Eastern Question, Western Answer

Eastern Question, Western Answer

Mini Teaser: William Pfaff, The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 256 pp.

by Author(s): James Kurth

William Pfaff, The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 256 pp., $21.50

William Pfaff is an American who has lived for years in France, regularly writing for the New Yorker and the International Herald Tribune and periodically publishing books that provide perceptive and sophisticated interpretations of the large issues of the day in international affairs. His new book, The Wrath of Nations, is probably his best. It is also the one that most conveys the sensibility and understanding of a European.
Pfaff's observations on nationalism will seem original to many Americans, but conventional, almost commonplace, to Europeans. Likewise, his critiques of the American version of nationalism and of liberal internationalism will offend many Americans, but Europeans will find them sensible and realistic. Some Americans may think that they need not learn anything from a European perspective. After all, Europe has hardly been distinguished by its wisdom in international affairs in this century. But since the problem of nationalism is once again a European one, and the way European think about it is once again an important reality, an American will be wiser after reading this book.

Pfaff presents a grand review of the vast variety of nations and nationalisms. His survey ranges from Europe to American to Asia to Africa. What he has to say about Asia and Africa is sound enough but also familiar and unremarkable. What he has to say about America is also sound but, since he views America from a European perspective, insightful and unconventional. But it has not been the recent events in Asia, Africa, and America that have caused political commentators like Pfaff to focus on "the wrath of nations." It has been the events in the continent where nations and nationalism were first invented and where they seem to be returning with a vengeance, Europe itself. It is in his account of Europe that Pfaff is most eloquent and most relevant.

Western and Eastern Nationalisms

Pfaff focuses on a distinction--one which in the last three years has again become important and salient--between the nations and nationalisms of Western Europe and those of Eastern Europe (and also much of Central Europe). In the West, the state existed before the nation, and it brought the nation into being over the course of several centuries. This meant that the state combined several pre-national ethnic communities into one national society based upon some common denominator (and dominator). In the East, the nation existed before the state, and it brought the state into being largely in the course of one century, the nineteenth. This meant that the state was the creature of one newly-national ethnic community. The Western conception of nationality is civic--defined by legal status and citizenship conferred by the state. The Eastern conception of nationality is ethnic--defined by genealogical history and membership inherited at birth.

Since in the East the nation that created the state was a particular ethnic community, the state was created in the image of that ethnic group. Any state would fit very well the particular community which created it (as interwar Yugoslavia fit the Serbs and interwar Czechoslovakia fit the Czechs), but it would fit very imperfectly some other ethnic community that happened to be contained with the state (e.g. the Croats and the Slovenes in Yugoslavia and the Slovaks and the Germans in Czechoslovakia).

These Eastern conceptions of nations and nationalism did not just characterize the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the region, however. They are present there even today. Indeed, they have reappeared with particular strength in the ruins of communist internationalism.

Pfaff knows and shows that nationalism has always been in tension with internationalism. His book is as much a review of the various--and now failed--internationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it is of the various--and now resurgent--nationalisms.

Two of these were what Pfaff calls Habsburg internationalism and Ottoman internationalism. Although the conflict between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans was the central reality of Central and Eastern Europe for almost five centuries, these two great multinational empires had much in common. Their long decline in the nineteenth century and their final collapse in the First World War brought into being more than a dozen new states to correspond to the multiplicity of nations that had recently developed within the empires and that had made them truly multinational.

Almost all of these new states claimed to be genuine nation-states, like those of Western Europe. In fact, almost all were as multinational as the empires that they replaced (most obviously, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Iraq). Indeed, the only true nation-states to emerge from the ruins of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were those of the once-dominant and central but now-defeated and truncated nations of the old empires--Austria, Hungary, and Turkey. By the cunning of history (as well as the hypocrisy of Woodrow Wilson), it turned out that the only true examples of self-determination were the victims of it, while the beneficiaries of self-determination were the violators of it.

Pfaff also presents a review of the two great internationalisms of the mid-twentieth century, communism and Nazism. His account of the temporary strengths and ultimate weaknesses of communism is sound and convincing but familiar and conventional, all the more so given the events since 1989. His account of Nazism is rather more controversial. National Socialism was actually neither nationalist or socialist, but rather was another great and terrible internationalism. Pfaff reminds us that for a brief-but-intense moment (say 1938-1943) Nazism captured the imagination of many young Europeans, who were tired of the petty politics of the weak states of their small nations and who were seeking a distinctively European (and un-Soviet and un-American) way to go beyond the nation-state.

Liberal Internationalism

In his most sober and somber chapter, Pfaff presents an account of the dominant internationalism of our own half-century (the American half-century)--liberal internationalism. During the Cold War and probably because of it, liberal internationalism produced two great achievements. One was the European Community. The other was a broader "commonwealth of democratic states," composed of a series of functional international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, the GATT, the OECD, NATO, and other institutions as well.
These international institutions were highly successful in meeting the challenges of the Cold War era. They have been disappointing failures, however, in meeting those of the post-Cold War era. The European Community in particular has failed to address the problems of the ex-communist and newly independent states of Eastern Europe.

The European Community, in Pfaff's view, is really a creation of Western Europe. It has become evident that it cannot deal with the problems of Eastern Europe or even of Central Europe. The Community's reluctance to open its markets to the cheap products of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (nations which are European by any definition) is in some ways the most revealing result of the narrow vision of the Western nations. But the Community's inability to bring an end to the Yugoslav civil war is clearly the most disastrous result of the failure of the Western institutions. Much of Pfaff's chapter on liberal internationalism is actually an elegy on the war in Yugoslavia.

The war in Yugoslavia has represented a return of the repressed. Milosevic's Serbia is a state that combines an old communist structure with an even older nationalist content. It is the return, after fifty years, of totalitarian nationalism, indeed of national socialism (albeit in the lower, rather than the upper, case). In carrying out its nationalist project of Greater Serbia, it has accordingly recreated the horrors that occurred during the Second World War, not only in Central Europe but in Yugoslavia itself.

In dealing with this second coming of the Second World War, the European Community and the United Nations--the two leading liberal internationalist institutions--have been worse than impotent. They have provided a political cover of diplomatic negotiations and "humanitarian aid" in order to hide a continuing reality of hunger and horror.
Pfaff shows that in the Yugoslav war each of the European powers acted in the spirit of its earlier, pre-World War II diplomatic traditions. Germany supported Croatia and Slovenia (while largely writing-off Bosnia). France and Britain, conversely, accommodated Serbia (while also writing off Bosnia). Together, the European powers stalemated each other and thus stalemated the European Community (which in this first truly-European security challenge revealed that it was no community at all). In so doing, they also prolonged the war. As for the United States, it too was about as feckless and vacillating as it was before the Second World War. Its oscillating policies alternatively encouraged the Bosnian Muslims or the Bosnian Serbs to continue fighting. In doing so, it also prolonged the war. Pfaff concludes his account of liberal internationalism's record in the Yugoslav war with the judgment that it represents a "moral debacle" of historic proportions.

The energizing hope, but also the fatal flaw, of liberal internationalism is its conception of the human condition. Liberal internationalism believes that there is a progressive movement toward the elimination of primordial and communal ties and their replacement with rational and contractual exchanges. For much of the past half-century, with the United States assuming the burden of leadership of liberal internationalist institutions, this progressive movement seemed to be a self-evident reality, even a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the very success of liberal internationalism in defeating its communist internationalist adversary has provided the opportunity, even the necessity, for the resurrection of its communal nationalist adversary, or rather of many communal nationalist adversaries.

The first of these has been Serbia, which lies on the other side of the great frontier between Eastern Europe and Central Europe, a frontier that corresponds to the great schism between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism or even between the Greek and the Latin halves of the Roman empire. This frontier provides the basis for one of those "clashes of civilization," of which Samuel Huntington has recently written. But of course there are even larger nations on the other side of that frontier, who are likely candidates to develop or redevelop communal nationalisms of their own, i.e., Romania, Ukraine, and, of course most significantly, Russia.

