Posted by: hobbesonafob | May 20, 2009

A Semi-barbaric Model

Here’s a quote I stumbled across in the library one day. I saw an interesting looking book cover, judged the book by its cover, picked up the book, proceeded to skim through it, and came across this quote: 

“The situation as it appears to me is this. As long as the system of Government in Russia was framed upon a semi-Asiatic model, or, if some prefer it, a semi-barbaric model, Europe had little to fear from her. A country so ruled can have little internal strength; and without internal strength no country can be aggressively very dangerous to powerful neighbours” (1).

– William Nassau Lees, 1869


[I’m still unable to find a picture of Lees despite being in contact with the British National Archives. Even a Google Image search has failed. But we can extrapolate a bit here. Piers Brendon’s 2007 article in the Daily Mail gives a sound historical analysis of British imperialism and how it is proportional to facial hair exhibiting bravado. So, it would be safe to assume that Lees had fantastic facial hair. 

Now the opening quote of this post is timely despite its age. Lees (1825-1889), who was a major-general in the Indian army and a distinguished oriental scholar (2), was referring to Russia’s maturation from a “semi-barbaric” to a modern nation-state. When Lees wrote this, Russia was perceived as a threat to the British Raj which eventually led the British into the “Great Game.” The British engaged in expeditions and wars to counter the Russians; these endeavors cost the British tremendous resources, which had little return on these investments. These losses were not sustained by Russian forces, but instead from the populations in Afghanistan and the north-west frontiers of India (modern day northern Pakistan). In The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill writes of the futility involved in these attempts to control the region:

These tribes have nothing to surrender but their arms. To extort these few had taken a month, had cost many lives and thousands of pounds. It had been as bad a bargain as was ever made. People talk glibly of ‘the total disarmament of the frontier tribes’ as being the obvious policy. No doubt such a result would be most desirable. But to obtain it would be as painful and as tedious an undertaking as to extract the stings of a swarm of hornets with naked fingers (3).

This “semi-barbaric model” of internal governance that led to high British casualties was even espoused during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (ruled 1880-1901), who believed that he did not need an army to protect his borders against foreign invasion and could instead rely on lashkars to repel invaders:

“Many of my officials who think themselves very wise keep on advising me to introduce railways and telegraphs, saying that it is impossible to get the full benefit of the minerals and other products…Of course, I know myself that what they say is quite true, but, at the same time, they do no consider that by making the country easily accessible, foreign powers would not find so much difficulty in entering and spreading themselves over our country. The greatest safety of Afghanistan lies in its natural impregnable position. Allah has given us every peak of the mountains for a fortress of nature, and foreigners know that Afghans, being born warriors, can go on fighting for ever and ever, as long as they can hide themselves behind the stones and do not have to face the enemy in the open field….we must not weaken the strength of our hilly country with our own hands” (4).

The irony of Lees’ quote is further heightened when one looks at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan that cost their army thousands of casualties, worldwide condemnation, and humiliation (See Rambo III’s top ten scenes  – I also highly recommend Christian Bleuer’s analysis of the movie). The irony is consolidated when one compares the security paradigm during Lees’ era: a country without internal strength cannot be dangerous to neighbours, to today’s outlook on internally weak states: “The fact is that the chief threats to us and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states” – Fukuyama (5). If the end of history is nigh, and the world has chosen its preferred method of governance, then implementing this vision throughout the world has become extremely difficult. With vast resources being invested into failed and failing states — with little to no return on these investments — the threat these failed states pose remains, and is directed at citizens of the developed world, and at the well-being of those residing in weak, collapsed, or failed states. The threat from weak, collapsed and failed states is also growing:

Weak states, even seemingly strong nation-states in the developing world, fail with increasing frequency. The decade plus since the end of the cold war has witnessed a cascading plethora of state failure…more and more state are at risk, exhibiting acute signs of weakness and/or the likelihood of outright failure – Rotberg (6).

According to this trajectory, it has been and will continue to be increasingly important to understand the dynamics that create failed states.

That being said, this “semi-barbaric model”  that Lees writes of makes me want to assume an “internally weak” state is a state that is highly decentralized: a territory ruled by local magnates without a strong, central authority. The question I would like to pose to the readership is the following: Could a decentralized state be a combination of decentralized communities (I’m thinking resilient communities here) and still have a strong central authority? If so, have states like this existed before? 

Works Cited

1 . William Nassau Lees, The Central-Asian Question from an Eastern Stand-Point (London: Williams and Norgate, 1869), 101.

2. British National Archives, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 836-837.

3.Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 1989), 187. Even if the weapons were confiscated and destroyed, Churchill makes note that the rifles were still salvageable: “Another point connected with these rifles is that even when they have been officially destroyed by cutting them in three pieces, the fractions have a marketable value. Severed rifles were show me which had been rejoined by the tribesmen. These were, of course, very dangerous weapons indeed…It was a strange instance of the tireless efforts of Supply to meet demand.” 106.

4. Abdur Rahman, The Life of Abdur Rahman, vol II. (London: Murray, 1900), 77-78, quoted in Jeffery J. Robert, The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 27.

5. Francis Fukuyama, “Nation-Building 101,” The Atlantic, January/February, 2004.

6. Robert I. Rotberg, “Nation-State Failure: a Recurring Phenomenon?” National Intelligence Council, November 2003., 1.


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