A rare thing will happen today. In the last stage of a lengthy legal mitosis, the bottom 25% of Sudan will seal its border and begin to live and grow on its own. As bureaucrats rush to update maps, chart airspace and program a new Internet designation (.ss?), the world’s youngest democracy – South Sudan – will sing its national anthem with a free and independent voice for the first time.
Despite all of its festive revelry, the day will be a solemn one for the people of South Sudan. Though it marks the happy end of a decades-long struggle for independence, July 9th also marks the beginning of an even longer effort to prove the viability of one of the most ambitious nation-building projects in modern history.
The final test of independence will fall to South Sudanese men and women. But a similar test will fall more quietly upon the shoulders of Americans, as U.S. foreign policy reaches an epic crossroads. Tomorrow – and the months that follow – may in fact determine whether U.S. diplomacy can peacefully contribute to solving complicated internal disputes in a post 9/11 world.
The U.S. has significantly expanded its influence abroad over the past few decades, most recently with a rhetorical emphasis on ‘liberating’ and ‘democratizing’ the oppressed. Many argue that our efforts have been irresponsible or distracting – an opinion that has gained significant momentum as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya meet a budgetary crisis at home. Like it or not, however, we’ve publically committed ourselves to the promotion of peace and security in such a way that makes backing down painfully difficult. The failure of the Obama Administration to swiftly withdraw our troops from the Middle East has demonstrated just that.
South Sudan may prove we have another option. Since the Bush Administration brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, South Sudanese independence has become a quiet yet decisive experiment in the non-military expansion of self-determination abroad. The CPA granted Southern Sudan remarkable autonomy and the right to vote for its freedom – a choice made with 99% approval. The question becomes: is this our chance? Is this the model of peaceful diplomacy we’ve been hoping for? Are we staring down the solution to a hundred Afghanistans?
Some might balk at the comparison between South Sudan and the Middle East. Some might even be tempted to argue that the challenges we face in the Middle East are more daunting. But Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since the 1950s, and the past 22 years alone have seen the death of over two million people and the displacement of four million more. Sudan’s post-colonial conflict is fueled by western guns, oil interests, and the worrisome repression of civil society by Islamic law. Today Africa welcomes its 54th state – and as neighboring dictators like Robert Mugabe arrive in Juba for the festivities, we’re reminded that things are no easier on this continent than anywhere else.
In South Sudan, the U.S. is about to attempt a transition yet unrealized in Afghanistan and Iraq: the transition from being an active champion of independence to becoming a partner for peace in a relationship of equals. To be effective, this shift will require a commitment to cooperatively confront serious challenges. It will require the skill of U.S. diplomats to assist South Sudan in solving its border, trade, and oil disputes. It will require responsible, focused development assistance – the kind of support that can lower infant mortality rates, boost literacy, ensure food security, and provide clean water and sanitation. It will require the same deference toward self-determination, and the same support for civil society and human rights we’ve exercised thus far. What it will not require is the removal of U.S. troops. There aren’t any to send home.
South Sudan is a nation grown from tragic suffering, not from some idle dream of self-governance. Debt, corruption and perverse foreign interests stand at the ready to devour it. It will take a strong act of will on the part of the world’s oldest democracy to help the world’s youngest around the pitfalls of early independence. And every act of will has its price. But if political freedom and religious liberty can be achieved in one of the poorest, most historically violent regions of the world without spilling a single drop of American blood, is that not a price worth paying?
If South Sudan – God willing – is one day considered a successful experiment in state creation, the credit should rightly go to the perseverance and dedication of its people. Success will only be born of their hard work, ingenuity, and willingness to forgive. Continued U.S. commitment to the process, however, may also help Americans rediscover a skill that we seem to have lost – the skill to help others help themselves.