The "wrath of nations" is thus one way to define the central feature of the next era of what will be the post-post-Cold War era and what must eventually have a defining name of its own. It clearly seems that it will be the central feature of that vast realm stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia and from the Baltics to the Balkans, which is strewn with the ruins of European communism and which is still awkwardly termed the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

Yet as Pfaff's analysis moves on to other regions and continents, it becomes less compelling and more prosaic. This is because it is not the wrath of nations that we really notice when we turn our attention to these other regions.

The Weakness of Nations

Consider, for example, the first and feckless year of the Clinton administration. Its foreign policy debacles were summed up in the trilogy of Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. The first, it is true, represented the wrath of nations. The second and the third, however, represented something quite different, even the opposite. It is not the wrath of nations but the weakness of nations that characterizes Africa, Latin America, and also much of the Middle East and South Asia. It is not nationalism but mere anarchy that is loosed upon much of the former Third World.

The idea of the nation has never fit the reality of most of the world outside of Europe. The Western European concept of the nation underwent an awesome and often awful mutation when it arrived in Eastern Europe, but at least there were national realities and real nations created there. When the concept of the nation arrived in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, however, it had almost no reality at all, but merely a brief period of excited rhetoric (Nassar and Arab nationalism; Peron and Argentine nationalism; Nkrumah and African nationalism), and that period came to an end more than a generation ago. The golden age, such as it was, of nationalism in these regions (the former Third World) has come and gone.

There is indeed wrath in the Middle East, and it is indeed primordial and communal. But it is the wrath not of nationalism but of Islamic fundamentalism. (A better term is Islamism, which better connotes its synthesis of theology and ideology, of tradition and innovation.) There is wrath in South Asia, and it too is primordial and communal. But it is the wrath not of nationalism but of religious communities (of communalism in the most literal sense). There is wrath in Africa, and it too is primordial and communal. But it is not nationalism but tribalism (or, as in Somalia, subtribalism). And there is wrath in Latin America, and it too is primordial (but less frequently communal). But it is not nationalism but something like nihilism.

As for East Asia, it seems to be not the wrath of nations but (as in the title of a recent book by Robert Reich) the work of nations that is the central feature of the region and also the most significant challenge to the United States.
The Return of the Eastern Question

The wrath of nations, then, is a central feature of the new era. It is not, however, a universal or even general one. It is a reality largely confined to that region where it was a reality a century ago, i.e., Eastern Europe, and when it was known as "the Eastern Question." At one level the Eastern question was about the role that the competing great powers would play in the region. At a more fundamental level, however, it was about the nature of the local states that would develop there.

The basic problem in Eastern Europe has always been a Western concept that did not fit an Eastern reality well enough to turn the East into the West, but that did fit it well enough to tempt the East to create its own version of the West. The combination of Western ideology (rooted in the Enlightenment) and Eastern ethnicity (rooted in Orthodox Christianity) produced a distinctive Eastern kind of nationality, and "a terrible beauty was born."

In the more than a century since it was first posed, there has been no final solution to the Eastern question, and so, when the question has been posed again in the past four years, there is again no obvious solution. There have been, however, three historical (and hysterical) answers.

The Eastern Question was first raised at the end of the nineteenth century by the exhaustion and failure of the original answers--the Habsburg and the Ottoman multinational empires or internationalisms.

The first of the new answers of the twentieth century was given at the end of the First World War. This was said to be the self-determination of nations. But in the checkerboard of Eastern European nationalities, it was impossible to really line-up the self part (the nation) with the determinational part (the state) to fit the Western synthesis and ideal (the nation-state). The result, as we have seen, was not a series of nation states but rather a series of new, albeit smaller, multinational empires, which were known as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania. This was not self-determination, but merely determined self-assertion.

