The debate over partitions is a vigorous one.
“By now you’d think we’d have learned that partitions don’t work,” James Clad, a senior advisor at the Center for Naval Analysis and a former undersecretary of defense says. “Partitions don’t solve problems, they make them worse. The whole point of a partition in a conflict zone is to dampen ethnic tensions and shape regional harmony, but in nearly every case partitions deepen hatreds and spark conflict. When you draw a line between people, you put them at each others’ throats.” Clad concludes that Americans might want to rethink Robert Frost’s oft-repeated bromide: “Good fences don’t always make good neighbors,” he says.
Author John Judis doesn’t necessarily disagree, but warns against over-simplifying the partition argument. “One thing I’d strongly warn against,” he says, “is taking partition as a kind of abstract plan, and constructing an argument based on particular examples. There are many different kinds of partitions, they occur at different parts of history, some are agreed to, others are imposed.”
That said, while the decades following the end of World War II are viewed as a Cold War between U.S. and Soviet systems, an increasing number of historians have focused on the partitions that defined it—in Korea (33,000 American dead and one million Koreans), in Vietnam (in wars fought by the French and by the United States), in South Asia (where India and Pakistan have fought four wars) and, of course, in Palestine. To these conflicts can be added the near-conflicts resulting from the de facto partition of China (between the mainland Peoples Republic and Taiwan), the continuing partition of Ireland (dating from 1920), the 1974 division of Cyprus and the post-war partition of Europe, which, because of a series of crises over Berlin (also partitioned), nearly caused World War III.
While it’s true that there are significant differences among these partitions (the partitions of Korea, Vietnam, China and Europe were political; the partitions of Ireland, Palestine, South Asia and Cyprus were ethnic, religious and political), they have this in common: Rather than resolving the differences among peoples, in almost all cases the partitions deepened them—or postponed their final resolution. That was certainly true in Korea and Vietnam (where the partition was wholly political, and geographically artificial), but also in South Asia where an effort to dampen Hindu-Muslim communal tensions has been transformed into a nasty political disagreement between two nuclear-armed states.
This was true even for the immediate post-Cold War conflict resulting from the collapse of Yugoslavia. Hailed as a triumph of American diplomacy, the Dayton Peace Agreement partitioned Bosnia & Herzegovina and successfully ended the conflict, though without actually resolving the political questions that sparked it. Dayton, as Indian scholar Radha Kumar wrote in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, is a classic example of how partitions are used not to solve problems, but to kick them down the road. Dayton, she notes, was actually a partition “with an exit clause for outside powers”—a way for the world to “divide and quit.”
“It’s a kind of diplomatic laziness,” Daniel Serwer, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, says. Serwer, who served as the executive director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group and witnessed the conflict in the Balkans, as well as those in the Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, notes that “the problem with partitions” is that “invariably, some people get caught on the wrong side of the line—and sometimes millions of them.”
Which is a prescription for disaster.
Picture: Kys951 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons