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Libya and the precarious nature of nationhood

An anti-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi protester, holds a sign during a protest after the Friday prayer at the Court Square, in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Friday March 11, 2011.

Hussein Malla/The Associated Press/Hussein Malla/The Associated Press

Within the span of a month, Libya has gone from sovereign state to international plaything. The borders and barriers that keep a country separate and inviolable suddenly began to dissolve in Moammar Gadhafi's realm, and now it's respectable, even moral, for leaders of other countries to call for intervention, no-fly zones and a forced change of leadership.

Has the idea of nationhood really become that precarious? Libya isn't a model citizen by any means. But the security of national borders overrides basic concepts of goodness and has long been seen as fundamental to international law and stability - countries need boundaries, and the control that comes with them.

The visceral response to the uprisings in Libya challenges that assumption: Borders only matter until the moment they don't.

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"Clearly it's disruptive for the international community to violate the sovereignty of one of its members," says Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, who teaches crisis diplomacy at Princeton University. "But there's been a change at the level of public opinion. People are experiencing the destruction and the loss of life in real time, and that psychological element - feeling the pain and the chaos - has proved to be a very important catalyst in activating our responsibility to protect Libya's civilian population."

These intense feelings of sympathy with suffering people, enhanced by the immediacy of YouTube videos and Al Jazeera reports, are at odds with the more aloof historical concepts of sovereignty. But in the wake of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, when 800,000 people were massacred by government forces without significant UN intervention, the international sense of helplessness became too powerful to ignore: Scholars rethought the concept of sovereignty to make it less absolute, and more conditional on a government's treatment of its people.

"Sovereignty is a responsibility," says Jakub Grygiel of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "It can't be used as a cover to harm your citizens. And if you violate that sovereignty internally, other nations have the right to intervene."

That's the theory at least, the motivating idea of ordinary human compassion that allows countries such as Britain and France to urge intervention against Colonel Gadhafi when his air force attacks his domestic enemies. But in the more calculating, coldhearted world of power politics, it runs up against some major obstacles. China and Russia, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that need to give their assent for a UN-sponsored intervention, refuse to play along: They won't accept challenges to the orthodox idea of sovereignty.

And then there's the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which went ahead without UN approval and turned what purported to be a humanitarian act of border-busting into a bloody mess.

"Iraq was the co-opting of the liberal concept of intervention," says Janice Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. "After that, there was a feeling that you better be careful if you were going to act."

Libya marks an end to that seven-year period of hesitation. The degree of intervention so far is more rhetorical than actual, but when it comes to violating sovereignty, words count almost as much as deeds. When Barack Obama urged Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to go, he sent a message to Egypt's power-brokers and citizens alike that U.S. interests had shifted: There was no need to underline the message with old-school aggression from a gunboat parked off the Egyptian coast.

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The neat thing about this war of words is that it doesn't need UN support. By violating borders in a virtual, verbal way, Western leaders can even gain credit without risking the domestic fallout that a failed intervention could bring.

The only problem so far is that Col. Gadhafi isn't picking up on the subtleties of the people-power message. Instead he's resorted to an old-style argument about national sovereignty to counteract the globalized compassion spread by YouTube: Intervention will lead to chaos, the flight of refugees to Egypt and Italy, the disruption of oil production, the prospect of al-Qaeda filling the failed-state power vacuum.

Those hard national boundaries, in other words, are there for a reason.

"We had a model of a nation-state - territorially defined, hierarchically administered, based on a single ethnic group and language - that we imposed on Africa," Prof. Grygiel says. "But the countries that were created didn't have these conditions - they weren't states as we understand them, the allegiances were at the level of the tribe and the clan. So that's why you've got Gadhafi saying, 'We're not a nation, we're tribes, and if you get rid of me, Libya ceases to exist.' I'm in no way a defender of Gadhafi, but there's some truth in what he says. This is not a state like France."

But maybe Libya isn't a state like Libya any more either. That, after all, has been the big surprise of the revolutionary outbursts across the Middle East, that they showed a surge of the democratic spirit Westerners too readily believed had been suppressed or was alien to the region.

"We're seeing a decline in the total primacy of borders," argues Michael Byers, Canada Research chair in Global Politics at the University of British Columbia. "Leaders like Gadhafi and Mubarak pushed their power too hard, and that provoked a backlash against the unbridled authority of the nation state."

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Through real-time video, more vivid than lines on a map, we now see people like ourselves being punished for demanding rights like our own. In a globalized world of fellow-feeling, the confines of the autocrat's territory look more and more like a cartographer's fiction.

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