When Nationalism Strikes Back

October 17, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Tags: IraqHistoryEuropeNationalismGeography

When Nationalism Strikes Back

Far from being an outmoded relic of the past, nationalism is flourishing.

WHEN THE Cold War ended a generation ago, much of the Western foreign-policy elite asserted that nationalism was in decline. Old-fashioned national liberation movements were increasingly irrelevant; in a world with a single global economy, it didn’t really matter where borders were drawn. And if every country was going to be a liberal, individualistic democracy, whether the country’s population was dominated by a single ethnicity or made up of many different ethnic groups would not matter. The nation-state might not vanish entirely, but it would be largely dissolved by the two acids of economic globalism and liberal individualism. “Ever closer union” was expected to be the trend, not only in the European Union, but also in the world.

Since then, however, a series of events have disrupted this complacent liberal narrative of progress. For one thing, a populist revolt is taking place in Europe; the most vivid example is Brexit. Dismissed as a pipe dream by much of the British establishment, the impulse to sever ties with the EU turned into reality with the referendum in June. Nationalism is making something of a comeback in France and Germany, where the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and an upsurge in terrorist actions, mainly inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS), have created a backlash against large-scale immigration. At the same time, the United States has not been immune from a return to nationalism. The rise of Donald Trump, and apprehensions about immigration and free trade, signify that the old order is crumbling.

For all its vitality, the renewed centrality of nationalism in world politics has taken much of the Western foreign-policy elite by surprise. What the elite thought was the central question in world politics—how to govern—turns out to be a secondary question, which can be answered only after two preliminary questions have been settled. Who are we? And what should be the borders of our territory?


CONSIDER THIS example. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the attention of the international community was riveted on a conflict-riven multinational state threatened with dissolution by ethnoregional strife. The U.S. government, fearing the loss of strategic military bases following partition, urged the country’s bickering nationalities to maintain the unity of their state. To avoid collapse, many argued for patching together the multinational state with new forms of federalism, transferring power from the central government to more autonomous regional communities.

Iraq? No, the United Kingdom. As it happens, a majority of Scots who took part in the September 2014 independence referendum voted “No.” But the seemingly misnamed United Kingdom is not the only multinational state whose borders are in question.

In the Soviet successor state of Ukraine, ethnic conflict has deepened into Cold War–style proxy war, with Russia backing Russian-speaking separatists against Kiev’s Western-leaning government. The Ukraine conflict comes on the heels of Russia’s intervention in Georgia on behalf of the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.

In the Middle East, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq inadvertently triggered the dissolution of that artificial multinational state into de facto ethnic nation-states: Shia, Sunni and Kurdish. Syria, another entity created by Britain and France after World War I, like Iraq no longer exists as a functioning, sovereign state. ISIS pretends to be a new caliphate, but some speculate that it might be a nascent nation-state, “Sunnistan,” consisting of the Sunni-majority portions of Iraq and Syria, made more homogeneous by mass murder and ethnic cleansing.

The U.S. and NATO intervention that deposed Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi was a similar bloody debacle. Libya, an artificial state created by European colonialists à la Iraq and Syria, has fragmented along ethnic and regional lines.


This recent history suggests a paradox. On the one hand, America’s ill-considered wars of regime change have inadvertently accelerated the dissolution of former multinational states into more ethnically homogenous de facto nation-states. On the other hand, the U.S. foreign-policy elite has tended reflexively to oppose the partition of failed multinational states and the redrawing of borders along the lines of linguistic and cultural nationality.

To some degree, American opposition to the redrawing of formal borders is a Cold War hangover. Wars of national liberation from European empires sometimes turned into Soviet-American proxy wars, as in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s following the belated dissolution of the Portuguese Empire. And some of the greatest crises of the Cold War involved ethnocultural nations divided by artificial borders into Communist and non-Communist states: the Berlin crises, the Taiwan crises, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.


While great-power confrontation is still a possibility in some national conflicts, as in Ukraine, in much of the world the voluntary or violent redrawing of borders no longer threatens to escalate. That fact explains why borders have been redrawn so often and so dramatically since the Cold War ended.

