Multiple states in Middle East and Africa seem to be stuck in violent conflicts that seem to be reoccurring and nearly inevitable because of the unstable internal power balance of various ethnic or religious groups inside - they aren't functioning as a single nation because they aren't a single nation, their boundaries have been drawn at decolonization either based on where was a border between, say, England and France; or even at completely arbitrary lines on map.

This problem is quite clear - for illustrations see here or the diversity maps from Vox.

There are three ways how the borders can start to match the ethnic, tribal or religious identities of people -

  • Genocide or total cultural assimilation (we've seen attempts at that)

  • mass migration (Partition of India and Pakistan is an example) with rather horrible consequences

  • Renegotiating the borders

Oh, and the fourth 'effective' option of closing your eyes and hoping that the problem will solve itself, which we're doing now in all those regions.

Why is the third option refused?

It doesn't seem that it's even given a serious consideration - the global community is treating the territorial integrity of Iraq, Somalia or others as sacred even while being ready to depose local governments there. Why can't local self-determination movements be supported even if it would change a line that was drawn on map by some foreign bureaucrat?

It cost Western Europe centuries and a sea full of blood to come to borders that agree with the actual distribution of nations. Why should Middle East and Africa really be forced to pay the same cost?

It's not easy to do the transformation, but it does seem clear that the situation could be improved by allowing Sunni and Shia populations in Iraq and Syria to have self-determination and separate countries, instead of forcing the communities together where they'll be in internal conflict. A 1% scattered minority isn't a threat and can coexist; but if it's 33% vs 66%, then it's either rule or be ruled. Similarly for Afghanistan and the conflicts between Pushtun and other groups; similarly for situations such as Rwanda. A difficult one-time transition would be clearly better than a civil war every generation or so.

  • 1
    Are you asking whether it's a viable solution or why it isn't taken?
    – Publius
    Sep 10, 2014 at 22:55
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    @Avi I'm asking why it's not taken, because to me it seems somewhat viable, and preferable to the status quo. If it's not taken deliberately because of some reason X it's actually not viable, then it would be a valid answer.
    – Peteris
    Sep 10, 2014 at 22:59
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    A lot of people would argue that the borders in Western Europe do not represent the distribution of nations. Some nations don’t really have anything particular to themselves that distinguish them from their neighbours, others simply don’t have a state for them.
    – Jan
    May 25, 2019 at 12:39

4 Answers 4


Simple reason: precedent.

If USA supports such a border rewrite, what's left for it to do when Mexicans in South-West decide to secede (or, in a less likely scenario, The South Rises Again :)?

If Russia supports such a border rewrite, what's left for it to do when Chechnya, or Yakutia, or Tatarstan decide to secede?

If China supports such a border rewrite, what's left for it to do when Uighurs or any other non-Han areas decide to secede?

Which by the way is exactly why USA government was criticized for supporting Kosovo by many right-thinking people - it gave Russia reciprocity and cause in Abkhazia and Crimea.

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    All of this is a bit different situation than breakaway regions, because there is some entity that opposes it. However, if there is no functioning country (e.g. Somalia or Iraq after the invasion), then why not write 2-3 new constitutions instead of a single new constitution? And if a single country as a whole wishes to split - which might be the future outcome in Iraq - then again, it's not sepearatism and it such a future concept could be facilitated.
    – Peteris
    Sep 10, 2014 at 20:26
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    @Peteris - besides the point. The precedent would be for supporting a change in soveregnity without clear support from sovereign. Specifically, in Iraq, the government does NOT want to split.
    – user4012
    Sep 10, 2014 at 20:29
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    @user4012 Genocide prevention has been named for both Kosovo and South Sudan, but whereas Kosovar independence is internationally controversial (in particular by Serbia), for South Sudan the first country to recognise independence was Sudan. I've asked a question on the case of South Sudan, comparing specifically with Somaliland.
    – gerrit
    Mar 23, 2016 at 14:36
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    So basically it boils down to watching repeated cycles of civil war and ethnic cleansing in other countries is preferable to supporting independence of oppressed peoples because it might keep your own subjects from getting ideas that they might be able to have independence too? Feb 6, 2018 at 18:51
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    @pluckedkiwi - pretty much that, yes. Welcome to Homo Sapiens
    – user4012
    Feb 6, 2018 at 19:05

Because trying to redraw the border would just start the next round of wars.

