in the process. At this point it was almost a necessity that within these colonized territories the traditional societies and social contracts be shifted to match those of their colonizers as it provided more security to the individuals as the colonizers would be less likely to lash out violently as well as provide economic incentive to go along with the great game. There were no salient international organizations during this time period between the 30 years’ war and World War One. The states were on their own, sovereignty was the watch word and the mercantilist model of the colonized territories reigned supreme.

Colonization is not the true underlying cause of these mass migrations, but it is surely an intervening one. This concept of sovereignty is where the root of the problem with these recent massive changes in identity constructs lie. The real issues arise after the Berlin conference of 1884 and the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 with the formation of states that followed no ethnic or traditional lines, which would eventually be granted their independence.

In and around the 1960’s, the two regions mentioned above began the work of internally developing their own truly independent states; some were granted their independence and others fought for it. This would have an effect on the stability of the states, which will become important a little later on. During this internal state formation period, there were natural upheavals in the majority of the prior colonies. The social contracts needed to be rebuilt as there were no more colonial masters and the traditional paradigms were not as applicable as they once were prior to the dictated formation of the Westphalian states. It is here that we first start seeing the signs of flexible identity constructs. As populations in these developing states began to shift allegiances from colonial entities to traditional entities and then on to newly formed political entities, the fluidity of how people identified themselves in relation to which group they now gave their allegiance was in a state of flux never before seen.

It is in this 1960’s social contract redefinition period that the clock started ticking for these countries who were still under the watchful eye of the world and the newly developing international organizations. Time is of extreme importance to a country that is in the beginning or middle of the state formation process, according to Mohammed Ayoob, but this concept of time would quickly become an issue to the new international standards that were soon to be the norm.

When these fledgling states commenced the messy process of state development, the international community became impatient with not only how long the process was taking, but with how much blood was being spilt in the process. Developing governments were one thing, but civil wars and blood lettings in the name of social contract reformation were different. These new states were going outside of perceived international societal norms even though the majority of the states that had developed the contemporary idea of the state had gone through the same process.

As the state formation process in the Middle East and Africa came to a simmer in the 90’s, down from a rolling boil in the 60s and 70s with events like the Nigerian Biafra civil war, violent acts by regimes became all the more apparent and all the more denounced by the international community. A good example of this is the Democratic Republic of the Congo civil war in the late 90’s. The UN launched its MONUC mission there to try and stop the “gross violations of international Human Rights laws” before any real order could be established by any of the organic actors or players. It is at this point that the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) grew out of and away from the idea of “right to intervene.” This period was marked by military interventions under the guise of Humanitarianism in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo to name a few. There were also “Just” military interventions in Afghanistan, however, the scope of this argument will be limited to the armed humanitarian interventions as the number of UN missions under R2P correlate more appropriately with the changing social constructs.

With the ending of the Cold War the international community naturally sought a new security focus which in fact centered on this concept of humanitarian interventions via the United Nations (UN) and its concept of R2P. The parts of the world that have been the focus of these interventions are the same states whose clocks started ticking in the 1960’s. Places like Somalia, the Darfur area of Sudan, Syria, Iraq and many others are all locations where international organizations have intervened since the post-Cold War system required a redefinition of a security focus. Although some are on the road to recovery, they continue to remain weak or failing states to this day providing a correlation between these “centers for concern” and the main object of this argument.

With the international system deciding to redefine anarchy as applying to them in their power struggle but not to the states who were toiling in the midst of state formation and development, R2P became a paradox of an international security focus. According to David Chandler the “paradox of R2P’s acceptance implying less responsibility for Western states to act and to intervene is explained in the broader context of post-Cold War lack of strategic concern with large areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.” This “fuzziness” of strategy continues to lead the social contract evolution process within these fledgling states into uncharted territory. The lack of strategic definition in many of the R2P interventions during the 90’s and early 2000’s highlighted the fact that the international community along with the UN did not have the political or social will to complete the state development process for the majority of the weak states, nor did they understand enough to let the process happen on its own, both with dire consequences that are being highlighted to this very day.

What these interventions, albeit very well intentioned, successfully accomplished in the majority of the targeted locations was to set up a very solid system of aid and dependence on the UN to maintain order. With an outside entity stepping in for a second time, the first being colonization, the social contract fabric within these countries naturally looked to find a new leviathan.

Immigration was not a new concept to these areas as people had been moving back and forth between the prior colonies and colonial masters for generations, but a new trend would soon develop in the sheer magnitude and focused locations of these movements. With weak states remaining weak and failed states such a Somalia getting worse, populations were seeking to flee these areas in search of more prosperous and strong states. These prosperous and strong states happened to be the same that had provided aid throughout the hardships of the state development process and the same that were continuing to buoy the security situation in these regions.

Another trend also began to develop in the origination countries of the majority of immigrants moving across the Mediterranean. The regions that had been colonized or utilized for primarily strategic purposes by colonial powers, for example Iraq and Syria, were left without any real lingering importance to the prior colonial masters, leaving them to fend for themselves in the state development process. Other places, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa, developed a more authoritarian style of government or descended into state failure, for example Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Libya and the Sudan’s, due to a conflated development process potentially due to a lingering connection with prior colonizers.

No matter what the prior status of the before mentioned states, there were trends that quickly overarched between all of them. Within the aforementioned states, during the first dozen or so years of the new millennium, there was a penchant for interventions by the UN or prior colonial powers under either R2P or some other reasoning along the lines of “these states are not behaving as they should.” In either case, these states had a continuous presence by foreign international organizations that took the place of their own governments and took over the duties of the Weberian state in this case. With these new governments in place or UN blue helmets always visible and always maintaining the monopoly on the just use of force in lieu of the host state, it is only natural that the populations of these states to look for a manager of their social contracts as, once again, the social contract development process had been interrupted.