Since 1990, more than thirty new countries have been recognized as sovereign states by the international community, most recently South Sudan. Of these, fifteen are successor states to the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Yugoslavia dissolved into seven successor states: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro (which broke off from Serbia in 2006) and Kosovo (which seceded from Serbia in 2008). The “Velvet Divorce” divided Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Outside of Europe and Asia, Namibia won its independence from South Africa in 1990. Three former U.S. trust territories in the Pacific won United Nations recognition: the Marshall Islands (1991), Micronesia (1991) and Palau (1994). Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, and East Timor finally became independent in 2002.

The geopolitical map has also been altered by national reunifications as well as national secessions. In 1990, East Germany became part of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the same year, North and South Yemen merged to form a single country.

While the dissolution of multinational states can create local violence, as it did in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the concern that a nationalist independence conflict could be the next Sarajevo and set off another world war is increasingly implausible. Even the deepening tensions between the United States and Russia in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific, reflect traditional great-power jockeying for spheres of influence, not struggles for global supremacy.


THERE REMAINS another argument against formal partition of failed multinational states, which briefly became fashionable among transatlantic elites in the 1990s. This argument claims that in an era of globalization, national independence is not so much dangerous as obsolete, thanks to the erosion of borders by global financial and production networks and immigration.

Two stock-market crashes and a global near-depression later, the idea that nation-states are dissolving and will be replaced by a seamless web of global commerce looks much less attractive. But this vision was never plausible to begin with.

Globalization is overstated. Only 3 percent of people in the world live in a country other than the one in which they were born. Increased levels of immigration to the United States, Canada and Europe have produced a political backlash that is reshaping party politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Some transnational supply chains are truly global, but some industries remain highly regionalized, and successful global corporations tend to be deeply rooted in one or another nation-state—chiefly the United States, Japan and Germany. Liberalization and globalization have proceeded the furthest in the area of finance. The result has been disastrous contagion, in the Asian financial crisis and the Great Recession and its aftershocks, including the Greek financial crisis.

Only a decade or so ago, some were holding up the EU as a model of a pluralistic, postnational future world order. The rise of Euroskepticism among national populists on both the left and the right, and the bitter struggles among debtor nations like Greece and lender nations like Germany, suggest that postnationalism is a mirage, in Europe as well as in the rest of the world. Scotland may yet secede from Britain, and Britons are on track to Brexit from the EU.

Far from being an outmoded relic of the past, nationalism is flourishing. It is the nonnational state that is an increasingly endangered species.

The reason is simple. The spread of democracy, beginning with the American and French revolutions in the eighteenth century, has been accompanied by the spread of nationalism. Democracy is based on popular sovereignty, the self-government of the demos, the people. But how is “the people” defined? By historic political boundaries? Or by shared characteristics—a common language, a common culture, common descent?

In Latin America, which acquired its independence from European colonial empires in the early nineteenth century, the successor states tended to be created from former Spanish and Portuguese provinces with inherited, more or less arbitrary territorial borders. Some of these ex-colonies—in which an elite of European descent frequently dominated Indian, mestizo or black lower classes—have been hierarchical caste societies lacking in a strong sense of national identity to this day.

In Europe, however, ethnic nationalism provided the most influential answer to the question “who is the people?” The peoples of Europe were the major ethnic populations, which tended to be concentrated in particular historic homelands: the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, the Czechs and others. To be sure, there were two European nationalities without a homeland: Jews and Roma. There was also a substantial ethnic-German diaspora in eastern Europe and Russia. But in the nineteenth century it was easy to imagine a map of a Europe of nation-states.

Writing on Europe, its Conditions and Prospects in 1852, Guiseppe Mazzini contrasted the official map of Europe, established by dynastic monarchies following the Napoleonic wars, with “thirteen or fourteen [national] groups, now dismembered into fifty divisions, almost all weak and powerless.” Mazzini called for arbitrary borders agreed upon by royal dynasties to be replaced by borders based on nationality. Germany and Italy should be unified, while Poland—which had been partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria—should be restored as a nation-state.

The dynastic empires survived the “springtime of nations” during the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But in hindsight, the period between 1848 and 1919 appears to have been a prolonged holding action by reactionary monarchies. European nobles were struggling to protect their dynasties and stem the tide of global trends toward nationalism. Between 1914 and 1991, the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires were replaced by nation-states (considerably more than the dozen or so countries predicted by Mazzini, who expected a unified Iberia and a unified Scandinavia).

