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

Nationalism in China, as in most other nations, is a combination of natural sentiment bubbling up from below and exploitation of that sentiment from above. President Xi Jinping voices nationalist themes, and needs to voice them, not only to preserve national unity but also to sustain political support for necessary reforms and to claim legitimacy for the regime now that Communist ideology no longer does the trick. China, which owes its growth and prosperity to its three-decade capitalist trek, epitomizes how the receding of the great Left-Right struggle of the past has opened the way to more unreserved expressions of nationalism.

China also illustrates how some of the globalizing forces such as border-hopping information technology, which often have been seen as eroding the role of the nation-state, can actually enhance that role and increase popular identification with the nation. In a country as large and previously undeveloped as China, modern mass communications have expanded the exposure and perspective of millions from village or district to the nation as a whole. In general, modern electronic communications enhance the symbols and affinities of a nation (as well as the powers of a national government) more than they do those of a tribe or subnational region.

The role of nationalism is just as apparent on the non-Chinese side of those East Asian territorial disputes. In Japan, the resurgent nationalism that is identified most often with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reflects the broader yearning of an exceptionally homogeneous population that has taken decades to find a capacity for the kind of assertiveness that was crushed by the disaster of World War II. In Vietnam, the nationalism that the United States failed to recognize as its actual adversary during the Vietnam War, when it was obsessed with Communist ideology, is now expressed so clearly and strongly that even the most obtuse could not miss it. Amid the disputes over islands in the South China Sea, demonstrators in the streets of Hanoi shout, “Down with the henchmen of China.” The Vietnamese regime knows that suppressing rather than identifying with such feelings toward China would risk turning the demonstrations squarely against the government.

The magnificent supranational experiment in Europe is an obvious challenge to the proposition that identification with the nation-state is the dominant pattern in world politics today. That experiment has indeed solidified an apparently irreversible shift in which war is now unthinkable between some states that have warred often in the past. But a reassertion of nationalism is a major part of the European Union’s current troubles, in ways that go beyond the economic issues conventionally viewed as the main problems. Efforts to deal with debt problems in the euro zone have been plagued as much by national stereotypes, in which northern Europeans see southerners as lazy and southerners see the northerners as arrogant, as they have by the technical problems of having a common monetary policy without a common fiscal policy. The growing strength of nation-based sentiment in Europe shows up in many endeavors that are still organized along national lines, from soccer tournaments to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Britain’s shaky involvement with European integration illustrates some of the larger trends involved. When Britain was first negotiating for entry into what was then the European Economic Community, most of the issues were narrowly defined economic ones, such as what would happen to imports of butter from New Zealand. Today the issue of Britain’s relationship with the Continent is addressed in broader terms centered on the meaning and importance of British nationality. This trend coincides with the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which calls for British withdrawal from the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron once dismissed the party as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” but the UKIP’s electoral success—it garnered a quarter of the vote in local council elections this May—has forced opponents to take it seriously. The Cameron government’s toughened stance on immigration and commitment to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU are some of the results.

Cameron also has agreed with Scottish nationalists to hold a referendum on independence. This is an example of how the transfer of some powers from national capitals to Brussels, far from diminishing nationalist sentiment, has provided a supranational umbrella under which some nationalities, especially ones unhappy with the arrangements within their current states, have become more assertive. These include Flemings and Catalonians as well as Scots.

However successful the European experiment will ultimately be economically and in forever banishing intra-European war, it has far to go in establishing a sense of continent-wide identity that can displace national identities grounded in language and culture. Even greater cultural and linguistic commonality may, as the example of Latin America suggests, be insufficient to overshadow the histories and identities of nation-states. The Liberator, Simón Bolívar, thought a shared Hispanic culture could be the basis for a region-wide federation, but it was not to be. Today the Andean country named after Bolívar does not even have full diplomatic relations with its neighbor Chile, due to a territorial dispute left over from a nineteenth-century war.

Africa continues to be a monument to the strength of the nation-state as a point of reference and object of competition, no matter how arbitrarily drawn its boundaries or deficient its central governments’ control over their territories. The secession of South Sudan was a rare exception to a continent-wide resistance to tampering with the colonial boundaries left by European powers. A similar pattern has prevailed since the breakup of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, where arbitrary boundaries are the product of Stalin’s divide-and-rule line drawing. The arbitrariness underlies some intrastate ethnic tensions such as those between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but nationalist themes also have helped such figures as Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to transition successfully from a provincial Communist Party boss to a national leader with a secure hold on power.

The USSR’s principal successor state, Russia, has exhibited a surge of nationalism since the Communist regime’s dissolution. The process partly parallels the one in China, in which the old Communist ideology could no longer serve as a unifier and legitimizer. But in Russia there is also popular anger over economic dislocation and the lack of growth, as well as perceived threats to ethnic Russians from minorities that are still part of the Russian Federation. The term “Russian nationalist” is thus most closely associated with a xenophobic and extreme-right sensibility, although the nationalist resurgence in Russia extends far beyond that.

Some of the intensified Russian nationalism has in effect been exported in the form of migrants to Israel. The migrants shared with all Soviet citizens the illiberal and undemocratic political culture of the Communist era, along with racially tinged attitudes toward nationalities of the Caucasus. But Russian Jews did not have their own national republic to cling to when the union broke up. Today, immigrants from Russia constitute one of the most fervidly nationalist segments of Israel’s population.

The region surrounding Israel would appear to constitute another challenge to the idea of the dominance of nationalism, given the conspicuous attention to religion rather than nationality and especially to what is commonly perceived as a region-wide conflict between Sunni and Shia. That attention is a reminder that no one way of labeling the world explains everything, and religious conflict certainly explains a lot in the Middle East. Many of the recent and ongoing conflicts in that region, however, can properly be characterized, at least in part, as struggles to liberate nation-states from the yoke of particular clans, ruling families or religious sects, or from the influence of foreign powers. That certainly is true, for example, of the wars in Iraq and Syria. Nationality has trumped religion when the two have directly conflicted, as when Iraqi Shia fought for Sunni-controlled Iraq during the eight-year war against Shia Iran. Identification with individual nation-states has been more durable even than region-wide “Arab nationalism,” including the Arab nationalism of Pan-Arabism’s leading champion, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose political union between Egypt and Syria was short lived. The boundary lines drawn during World War I by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot have lasted, just like the colonial boundaries in Africa. The leading challenge to those lines, in northern Iraq, has come from the biggest unrealized nationalist aspiration left over from the post–World War I treaties: that of the Kurds. Likewise, the most salient long-running conflict with the broadest repercussions in the Middle East is a clash between two nationalist ambitions: those of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

THE FACT that nationalism in the Middle East has not yet gotten completely out from the shadow of religious conflict, as nation-states in Europe did in the seventeenth century, is part of a larger regional historical lag in which the Middle East also has been slower to get out from the shadow of empire. Historian Niall Ferguson, explaining why the twenty-first century is likely to be less bloody in most of the world than the twentieth, cites as one reason the fact that the messy dissolution of empires is now mostly behind us. But he names one major, conflict-ridden regional exception—the Middle East—where an empire is troubled but not yet dissolved, by which he means the American empire.

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