The Age of Nationalism

September 1, 2013 Topic: SocietyHistoryIdeologyPolitical Theory

The Age of Nationalism

Mini Teaser: Nation-states, and conflicts centering on them, remain the defining features of our time.

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

This elegant game was upset by the French Revolution, in which the masses first made themselves heard in a big way. They did so not only in internal affairs but also in conflicts between France and the other European powers, with the levy en masse becoming for the first time a major part of international wars and the increasingly large armies that would fight them. Large citizen armies, even if formally an output of conscription, were made politically possible by a strong sense of loyalty and attachment of the general population to its nation-state—a sense that had been missing during the earlier monarchical chess game. The combination of the Westphalian state and popular, emotional identification with it produced true nationalism, in which both statehood (actual or aspirational) and mass sentiment based on the nation are the key ingredients.

The full impact of nationalism on world affairs and even European affairs would be delayed, however, by other developments. One was the force of empire. Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt at empire was short lived, but Russian, Prussian and Austrian power expanded to subsume much of Europe, while the Ottomans clung to earlier conquests in the southeastern part of the Continent. State sovereignty was divorced from many nationalities other than the few that were at the top of an imperial heap. Many others were repressed or divided, such as the Poles, or co-opted, such as the Magyars in what became the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Although this remained the political structure of Europe into the twentieth century, other processes were percolating that would add to the strength of future nationalism. The historian E. H. Carr, in a short book entitled Nationalism and After, describes some of these, which he calls the “socialization of the nation.” Relevant trends during the last third of the nineteenth century, seen especially in Germany, included extension of the franchise and an increased economic role of the state. Together, these factors further increased the sense among ordinary citizens not only that their primary loyalty belonged to their own nation-state but also that their own fortunes were wrapped up with the nation-state’s fortunes. These trends continued into the great nationalism-fueled European bloodletting known as World War I.

That war did not reverse the increase in nationalism, and not only because revanchism left from the war was at least as strong as revulsion over the bloodshed. Carr points to a couple of other reasons: autarkic policies that further identified citizens’ economic prospects with those of only their own state and not others; and the large increase in the number of European nation-states as empires were broken up. There was plenty of nationalist sentiment left to fuel a second round of carnage two decades later.

Carr wrote during the closing days of that World War II bloodletting. Showing tinges of the Marxism that would characterize some of his later work, he believed that after this war nationalism would finally subside—hence the “and after” part of his title. Some of his predictions turned out to be rather good. He expected that advances in military technology, especially air power, would render national frontiers strategically less significant than before. He anticipated the establishment of multiple regional organizations and what would become United Nations peacekeeping forces. He foresaw that Great Britain would have to establish closer ties with Western Europe. He advocated humanitarian exceptions to state sovereignty—a posture that today is called the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. And he foreshadowed Huntington in talking about civilizations as “great multinational units in which power will be concentrated.”

On his basic prognosis for nationalism, however, Carr was badly mistaken. Given his firm conviction that the end of World War II would mark the end “of the old fissiparous nationalism, of the ideology of the small nation as the ultimate political and economic unit,” it seems reasonable to suspect he would be taken aback in our time to see nations as small as Kosovo gaining independence. And he would be chagrined to find that in his native Britain, even though it did get closer to the Continent in the postwar years, there is more talk today about getting out of Europe than about getting more deeply in.

THE FULL extent to which strong and inexorable nationalism would prove Carr wrong would not become visible until after a couple of other developments. One was decolonization in the less developed world, which peaked around 1960 but continued well after that. This process has added new nation-states whose numbers dwarf the new European states that were created after World War I and that Carr identified as part of what propelled nationalism in the interwar years. The Westphalian state has been sold successfully worldwide, despite its made-in-Europe label.

The other development harks back again to the French Revolution, which began two centuries in which competition between ideologies of the Left and the Right was a dominant theme of global politics and conflict. Between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Left-Right conflict had many manifestations, from the Holy Alliance and Three Emperors’ League on the right to the Comintern and Socialist International on the left. Whatever the exact form it took, the Left-Right dimension was so dominant for so long—more than half the lifetime of the modern nation-state—that it preempted, disguised or diverted much of what would have been consequences of the growth of nation-states and popular attachment to them. Left-Right conflict intruded in significant ways even in the nationalism-fueled conflict of the first part of the twentieth century, exemplified by the Bolsheviks’ quick relinquishment at Brest-Litovsk of large amounts of the Russian empire to get out of World War I and by the role that fear of Communism played in the rise of European fascism.

The final phase of these two centuries was the Cold War, in which competition between the Left and the Right became competition between East and West. This phase, too, delayed or disguised many of the consequences of nationalism, subordinating them to the East-West conflict. Suppression of German nationalism, for example, was inextricably linked to the West’s confrontation with the East, as rearmament of West Germany was permitted only within the context of the Western alliance’s integrated military command. Britain’s willingness to tiptoe into European integration, as a founding member of the Western Union Defence Organization in 1948, was all about the need for cohesion in the West to stand up to a new Soviet threat. Soviet domination of Eastern Europe also delayed completion of the process, begun at Versailles after World War I, of giving postimperial European nationalities their own states. It was only after that domination ended that Germany was made whole and the southern Slavs of Yugoslavia and northern Slavs of Czechoslovakia got their own states. As did, of course, the national republics of the Soviet Union, which became the biggest recent class of entrants into the Westphalian club.

And so we see the emergence of the nation-state as the defining reality of our time, surpassing in significance all the recent preoccupations over civilizational clash, globalization, history’s end and great-power polarity. Indeed, it could be argued that the age of nationalism actually is a product of the human condition.

That the nation-state should be the primary focus of loyalties and conflicts flows directly from human nature and how it evolved. Possession (or hoped-for possession) of a well-defined patch of the earth’s surface is a manifestation of the “territorial imperative” that author and screenwriter Robert Ardrey popularized in a book of that name almost fifty years ago and that is a dominant trait of many species most closely related to humans. Attachment to a nationality whose home is more or less coterminous with that patch is also a deeply rooted, birds-of-a-feather trait. Once established, a nation-state adds institutional imperatives to the biological and evolutionary ones to make it even more the focus of attention. The state becomes the source of both obligations and, as Carr notes of the late nineteenth century, benefits. National myths, which help to achieve cohesion and cement loyalty within nationalities, often exacerbate suspicions and resentment between nationalities; think, for example, of how some Serbian national mythology centers on memories of a military defeat by the Turks more than seven centuries ago. Perhaps nation-states, including small ones, are not, as Carr puts it, the “ultimate” type of economic and political unit, but it should not be surprising that the intense attachments to them that constitute nationalism underlie a large proportion of the policies, conflicts and problems prevalent in today’s world.

NATIONALISM INFUSES and drives many of the most salient and active confrontations around the globe. The object of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy pivot—East Asia and the western Pacific—is a prime example. The most visible conflicts there largely take the classic nationalist form of territorial disputes. This is chiefly true of unresolved differences between China and its neighbors over islands in the East and South China Seas and over the land border in the Himalayas with India. Some of the disputes involve economic interests such as hoped-for undersea hydrocarbons, but all of them involve more visceral sentiments of competing nationalities, exhibiting their individual territorial imperatives, that a given piece of real estate is historically and rightfully theirs.

Image: Pullquote: Exceptionalism is what the citizens of a superpower get to call their own nationalism.Essay Types: Essay