Most ethnic groups overlap their neighbors -- especially when countries have large capitals or ports that attract people from all over the country.

And even where ethnic groups have well-defined limits to the area they currently occupy, they often remember ancient times when they lived (or ruled) elsewhere. If an effort is made to redraw the boundaries, many ethnic groups will try to regain their ancient territories.

Furthermore, many potential boundaries are not sustainable in the long run. A landlocked country is at a major disadvantage. A country without a secure water supply, or food supply, or raw materials for its industries is vulnerable. A country with a religion that believes that it can only tax foreigners (or subjects who do not share the religion) that does not have an easily taxed export good will see its tax-base crumble as subjects convert to the dominant religion.

  • This is probably the best answer, although only from the POV of great powers (or world peace at the expense of local unrest). That logic keeps some conflicts frozen/simmering, so it may be global optimum, but not a local one. E.g.: (next comment)
    – Fizz
    Jul 19, 2018 at 22:22
  • economist.com/europe/2018/02/15/… "In fact, the prospects for an exchange of territory are slim. If Kosovo’s borders were redrawn along ethnic criteria, Bosnian Serbs and Macedonian Albanians would demand the same treatment. That would almost certainly mean war. A source close to Kosovo’s government says Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, “proposed it. Our side was interested. The Americans and Germans said ‘no way’ because of Bosnia and Macedonia. Case closed.”"
    – Fizz
    Jul 19, 2018 at 22:23
  • @Fizz The truth is, there is no nationality. It's just yet another proxy concept developed just to create something that will allow the ruling class (whoever they are) to retain control over their subjects. A lot of the citizens of the USA think of themselves as "Americans", even though the differences between the states (and cities) is larger than between many countries on Earth. If you say it's okay for countries to break down into regions that cooperate voluntarily, people will ask "why is it a good thing for Afghanistan, but not for Spain?" Some people benefit from that state of things.
    – Luaan
    Oct 14, 2019 at 8:40

All the talk about “arbitrary borders” obscures the real problem. It's the very notion of the nation-state and modern borders that are in a sense arbitrary and seldom map to the political and cultural realities of former colonies. And the nation state wasn't established painlessly in Europe either. At the end of the day, there isn't any “real” border that you would merely need to discover to solve all conflicts.

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    And it wasn't established painlessly in Europe either. This is quite an euphemism...
    – Bregalad
    Aug 16, 2017 at 14:45
  • @Bregalad Yes, quite!
    – Relaxed
    Aug 16, 2017 at 15:57
  • So what is the real problem with regard to this question? I think this answer could be more specific. Feb 6, 2018 at 8:25
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    @Trilarion the question assumes there exists a "true border" that will end conflicts. This answer asserts that assumption is wrong.
    – Caleth
    Feb 6, 2018 at 12:07
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    And it wasn't (and isn't being) established painlessly in Europe either. We aren't done with violence w.r.t. border disputes in Europe
    – Caleth
    Feb 6, 2018 at 12:09

Examples of peacetime and non-violent border redrawings are relatively few and far between. Assume that there is a general consensus within a majority of all population that would be affected by the redrawing where the border should be. You still have nation-level politics in the way. It becomes a game of power: do I have enough power to convince the other side to give me more? Am I giving them too much and therefore losing power? Does this stretch of land maybe serve some strategically important purpose (like ocean access)? Could there be exploitable natural resources? Is my power maybe based on the population there to a non-neglegible extent?

Taking all together, there are tremendous driving forces for sticking to the status quo borders unless wars move them. Consider how long it took India and Bangladesh to solve their exclaves and enclaves issues.

  • India and Bangladesh still have lots of issues with exclaves in Cooch Behar.
    – Rosie F
    Oct 14, 2019 at 11:56

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