The second answer of the twentieth century was given at the end of the Second World War. The Soviet Army became "the great simplifier" of the Eastern European checkerboard. Ten million people (principally Germans) were driven westward out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Poland and Czechoslovakia were themselves moved westward out of Ukrainian-populated territories. Sometimes called "an exchange of populations," this was really ethnic cleansing on a colossal scale, but no one in the West complained about it then. The result was a sort of final solution to the Polish question (Poland became a state composed almost exclusively of Poles rather than one including Germans and Ukrainians as well). There was also a demi-solution to the Czechoslovak question (Czechoslovakia became a state composed only of Czechs and Slovaks rather than one including Germans and Ukrainians as well). It was this wrathful and terrible answer in the aftermath of the Second World War that established the ethnic conditions that, fifty years later, permitted a peaceful approach to the national questions in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Cold War.

In Balkan Europe and in the Soviet Union, however, the ethnic outcome of the Second World War was different. There was plenty of ethnic carnage in these areas in 1945, but it did not reach the point of complete ethnic cleansing. Hungarian and even German minorities remained in Romania. Yugoslavia was resurrected as a multinational state much like it was before the war. And of course the Soviet Union become an even greater multinational empire, and prisonhouse of nations, than before.

The third answer of the twentieth century to the Eastern question was thus provided at the beginning of the Cold War. This was the communist version of the original Habsburg and Ottoman answers. The Soviet, Yugoslav, and Romanian communist parties served much the same function as the Habsburg and Ottoman dynasties, but being faced with nationalities that were more organized and articulate than their ethnic predecessors, they too had to be more organized and more brutal than their dynastic predecessors. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Romania were prisonhouses of nations, not just multinational empires. For many years, they managed to keep their subject peoples contained, to prevent both a jail-break out of the prison or a prison riot among the inmates.

The twentieth century thus has given three answers to the Eastern question: (1) self-determination of nations, which is really the determined self-assertion of one nation over others (e.g., Greater Serbia); (2) exchange of populations, which is really ethnic cleansing (e.g., Bosnia); and (3) communist internationalism, which is really the highest stage of multinational empire (e.g., Tito's Yugoslavia). It is not surprising that, with the failure of the third answer, we should see the reassertion of the first and the second.

These three outcomes can also be seen as respectively the Western, the local, and the Eastern answers to the Eastern question.

The Western answer to the Eastern question has always been some version of liberal internationalism. But liberalism fails where people define themselves in communal, rather than individual, terms. Internationalism fails where every nation has a memory of domination by neighboring ones. It also fails when the leading liberal internationalist powers do not have the national interest and national will to impose order among the quarreling nations. One can see this failure as a moral debacle, as Pfaff does in the Yugoslav case. But, as much of Pfaff's own analysis suggests, once can also see it as the inherent insufficiency of the Western answer to the Eastern question.

The Eastern answer to the Eastern question has always been some version of multinational empire. At times, this answer has been relatively crude, as with the Ottomans and with the Soviets. At times, it has been relatively civilized, as with the Habsburgs and with the later years of the Tito regime. Multinational empires have been far more successful in answering the Eastern question than has liberal internationalism, i.e., the Eastern answer to the Eastern question makes far more sense than the Western one. But eventually the multinational empires also fail, as they also lose the interest and will to impose order.

The local answer to the Eastern question has always been some version of ethnic cleansing, i.e., killing, raping, or torturing enough of your neighbors so that the others will run away and never return. Years may pass when no one is asserting the local answer, but that is only because the Eastern answer is being asserted with conviction, or at least with firmness. When the Eastern answer falls silent (and the Western answer has not even been heard), the moment for the local answer has arrived. It is then spoken loudly, and it is heard clearly. And, as the terrible history of Eastern Europe has demonstrated and as the future of Bosnia will demonstrate again, for its own particular locality, the local answer does indeed provide the final solution to the Eastern question.

Essay Types: Book Review