National self-determination was a goal shared by many Europeans for generations before the phrase became associated with President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. Wilson viewed national self-determination as the logical corollary of democracy, insisting that

no peace can last, or ought to last, which does not recognize and accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property.

Later, in defending the League of Nations, Wilson emphasized that

every land belonged to the native stock that lived in it, and that nobody had the right to dictate either the form of government or the control of territory to those people who were born and bred and had their lives and happiness to make there.

On January 8, 1918, following U.S. entry into World War I, President Wilson laid out American war aims. His Fourteen Points included “a readjustment of the frontiers of Italy . . . along clearly recognizable lines of nationality” (IX); “the freest opportunity to autonomous development” for “the peoples of Austria-Hungary” (X); “the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality” (XI); “autonomous development” for “the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule,” combined with the “secure sovereignty” of Turkey (XII). In addition, “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations” (XIII).

It is often forgotten that on January 5, 1918, only days before Wilson’s Fourteen Points address, Prime Minister David Lloyd George included similar support for self-determination for a number of nations. In his speech on British war aims, he proposed ethnic federalism or independence. A sovereign Poland should be restored. “We believe, however, that an independent Poland comprising all those genuinely Polish elements who desire to form part of it, is an urgent necessity for the stability of Western Europe.” Lloyd George, like Wilson, called for converting Austria-Hungary into a federation of ethnonational states and favored the effective breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

While we do not challenge the maintenance of the Turkish Empire in the homelands of the Turkish race with its capital at Constantinople, the passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea being internationalized and neutralized, Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine are in our judgment entitled to a recognition of their separate national conditions. What the exact form of that recognition in each particular case should be need not here be discussed, beyond stating that it would be impossible to restore to their former sovereignty the territories to which I have already referred.

In the case of former German colonies, Lloyd George insisted that aboriginal groups should be self-governing.

The natives live in their various tribal organizations under chiefs and councils who are competent to consult and speak for their tribes and members and thus to represent their wishes and interests in regard to their disposal. The general principle of national self-determination is, therefore, as applicable in their cases as in those of occupied European territories.

The British did not show a similar solicitude toward the natives of their own colonial empire and League of Nations mandates. Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour observed, “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are.”

Unfortunately, after the war, Britain and France shared this kind of indifference to the “wishes of the present inhabitants.” They partitioned the Ottoman Empire into artificial countries by means of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and other measures. The present crisis in the Middle East represents, among other things, the dissolution of the arbitrary system of borders imposed on the region following World War I. Iraq was administered by the British Empire as Mandatory Iraq until it became the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932. In addition to creating a state including Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, the British imposed a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq, which was overthrown in 1958.


AMERICANS HAVE particular difficulty understanding the kind of ethnic nationalism that drives struggles for self-determination around the world. For one thing, the United States, like the other settler states of the Western Hemisphere, is a country whose borders were filled up by voluntary immigrants, with the exception of Native Americans and black slaves. In most of the world, the country was imposed on the people, by foreign imperialists or postcolonial successor elites.

Other factors also make it difficult for Americans to understand national self-determination. Many Americans believe that their country is a “civic nation,” a purely political entity with no cultural contact, made up of citizens who share nothing other than reverence for the liberal and democratic ideals of the American Revolution. Foreign observers understand that this captures only part of the truth. A dominant language, English, and a minimal set of shared customs and attitudes—to which most immigrant families assimilate over time—reinforces the American creed and holds the country together.

But even if all people share liberal democratic ideals, questions about borders and identity remain. Czechs and Slovaks did not divide Czechoslovakia between them because one or both rejected democracy. Most Czechs wanted democracy in a Czech republic while most Slovaks wanted democracy in a state their group would control.