With these continuing interruptions of the state and social contract development process since colonization on through the most recent UN and coalition operations in Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, we are witnessing the symptoms of this shift in social contract development from the primacy of the state to more flexible identity constructs through the events of the 2015/2016 Migrant crisis.

With hundreds of thousands of people flowing from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, the majority of whom use Libya as a spring board, the easy answer is to blame the International community for allowing these conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Sub Saharan Africa to endure according to Michael Ewers and Justin Gengler. However, one must look at the facts. There are continuing UN or regional block missions ongoing in these countries, so wouldn’t that hint that the international community is attempting to do something? But when we look at exactly what is being done, it only moves to cement the idea that populations from these troubled areas are actively looking for more security and prosperity, both of which they assume that they will find in Europe. If we dig back into Human Nature and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one can easily find that security and all that it entails are at the base line of human needs.

Societies look very specifically for custodians of the social contract and do not take the decision lightly, or, if in dire circumstances, may make concessions and err on the side of stability, but even stability under a ruthless authoritarian state can bring some type of security. It is when the instability can no longer be tolerated and the basic Maslowian needs are no longer being met that societies begin to look for new “leadership” that can provide those basic things to them. In the case of the current migrant crisis, hundreds of thousands of people could no longer stand the instability for numerous personal safety reasons and could not fall back on traditional social structures because they could not provide that security or assurance either. There was one entity that was present in all of these locations that showed time and time again that it could provide for these base necessities of the human condition: the international community in the form of the UN and other coalitions.

These populations had a deep history of changing identity constructs and a need to change them again only took the right catalyst. This catalyzing event may have been the Arab Spring, the brutality of ISIS in the territories that it is governing or no gulf states willing to accept migrants.

Perhaps at the far end of the spectrum there has been a shift to a neo-medievalist global environment where the primacy of the state has begun to disintegrate. Whichever, or mixture, of the above listed catalysts it was, the environment has been ripe for many years in both the Middle East and Africa. This fluidity of these social contracts, as you can see through current events, has a direct correlation between the environments that these people are coming from and the “savior” states that continue to save their lives from their own state development process.

If the states in the regions of interest in this situation were not the actual custodian of the social contract as many authors have suggested, why then are droves leaving their ethnic homelands and traditional social structures in search of new ones? This author would argue that it is not for fear of their lives; this has been proven throughout history as to only lead to internally displaced persons or to revolution in some cases but not a migration on this scale. The reality, as has been stated above, is that this concept of flexible identity constructs as they relate to the social contract allow these populations to abandon their ethnic homelands and form social (mental) bonds with European and North American governments; there is something there that gives them a sense of security or imagined community and pulls them out of the proverbial state of nature.

John Locke describes the reasoning behind shifting social contracts a bit more succinctly: “there are lacking from a state of nature three conditions that prompt individuals to unite on commonwealth. First there is no law, arrived at by common consent, that sets the standards of right and wrong for the adjudication of controversies and strife. Second, there is no impartial judge with the authority to resolve conflicts in accordance with an established law. Third, there is no established power capable of enforcing just decisions.” It is extremely easy to argue that these three attributes which Locke says drive people to form social contracts with a chosen government are missing in a vast majority of the states whose populations make up a large part of the migrant flow to Europe. Even if on paper they have these elements that would allow a society to bond together and pull out of a state of nature, in practice and reality it can be argued that they do not, as is evident from the migrant flows and civil wars.

The European countries would seem to provide these three aspects for the migrants, as proper execution of these three things would successfully allow a person to live in security, thus fulfilling the base purpose of the social contract according to any social theorists one cares to research.

To further this feeling by the migrants, the European countries have been securing them for decades at this point. The UN missions are not seen merely as a security organ of the UN to majority of these people, they are seen as wealthy and powerful states that we willing to risk their lives and capital to secure their human rights. Who wouldn’t want to shift their identity over to that when there is nothing to be found at home but suffering and strife?

Although fingers are pointed at the Dublin Agreement as the cause of the breadth of the migrant issue in Europe, what with the land bridge avenue of approach for immigrant all but shut down by members of the EU and Frontex, the issue stems from further back in time, albeit still self-inflicted by the EU and UN. This migrant crisis is one of Europe’s and the International communities’ making, but not in the traditional sense. It is not from the alleged creation of civil wars in states like Syrian and Iraq, or the particular security situations in Africa, but from the second and third order effects that follow after the intervention events. With these armed “humanitarian” interventions and disruption of the concept of time in the natural state formation process, the international community has created flexible identity constructs in these areas to such an extent that hundreds of thousands of people are willing to throw off their traditional social structures in favor of those that can pull them from a perpetual state of “War.”

The aperture must be widened if the international community is to truly understand why hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa have almost suddenly besieged their shores and way of life. A broader view of the social contract theory in this current geopolitical environment shows us that identity constructs have become more fluid than ever before. This is not a concept developed over a few years, but has been developing since the formation of the Westphalian/Weberian state in 1648, further accentuated during colonization and solidified during the numerous UN armed human rights/humanitarian assistance interventions in weak states in the Middle East and Africa. These interventions allowed the social contract formation in these states to be disrupted and in turn formed with non-traditional international entities. This phenomenon will continue as long as states are not allowed to develop in their own organic way. Perhaps it is merely a symptom of the anarchy that states actually operate within and merely power plays by stronger states, but the full breadth of these shifting populations has yet to be seen.

Per the paradigm shift annotated in this paper, greater movements and weak state fragmentation should be expected. The ever changing nature of the geopolitical environment continues to not disappoint.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the U.S. Army.