Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) — It is obvious that Iraq will never make it. Afghanistan may do a little better.
The reason lies not with Donald Rumsfeld's policies, whatever you feel about the Defense secretary. Nor does the answer have to do with religious fundamentalism. The problem with Iraq is, it is insufficiently squiggly.
That is the conclusion of a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-partisan research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The paper's approach is not the traditional political or diplomatic one. Rather, it is based on maps and geometry — angles and lines.
Authors Alberto Alesina and Janina Matuszeski of Harvard University and William Easterly at New York University divided countries into two categories: natural and artificial. A natural state is one defined by ethnicity and geographic features such as mountain ranges. Mountains reinforce ethnic communities — if only by isolating them. Natural national borders would tend to be bumpy.
The map of an artificial state by contrast looks like it was drawn with a ruler, which it often was. Its straight borders sometimes partition ethnic communities, placing them in two countries. Other times, they place tribes that are hostile to one another in the same nation.
Most nations have borders that are a combination of lines and bumps, so the authors developed a mathematical measure to quantify the extent of border bumpiness, which they called squiggliness. Since borders on oceans are extremely squiggly, the authors controlled for that and studied only the squiggliness of national borders with other nations. Their thesis is that it is better to be natural than artificial, and that squiggliness is good for growth and stability.
The data bear that out. The squiggliest country out of 144 studied turns out to be Luxembourg, such a model of comity that many of us forget its existence. Slovenia is No. 3, and is indeed one of the calmer of the new nations to emerge since the Cold War ended. Switzerland, the classic mountain country, comes in fourth.
France was historically known for its angles. The French nickname is "the Hexagon." But the borders along the Pyrenees and the Alps make it, overall, a middling squiggly, coming in at 54 out of 144.
The less squiggly countries prove more problematic. The least squiggly nation in the world is Papua New Guinea, the site of chronic and violent feuds. Saudi Arabia is right down there with a squiggliness rank of 143. Somalia and Libya are 142 and 141. Iraq is 110. Iran is 86. Afghanistan is fairly squiggly, ranking 62nd.
Less squiggly countries, the scholars found, generally have lower income, worse public services and higher infant mortality rates. They also found that social unrest, the sort that leads to wars, was also more frequent in unsquiggly places. The net finding, says Alesina, is that artificiality is "correlated with bad stuff."
It turns out that squiggliness matters even among countries ranking in the middle of the squiggliness scale. "When you move from the top quarter of squiggly countries to the bottom quarter you see a serious loss of gross domestic product," Matuszeski says.
There are outliers, to be sure. At No. 11, Lebanon is super squiggly, which makes the current war there seem like an anomaly. The U.S. and Canada, as stable as they come, have long straight borders and low rankings. Here the situation is different, Matuszeski says, for "a key factor is when the border is drawn." If it is drawn before settlers came — as was the case in the near-empty New World — then trouble is less likely.
There are other aspects of the study to challenge here, starting with the choice of the word "squiggly." (It turns out the scholars thought about "wiggly," but felt that "squiggly" worked better.)
The bigger problem with the study is the circularity of the argument. The great powers of a 100 or 50 years ago drew the lines that created the colonies or satellite countries.
Britain for example arbitrarily constructed Iraq, and arbitrarily decided its size, which is a bit less than twice that of the U.S. state of Idaho.
"The worst thing that ever happened to Iraq was the invention of the straight edge," Easterly says. "They took Mesopotamia and combined mutually antagonistic groups in one nation." Colonialism or tyranny sets trouble in motion. The lines themselves came later.
Perhaps the squiggly study may help diplomats make better maps.
"The lesson of history is respect nationality," Easterly says. "For Iraq, at the very least you want to emphasize the federalism established there and strengthen it." He and his partners are looking at this in a new study, on wars and squiggliness.
As for the Kurds, "the Turkish government should continue what it has started to do," he said. "Respect language rights, do more to foster local autonomy."
This could yield a policy of super-Wilsonianism — using squiggliness as pretext for advocating sovereignty for every tiny tribe. But you don't have to subscribe to this or any other extreme plan to take comfort in the existence of this new non-emotional, non-political meter of conflict. War is spreading so fast across the globe that we need to look at it from every angle, including the squiggly one.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
© Copyright 2006 Bloomberg
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