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Although he’s not aware of the service he’s rendered, everyone seeking to understand U.S. foreign policy’s challenges better in regions like the Middle East owes a debt of gratitude to Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann. He’s unwittingly presented a reminder that most of the countries in this part of the world may look like political units that are called nation-states, but that they lack the critical attributes of these “real countries.” As a result, strategies seeking to manipulate or rely on them as if they were real countries – like recent and current U.S. approaches to the region – are bound to fail.

In his latest column for the Project Syndicate website, Hausmann probes the question of why the modern world has been seeing the kind of “selective convergence” in national economic performance that has broken past patterns of economic growth. The author, a former Chief Economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, notes that this selective convergence (or divergence, depending on your vantage point) is especially puzzling because rapidly globalizing trade and investment were by definition rapidly diffusing equalizing factors like technology.

His explanation is that some third world countries in particular have closed themselves off to trade and investment, in a mistaken effort to protect and nurture local industries. The argument is pretty muddled, but Hausmann also misses a more fundamental reality.

In previous eras, when convergence and divergence were uniform, the entities converging and diverging were all what I’ve previously called “real countries.” In other words, all were well organized and cohesive enough either to develop modernizing technologies and other capabilities on their own, or to assimilate capabilities available abroad. A set of countries that capitalized on these opportunities (in Western Europe, North America, which were eventually joined by Japan) pulled rapidly ahead of a set of countries that simply didn’t (like India) or wouldn’t (like China).

More recently, as Hausmann points out, many countries, in particular from the developing world, have taken advantage of global technology and capital flows. Largely through successful absorption and imitation of existing technologies, they have impressively closed the gap with wealthier competitors.

But what Hausmann overlooks is that today’s world also contains entities that were of course present before, but never included in studies of national wealth – entities that aren’t really countries at all. The third world regions in which they’re currently found, such as sub-Saharan Africa, were controlled in times past by others, and for the most part were economically inert.

Today, these regions are politically independent in an official sense, so their economic performance is counted by those interested in the subject. They’re still for the most part economically inert, however – not mainly out of choice, but because they’re simply not up to the challenge. They possess the form of real countries in many ways but not the substance.

As I wrote for the The Atlantic in 1993, “non-real countries” typically boast “heads of state, armies, and postage stamps. They send ambassadors abroad. Underneath, however, they are something else entirely: some are legal-political fictions, some family corporations in which the restive immigrant employees greatly outnumber the indigenous owners, others ‘tribes with flags.’ All are under constant assault by centrifugal forces ranging from ethnic and religious tensions….For many regimes, [scapegoating] is the only hope of survival.”

As a result, modern studies of national economic performance count not only established high-income countries and lower-income countries successfully playing catch-up, but entities that only superficially resemble countries, and that consequently can’t possibly make noteworthy economic progress. In other words, economic convergence today doesn’t include a large number of countries because they aren’t really countries to begin with.

Drawing this distinction nowadays is even more important for U.S. foreign policy and national security, since the Middle East – the subject of my 1993 article – is still comprised largely of entities not fitting the bill of real countries. Yet American leaders – and most of their critics on the Left and Right – keep treating the region as if it’s little more than a hotter, drier, much less secular version of Western Europe. Hence the emphasis on mobilizing the “front-line states,” engaging “regional partners,” and other ideas assuming that most Middle Eastern actors are interested in making the kinds of commitments on which traditional diplomacy rests, and that they’re able to keep whatever commitments they make.

Until Washington and the rest of the foreign policy establishment recognizes that lines on a map do not a real country make, all aspects of America’s Middle East strategy, and their leading alternatives, will become formulas for quagmire.