The American experience of ethnic pluralism also makes it difficult for Americans to think about the nationalism of others. If Irish Americans and African Americans can get along in Boston, why can’t people of different ethnic groups get along in Yugoslavia or Iraq? Let us set aside the point that relations among Irish Americans and African Americans in Boston have been far from harmonious. American ethnic pluralism tends to be eroded by cultural blending and intermarriage among the offspring of older settler pioneers and more recent immigrant diasporas. The once-powerful European American subcultures like those of the Germans and the Italians have faded over time. Latino and Asian immigrants are following the same pattern, losing their native tongue and marrying outside of their group in the second and third generations. Contrary to a popular myth, the American melting pot has not been replaced by a salad bowl, in which the ingredients remain distinct.

Racism, and particularly antiblack racism, has been the greatest obstacle to melting-pot amalgamation in the United States. Combined with the fact that the South’s failed war of secession was motivated by the goal of preserving slavery and white supremacy, it is hardly surprising that ethnic secessionist movements are often perceived as reactionary or racist. Taken to an extreme, this equating of nationalism with racism makes it illegitimate not only to form new nation-states but also to control immigration to existing ones. “The border line is the new color line” is a motto found on the further extremes of the Left in both the United States and Europe.

In light of U.S. history, it makes sense that many Americans would look at the struggles of Sunnis and Shia in the wreckage of Iraq and Syria, or black Christians and Arab Muslims in the ruins of Sudan, and wonder: Why can’t they just all get along together like us? This kind of parochialism would have few consequences, if the United States were still an isolationist Western nation. But it is dangerous when a superpower’s leaders and people fail to understand the strength of nationalist sentiments, even as its armies wage wars of regime change and shatter one multinational state after another.

President George W. Bush hoped to establish a flourishing multiethnic democracy in Iraq by overthrowing Saddam Hussein; instead, the colonial contraption, formerly held together by monarchy and dictatorship, has disintegrated along ethnic lines. Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed de facto independence since the Gulf War of 1991. At times, much of the Sunni-majority area of Iraq has been part of the Islamic State, which has incorporated much of Syria’s Sunni territory, another European colonial creation.

ISIS, which combines revolutionary terror with apocalyptic theology, cannot be incorporated into a global state system whose very legitimacy it rejects. But most revolutions either end in counterrevolution or in mellowing. Whether ISIS is overthrown or burns out, a future decision to recognize a nonradical Sunni majority state in its region, should one emerge, might make more sense than trying to reassemble the shattered European-created states of Iraq and Syria. Similar considerations are relevant in the case of the state formerly known as Libya.

As of this writing, the U.S. government is officially encouraging the restoration of both Iraq and Syria to their preconflict borders, as multiethnic states with liberal democracy and multiparty political systems. Public criticism that this project is almost certainly doomed and utopian is discouraged. In 2006, then Sen. Joe Biden and Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, were widely criticized for proposing ethnic federalism in Iraq—a step well short of partition.

Then in August 2015, in his final news conference, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, acknowledged that in the future “Iraq might not look like it did in the past.” Asked about partition, he said,

I think that is for the region and politicians to figure out, diplomats to figure out how we want to work this, but that is something that could happen. It might be the only solution but I’m not ready to say that yet.

One headline read “U.S. Army Gen. Odierno Retires amid Controversy over Iraq Remarks.”

Writing over a year ago in Vox, journalist Max Fisher denounced the idea of formally partitioning Iraq. Sounding like an arrogant European colonial administrator of a century ago, Fisher argues that Iraq should not be partitioned along sectarian lines even if most of its inhabitants want it to be. “The fact that Iraqis want this does not make it any wiser or sounder.”

What is the alternative? According to Fisher,

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

Fisher concludes, “That is a tremendous political and military challenge that will take years or decades.” But to judge by the congressional election of 2006 and the presidential election of 2008, which were among other things referendums on Bush’s Iraq policy, the American people do not think that a decades-long commitment to nation building in the Middle East is worth the blood and treasure it has already cost.

In any event, like the failed seventy-year project in Moscow to create a “New Soviet Man,” replacing Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Azeris and others, the project of creating a postethnic, nonsectarian “New Iraqi Individual” is a fantasy.

More than four thousand U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq, while more than two thousand American soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2003. How many more Americans should die for the Sykes-Picot borders or the Durand Line?

