Where is the Migrant Crisis Leading Us?

Sixty million people worldwide are now on the move. It is the largest migration since World War II. It reflects the reshaping of maps, particularly in the Middle East, and the populations of places that, especially in Africa, have never really had maps.

Sixty million people worldwide are now on the move. It is the largest migration since World War II. It reflects the reshaping of maps, particularly in the Middle East, and the populations of places that, especially in Africa, have never really had maps. It reflects, more broadly, the detritus of the great nineteenth-century empires, which fell apart in the twentieth and have left the disintegrated states and societies of the twenty-first. It’s a problem whose complexities we have barely begun to appreciate, and whose dimensions we have yet to recognize.

People have moved before; people, in fact, have always been on the move. Sixty million people left Europe in the nineteenth century, far, far more than are (as yet) now trying to enter it. But the American Midwest and the Argentine Pampas were eager to absorb them. It was a migration that matched need and opportunity, and it built new societies without destroying old ones. Poverty is, of course, social failure, and the desire or felt necessity to move is a story that begins in tragedy, however well it may or may not end. Prejudice accompanies and compounds it; the pogroms that encouraged my grandparents to come to America were the product of hatreds as virulent as any that fester today.

What, then, distinguishes our present migrations from those of the past, and why do they appear so alarming?

The modern nation-state is above all a creature of borders. Borders are born of a centralized state imposing its writ on a defined territory; on a common identity that partly reflects and partly enables such a state; and on roads, good roads that carry persons and commodities, and that can be manned by checkpoints and defended by armies. Nation-states also breed wars which typically have borders themselves at issue, and, with World War II, a great revulsion at the idea of borders set in. The United Nations was founded on the vision of a world in which borders would become anachronistic, and would ultimately be symbolic rather than real even where they still existed for auld lang syne. The phrase of the time was One World, which American patriots of a certain stripe feared would mean a bunch of foreigners making rules for us. But the impulse toward what we now prefer to call globalization was potent, and the fact that the almighty dollar would call the shots around the world helped to assuage fears. The dollar would bring democracy, and democracy would come in at the point of a bayonet where it had no friendlier passage. Meanwhile, the great postwar set of trading and currency rules set out at Bretton Woods in 1944 was meant to create a world market, and such a market implied stabilization and administration; in short, government.

The Cold War snagged this vision for awhile, but even then the global dream advanced. Western Europe created first the Common Market and then the European Union, which sought to achieve the first supranational government in the world. A common currency was deployed, a common flag was flown, and, for citizens within the Union, borders ceased to exist: travelers could cross frontiers where millions had once shed blood with no more thought than Americans do in crossing from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

A great, silent migration accompanied this process: the migration of jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs, from one continent to another in the name of capitalist free trade. To this was added the communications revolution known as the Internet, which created a new global culture of visual and narrative simultaneity. All of this made borders, and nations themselves, increasingly irrelevant. Or so it seemed.

New borders, of course, had to be created after World War II as after World War I. These included those of new states in Africa, the Middle East, and Central and East Asia, whose births were often violent and contested. Far, indeed, from vanishing, the nation-state virtually exploded in the decades after the Second World War, at least numerically, and the original fifty-state United Nations of 1945 become the nearly two hundred-member organization of today, which includes Pacific atolls on the brink of extinction from the rising sea levels of global warming. This phenomenon was not the result of any resurgence in nationalism per se, but the consequence of the collapse of the Western empires that had ruled most of Africa and much of Asia. Where ethnicities were more or less clearly defined and a cultural history shared, new nations could achieve internal coherence and make a place for themselves. Where this was not the case, as in much of Central Africa, civil war was endemic.

Unstable states—ethnically or tribally divided, economically marginal, neocolonially exploited, and with little or no experience of the niceties of parliamentary government—frequently took the political form of one-party rule, typically led by strongmen who might wield power for decades. During the Cold War, they were often subsidized by the superpower rivals, although the beneficiaries of this largesse were almost entirely corrupt elites.

In retrospect, the Cold War may be seen as a struggle between the last two remaining world empires, Russia and the United States. Their conflict, normalized after an initial period of intense confrontation, created an odd but functional bipolar arrangement in which other rivalries, real or potential, were suppressed by the single great one of the superpowers themselves. This period ended abruptly with the sudden and quite unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, which left the American imperium temporarily uncontested.

Imperial ideologists such as Francis Fukuyama welcomed a so-called end of history in the wake of the Soviet dissolution. The Western system—capitalist democracy—was now the sole model for development, and a new “one world,” midwifed by America, would now emerge.

Capitalism did indeed become a universal model; this, however, was less an innovation than a return to the old imperial regime of the West as it had developed on a worldwide basis in the nineteenth century and existed down to 1914. Democracy was a harder sell, but also a less essential one. Where freedom and dollars had competed, America had always ensured that the greenback would win.

Storm signals, however, were immediately on the horizon. A reasonably prosperous and hitherto stable state, not far off but in Europe itself, fell apart within months of the Soviet collapse. This was Yugoslavia, a six-state federation established after World War I and frequently praised as a model of multiethnic cooperation. Torn apart by civil war, it essentially vanished within months. Wars and civil wars soon flared in Africa, most notably in Rwanda, where 800,000 civilians were literally butchered to death in a few weeks and refugees spilled over into the neighboring Congo, itself riven by strife. The Cold War had certainly had its quota of bloodshed, but these new conflicts had something different about them: a whiff of anarchy. The United States faltered badly in response to both crises, and no one else was in a position to lead. Ruling the world without a sidekick was more difficult than it seemed. Yugoslavia had been held together by the superpower rivalry, and even in Central Africa competing Russian and American interests had enforced a kind of order. The task of being the world’s policeman was arduous, expensive, and largely unrewarding. Americans had elected a president in 1992 from rural Arkansas who had no experience of foreign affairs and scant interest in them precisely to relieve if not to shuck the burden of empire.

American imperial interests were still pursued by the deep state behind Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but they were kicked into higher gear by the happenstance—or blowback—of 9/11. Over a ten-year period, the United States demolished three states in an imperial rampage: Afghanistan (arguably, never a state to begin with); Iraq; and Libya. The spillover in each case has been a combination of civil and proxy wars that have collectively spawned huge refugee populations and led to the even more spectacular collapse of Syria. These populations, largely penned in the Middle East and North Africa, have now begun to make their desperate way to Europe. They have been joined by more opportunistic economic migrants, although these latter are not easily distinguished from those simply fleeing horror and unending death.

This is not a temporary problem, but the beginning of what I believe will be a great south-north exodus, exacerbated not only by civil conflict but the vast impoverishment of Third World nations and the looming disasters of climate change. The present century is shaping up as, among other things, the century of the refugee.

The United States wants no part in dealing with this mess, so substantially of its own creation. One of its leading presidential aspirants has won acclaim for proposing to build a huge new border fence to deal with what is currently a largely nonexistent problem. Europe has been more conflicted about the refugee issue, and is also more prone to its direct effects. But a very visible backlash has now developed there too, and border fences have again gone up in countries that had pledged to abolish them for good. Physical borders are not, in fact, an effective way of keeping migrants out, and penal colonies, such as the one Australia has established on remote Christmas island, are no solution either, quite apart from being moral abominations.

Where, then, is the migrant crisis leading us? In all likelihood, to a more deeply divided world, and a far less humane one than even the present sorry edition. But the crisis itself is, ultimately, only an aggravated symptom of our collective failure to create a just and sustainable world. This is not merely a desideratum, but a practical necessity. We are running out of time to achieve it.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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