Yesterday South Sudan became the 196th independent sovereign state on Earth. The raising of the new national flag was the result of intensive diplomatic efforts on the part of the US and UK to end a twenty year long defensive insurgency which pitted the primarily African, Christian south against the overwhelmingly Arab, Muslim north. The post war road to independence has been long--six years--and filled with still unresolved difficulties such as the division of oil revenues and the status of disputed territory.
The most interesting aspect of the MSM coverage of the independence celebration in Juba, the capital, has been the recitation of a seemingly unending litany of problems confronting the place. Mention is made of the poverty, the lack of education, the feuds which separate the leaders of the new government, the lack of infrastructure, lack of jobs, lack of medical care, lack of almost everything other than oil and fertile land. Learned tongues cluck over the inexperience of the governmental personnel at all levels. There is head shaking over the hostility still resident in Khartoum along with dire hints that the matter is not yet permanently settled.
Of course much mention is made of the international assistance which will be coming. The British foreign minister has promised much. The US is not far behind. China, with an eye firmly on the source of the oil of Sudan, has indicated it will be inclined to be generous. Then, of course, the NGO industry has already cranked up its not inconsiderable resources--most importantly its public relations and lobbying capabilities. One gets the impression that donors almost beyond count are lining up hoping to toss some money in the general direction of Juba.
Looking at the mixture of hand-wringing and calls for as well as assurance of aid in abundance, one cannot help but think of the US at the time of its foundation. It matters not which date is selected--that of the Declaration of Independence, the surrender of the British at Yorktown, the signing of the final treaty, or the adoption of the Constitution--the picture was much the same. The birth of the US, the period from the first shootout at Lexington to the adoption of the Constitution, was a prolonged and painful process lasting the best part of two decades. At no time would the smart money placed a bet on the success of the Americans.
The US was massively underdeveloped. It had no industry. Its only exports were agricultural products and naval stores. And, the export market for these had been constricted by British action after independence had been gained. The Americans were riven with internal divisions, not least of which was the split between states where slavery was commonplace and those where it was nonexistent. The US was broke. The circulating media were so worthless and specie (gold and silver) so lacking that barter was normal.
The American government was composed in the main of former insurgent fighters with little if any actual governmental experience. The many strong personalities often clashed in contests of ego and ideology. Corruption was rampant as is illustrated by the traffic by speculators in the land warrants used by states and Congress in lieu of pay for the men of the Continental Army.
The British had only partially and grudgingly acknowledged defeat when they signed the treaty ending the war. In the aftermath London did not live up to its obligations under the treaty particularly as regarded the evacuation of military posts on the upper Great Lakes. Together with their trade policy, this failure to abide by the requirements of the treaty indicated the British expected American independence to be transitory. As if that hostility was insufficient, the French occupied the Mississippi Valley and showed no sign of leaving. The Spanish from their colonial outpost in Florida schemed with Americans of doubtful loyalty to the new country to pry loose the territories of the old southwest and attach it to Madrid.
The American population was small in comparison to the land. Medical care was absent outside the handful of major cities (more like large villages than true cities) and often inept even where it existed. While Americans were notably literate by the standards of the day, the overall rate of literacy was not much better than the twenty-five percent reported for South Sudan. And, despite the agrarian nature of most of the US, hunger was far from absent given the lack of a circulating medium of constant value as well as problems with transportation stemming from the very limited and rudimentary infrastructure of the period.
There were no international donors lining up to toss money at the US. No NGO took up the American plight as the poster cause of the moment. No UN, no WHO, no WFP stood by eager to provide whatever humanitarian assistance might be needed. At best, the world was massively indifferent to whether or not the US survived and prospered. More than a few European states rather hoped that this radical experiment in democracy would sputter and die--the sooner the better.
The US and We the People were very much on our own. For the Americans of the independence period it was, to use a phrase of the day, a matter of "root, hog, or die." We would have to solve our internal frictions. We would have to pay our debts. We would have to create a government. Create a currency. Create an economy and the jobs which would come with it. We, and only we, would have the duty and privilege of creating a country with a future--or not.
Arguably, the root of our success is not to be found in some sort of unique ability on the part of the leaders of the period. Nor, it can be shown, was the success attributable to an act of divine providence. The American success in all its fits, starts, blind alleys, and failures was simply the consequence of having no choice other than national extinction.
As the prospect of being hung in two weeks reputedly has the effect of concentrating the mind most wonderfully so also does the ever-present prospect of national death concentrate the efforts and will of many, many people. The Americans chose to root rather than die.
The first two generations of independent existence were neither easy nor, in retrospect, pretty. The challenges were many and great. The failures of were plentiful. Many individuals in positions of power acted in the most petty and self-serving ways imaginable. It was a magnificent muddle with no light at the end of the tunnel until after the second war of independence ended in 1815. After that, while much remained to do if the American experiment were to prosper, its survival was almost certain.
Perhaps it is most unfortunate that South Sudan will be denied the chance to make it on its own merits. It may be regrettable that the South Sudanese will not be faced with the stark choice of "root or die." Arguably, the laudable humanitarian impulses which motivate at least some of the offers of aid and assistance will be the cause of a moral dry rot which will sap the political will and energies of the South Sudanese to make a genuine go of it as a sovereign state with a unique national identity.
As the current situation in South Sudan is considered, it is worth remembering that every rich, powerful, and successful state in the world today was once no better off than is South Sudan. Every last member of the G-8 or even the G-20 was as internally riven, as poor, as lacking in infrastructure, education, jobs as is South Sudan. It is worth considering how each made it from that sort of dire beginning to their status today. One commonality is the absence of external assistance. Another is that success came only with time, difficulty, and the painful development of internal consensus on what to do and how to do it as well as putting that consensus into practice with genuine structures created organically and not in response to some outside "experts" opinion and advice.
Parents in their understandable desire to save children from pain and mistakes often forget how much they learned by failing, by making bad choices, by having to decide in microcosm to "root" rather than "die." The same is true in spades when developed, successful states contemplate a new arrival in the international community.
Helicopter moms and dads often discover too late that their constant hovering has done more harm than good to the capacity of their children to fly free and alone in a hostile or at least indifferent world. Perhaps it is time that helicopter states and NGOs including international organizations learn the same. Whether hogs or states, not all root successfully. Some die.