This implosion of so many states could not have happened during the Cold War because the US or Soviet Union knew that such instability would offer an opportunity to the other superpower. Washington or Moscow would prop up ailing regimes and those regimes could barter their allegiance in order to achieve a degree of self-determination. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Western powers no longer see their vital interests as being affected by the collapse of countries such as Libya or Iraq. It is noticeable that anarchy in these two countries has little effect on the price of oil, though both countries are important producers.
Another sinister development during this era of “globalisation” and neo-liberal, free-market economics has had explosive consequences. Nationalism, national self-determination and national control of natural resources has been at a discount. But the nation state played a positive role in bringing peace and security to this region, even when it took the form of secular dictatorships.
As loyalty to these states disintegrates, it is being replaced by more primitive but powerful ethnic and sectarian allegiances. For instance, there are few people who will fight and die for Iraq, but many who will do so for the Kurdish, Shia or Sunni communities.
Free-market economics in these countries has given ideological justification for governments abandoning efforts to guarantee some sort of economic security for the population. Where power and wealth is monopolised by the ruling elite, all capitalism becomes crony capitalism and state machinery a means for officials to make money.
In Syria before 2011, for instance, central Damascus had become a delightful place to live, with wonderful restaurants and shops, but at the same time, in north-east Syria, there was a catastrophic three-year drought which the government did nothing to alleviate and which drove three million Syrians to flee to shanty towns on the outskirts of the larger cities.
Many of these places subsequently became hard-core rebel strongholds that are now shattered by government bombing and shelling.
Take another disastrous example of unthinking adherence to free-market capitalism in countries with no rule of law, rampant corruption and a dysfunctional state. In June 2014, just after the capture of Mosul by Isis, I asked a recently retired Iraqi Army four-star general what was wrong with the army, and why it had disintegrated when attacked by a much inferior force. “Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!” he replied emphatically, explaining that he blamed the way in which the Americans had created the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi Army.
To encourage free-market capitalism the Americans had laid down that all food and other non-military supplies for the army should be contracted out to private business. This had the effect of making it in the interests of every colonel, who was being paid to feed a unit of 600 soldiers, to reduce the real number of men to 150 and pocket the money to feed, clothe and equip the other 450 who did not exist. The Iraqi government admitted later the existence of 50,000 such “ghost” soldiers, but the real figure was probably much higher.
An end to Cold War superpower rivalry, globalisation and free-market economics were all portrayed as benign modernising forces over the past quarter century. But, in practice, the decline of nationalism and the national state has been replaced by nothing better and has opened the door to monstrous but fanatical movements such as ISIS.