If Middle Eastern borders created by long-dead European colonial administrators are allowed to unravel, where will the process end? The result may resemble the map of the Middle East imagined by the U.S. military expert Lt. Col. (ret.) Ralph Peters in an essay entitled “Blood Borders” in the Armed Forces Journal in 2006. Among other things, Peters envisioned the partition of Iraq into a Shia state, a Sunni state and a “Free Kurdistan,” as well as the creation of a “Free Baluchistan” from parts of present-day Afghanistan and Iran. Around the world, conspiracy theorists interpreted the map as a secret plan by the U.S. government to redraw the borders of the region.

In 2013, in the New York Times, Robin Wright engaged in a similar exercise, this time envisioning a “Sunnistan” stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq, along with three successor states to Libya: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. Wright’s map also featured the division of the Arabian peninsula into “Wahhabistan,” North Arabia, South Arabia, Eastern Arabia, Western Arabia, North Yemen and South Yemen.

Like Mazzini’s vision of a postimperial Europe of nation-states, exercises like these will inevitably get details wrong. But the larger point is that Mazzini was broadly right about what Europe would look like. Will the map of the Middle East in 2050 or 2100 look more like those of Peters and Wright than the map of today?

Outside of the Middle East, Africa is the area with the greatest mismatch between nationalities and the borders drawn by European colonial administrators generations ago. A subtle form of racism is evident in the use of the term “tribes” for linguistic and cultural communities outside of Europe, some of which have far more people than many European nations.

The economists Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou recently published a study on the correlation between ethnic violence in Africa and the legacy of borders drawn by European powers beginning with the nineteenth-century “Scramble for Africa.” They discovered that conflict likelihood is 8 percent higher and conflict intensity 40 percent higher in places where borders divide members of the same ethnic group than in countries that are ethnic homelands. Moreover, the study continues, “The within-country analysis shows that partitioned ethnicities are significantly more likely (11 percent–14 percent increased likelihood) to engage in civil wars that have an explicit ethnic dimension.”

Writing in 2010 in Foreign Policy, in an essay entitled “Africa Needs a New Map,” G. Pascal Zachary effectively rebutted those who argue that ethnic conflicts that now take place within arbitrary multinational states would simply continue as wars among partitioned nation-states.

Of course, splicing up Africa’s countries is no panacea for the continent’s woes. You might argue, for example, that conflicts would not be stopped at all; they would just go from being civil wars to interstate conflict between two divorced neighbors. That may well happen, and of course no conflict is good news. But the international community has much stronger deterrents for such country-to-country spats than internal civil war. And new states would likely be reluctant to incur the repercussions of diplomatic and economic isolation.


AS A to foreign policy, the “Pottery Barn Rule” was enunciated by former secretary of state Colin Powell, as a caution to bear in mind the consequences of wars of regime change. “You break it, you own it.” To the Pottery Barn Rule might be added the Humpty Dumpty Rule: if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again, then maybe the king shouldn’t bother trying. There are human and economic costs even to bloodless partitions, like the Velvet Divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Nor need national self-determination always take the form of national independence. In some cases, ethnic federalism, or ethnic power-sharing—“consociational democracy”—can reconcile overarching unity with a high degree of autonomy for ethnocultural communities. Switzerland, a successful multiethnic state, employs both kinds of arrangements. As we have seen, both Wilson and Lloyd George suggested Balkan power-sharing arrangements as an alternative to the “Balkanization” of the Habsburg Empire which eventually took place.

But when a multinational state like Iraq or Cyprus has broken down into war, when de facto borders have been established and when, in some cases, population transfers have taken place voluntarily or by ethnic cleansing, it is worth asking how much value the United States and the international community should put on restoring lines drawn on a map long ago by European imperial officials.

While the process has sometimes been tragically violent, the formation of new nation-states—either from the partition of former multinational states, or the unification of “multi-state nations” like West and East Germany—has been the necessary outcome of democratic self-determination. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his 1861 Considerations on Representative Government, “One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do if not to determine with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves.” Washington has no business encouraging the breakup of functioning multinational states into new nation-states. But neither should America, born of secession from a multinational empire, reflexively reject that option for other nations that seek to assume a “separate and equal station” among “the powers of the earth.”

Michael Lind is a cofounder of New America, a contributing editor at the National Interest and author of The American Way of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Image: Danish soldiers return to Copenhagen, 1849. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain