The apparent chaos, conflict, and social strife evident in the world stimulates calls for political solutions. Various think tanks, government agencies, and international bodies have offered solutions to a range of crises dominating the headlines. One such crisis is the ongoing situation in the nation-state formerly known as Libya. The Atlantic Council recently released a report that calls for a federated structure between the three historically distinct regions within the territory: Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania. While hinting at a decentralized power structure united under a common constitution, the advice of the Atlantic Council fundamentally errs in supporting an arrangement certain to continue the conflict.
In calling for a strong unitary state with federated constituents, the Council advocates for the bulk of decision making to be made by a national assembly, yet administered at the local level. Particularly with regard to the control of oil revenues, placing resources into the hands of a central state leads to an aggregation of special interests, political factions, and power brokers to compete over the spoils. That the central government in Tripoli wants to control the oil resources of the east, just as it was under Qaddafi, should come as no surprise: Politicians love to spend other people’s money, and by virtue of their untenable position, must do so in order to curry favor and buy votes. That the people in Benghazi and the owners of the territory where the oil is being extracted have an interest in preserving their wealth should also come as no surprise. They too wish to keep what they have earned and maintain local control of their property. The question is one of legitimacy. Both centers consider their position legitimate and the other as not.
International organizations, including the United Nations, the Council On Foreign Relations, and the Atlantic Council, also have vested interests in maintaining the status quo in the state-centered international system. Radical decentralization and secessionist movements offer disruptions to the balance of power, and as such, are considered anathema to political legitimacy.
The question then becomes one of credibility as much of legitimacy. Who has more credibility to determine the legitimacy of a political body, the people themselves as in a call for self-determination or the outside institutions that confer recognition?
History shows that a self-determined polity rarely achieves legitimacy without outside recognition. The United States first achieved recognition by the Kingdom of Morocco once seceded from the British and the support of France played a significant role in the sustainment of that legitimacy, in addition to the military support during the revolutionary war. Political units that fail to achieve outside recognition rarely survive, and Africa has a diverse body of recent examples, including Rhodesia, Biafra, and Katanga. When the international community does not support a group’s self-determination electives, the chances of survival diminish considerably, particularly when subjected to blockades, embargoes, and outright hostilities such as those in the three cases listed above.
That the national assembly in Tripoli would rather see oil resources destroyed than sold to benefit the owners of those resources in Cyrenaica has been evidenced by recent actions. Private property is always at odds with democracy. A democratic unitary state with federated administrative regions will not solve the problems in Libya, only exacerbate them. This is why international organizations must deny self-determination.