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.