The Future of Nationalism

The Future of Nationalism

Mini Teaser: A combination of fatigue and the declining importance of the state may make this divisive ideology easier to handle in the next century.

by Author(s): Michael Mandelbaum

The great question at the heart of nineteenth-century European politics was who should govern- the princes or the people? The question was settled by World War I, which swept away the Continent's dynastic monarchs and their empires, only to give rise to another: Just how are the people to govern-through elected representatives whose powers are limited, or through self-appointed political elites exercising total control over those they rule? In the wake of World War II and the Cold War, totalitarianism in Europe has been vanquished, leaving, however, yet a third question, one that underlies the large-scale violence that has followed the collapse of communism and the end of the East-West rivalry on the Continent: Who, for the purposes of self-government, are the people?

This is a matter of maps. Government requires a state. A state must have borders. A method for determining them is therefore needed.

The issue is not a new one. The nineteenth century knew it as the national question. It stemmed, then as now, from the quest of self-identified nations for their own states. To the question "who are the people?", the answer then seemed obvious: a few great nations- the German, the Italian, the Hungarian and the Polish- imprisoned in autocratic multinational empires. Once the empires were destroyed, they would take their places in the company of the British, the French and the Russians as the peoples entitled to govern themselves in sovereign states. In the twentieth century, however, Europe discovered that the matter was not so simple. The empires were indeed destroyed, but in their wake came not few but many claims to sovereignty, claims that were both overlapping and conflicting. How were they to be adjudicated?

First Europe and then the world embraced two rules for deciding the location of borders. One is the principle of national self-determination, the rule that every self-identified nation should have its own sovereign state. The other is the principle that existing sovereign borders are sacrosanct and should not be altered. The two are not always compatible. Often they are in conflict. The conflict between them was submerged during the Cold War but has resurfaced in its wake. That conflict lay at the heart of the wars in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the fighting between Armenians and Azeris, Georgians and Abkhaz, and Russians and Chechens on the territory of the former Soviet Union. In each case, one side went to war to change borders in order to make them conform more closely to the principle of national self-determination, while the other fought to retain existing borders.

The twentieth-century history of the conflict between the two principles for determining borders is one of alternation and compromise, accompanied by surprisingly little debate about their respective merits. The lesson of that history for the twenty-first century is that, although Europe- and the world- would be better able to manage and prevent conflict if one or the other principle were firmly established as the unchallenged international norm, this is not possible. Both are rooted in history and logic; neither can be entirely eliminated. The prospects for resolving twenty-first century national conflicts- both in Europe and the rest of the world-depend on finding compromises between the two. The late twentieth-century history of the national question, including the war in Kosovo, shows how difficult this is. . . .

Fatigue-and Diminished Stakes

The precedents that give rise to optimism for the resolution of the various incarnations of the national question in the twenty-first century are to be found where outside powers have not seriously intervened. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are moving slowly and painfully toward mutually acceptable forms of power-sharing; in the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians are moving, at a comparable pace and with even more attendant violence, toward a formula for a division of sovereignty with which each community can live. The American government has played a highly visible but substantively marginal role in each "peace process." The impetus for reaching a settlement comes in both cases from the parties themselves, as it did with the arrangements between the government of Russia and the Muslim province of Tatarstan, with the establishment of a regional parliament for Scotland, and with the treaty signed by the governments of Hungary and Romania protecting the cultural rights of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.

The lesson of these varying (and not necessarily eternal) arrangements for accommodating the collective demands of national minorities is that what is most needed to settle such conflicts is not ingenuity of constitutional design: there are, after all, many ways to build a structure in which two or more families can live comfortably but separately under the same roof. The necessary and all too rare ingredient for a solution to the contemporary version of the national question is the political will to settle.

National conflicts are settled by the parties to them when they are "ripe" for resolution and perhaps the most common source of ripeness is fatigue. Parties to a conflict will be ready to compromise when they are exhausted from waging it, as in the cases of Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

The debilitating expenditure of blood and treasure will not be the only incentive for settling national conflicts in the twenty-first century. Prudence, rationality and the observation of what can happen in the absence of a settlement are not unknown and have evidently played a role in post-communist relations between Russians and Tatars, and between Hungarians and Romanians.

Yet another trend in twenty-first century international politics, however, may turn out to be the most effective solvent of national conflicts: the obsolescence of sovereignty itself.

The national question has been so contentious because the stakes have seemed so high: control of the machinery of the modern state, a supremely important twentieth-century institution that is the product of the two forces that shaped first Europe and then the world-the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These forces conferred upon the political societies of Europe two tasks for which a powerful instrument was necessary: modern war and economic management. The French Revolution led to mass armies to wage wars; the Industrial Revolution produced ever more complicated, expensive and deadly weapons with which those armies could be equipped. Only a powerful state could recruit, train and support the soldiers, and develop and purchase the weaponry.

Modern war was born in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, sovereign states assumed another responsibility for which a powerful state was needed: economic management. In communist countries the state's economic responsibility was total. The economic role of the central government elsewhere was more modest but still considerable: appropriating an increasing share of the society's output through taxation; providing, with the taxes it collected, an expanding array of services and public works; and using fiscal and monetary tools to cushion the shocks and abbreviate the downturns to which market economies are prone.

While neither great task has by any means disappeared, in the wake of the Cold War both are in decline. So, therefore, is the institution responsible for them, the state itself. Major war, the kind fought by men with weapons that only the powerful modern state can provide, is going out of fashion. While not impossible, it is less likely than at any time in the past two centuries.7 The communist economic system is discredited: with the exception of North Korea, no sovereign state now seeks to control all facets of economic life. In other countries, where the balance between government control and the impersonal rules of the market in the governance of economic activity has periodically shifted, it has swung, in the wake of the Cold War, sharply in favor of the market.

The retreat from government control of economic activity is most noticeable where the national question began: in Europe. There, in the second half of the nineteenth century, what had previously been regarded as agglomerations of politically inert peasants, rather than true nations, began demanding their own sovereign states, producing a raft of conflicting claims that could not all be fulfilled. Emblematic of this trend were the Czechs, who, as the twentieth century began, were unwilling to conduct their political business under German rule or their private transactions in the German language.

As the century ends, the Czech people, living in their own state, have no higher aspiration than for their interest rates to be set in Germany. Of course, if the Czech Republic succeeds in joining the European Union its interest rate would be set by a European, not a German, Central Bank in Frankfurt. But that is just the point: even mighty Germany, in economic terms Europe's most powerful state, has given up what was once a cardinal feature of sovereignty, the control of its own monetary policy.

The eclipse of the nation-state has been regularly foretold; now, as in the past, the state is not on the verge of withering away. But its once overweening and still formidable powers are plainly, if slowly and unevenly, declining. It is possible that they may someday diminish to the point at which the borders of sovereign states will have no more significance than those of American postal zones, and the bitter twentieth-century conflicts over borders will seem as distant and puzzling as the theological disputes that provoked battles and persecutions in medieval Europe do to us today. On that day the national question will have vanished; no one fights about the location of postal zones. But to the unhappy regions of the planet where, on the eve of the twenty-first century, the national question is still a virulent, poisonous one, that happy day will be a long time in coming.

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