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.

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.