Commentary Magazine

Is Nationalism the Wave of the Future?

We might as well be honest at the outset: foreign-policy problems have a kind of intractable and uninteresting quality about them today, sharply contrasting with the nature of foreign-policy debate during the cold-war era. Gone are the days when we could endlessly contend over “the fate of the earth,” arguing passionately about abstruse questions of nuclear theology and balancing monumental questions of right and wrong, human survival and annihilation.

Today we worry about a series of difficult and ugly conflicts where—with a few notable exceptions—not very much is at stake in a global sense and not much can be done to solve the problem. Nothing is going to happen in Bosnia, Haiti, or Rwanda—as humanly painful as events may be there—to harm the vital interests of the United States (though Haitian instabilities may bring more refugees to our shores). Even crises that could genuinely upset the global order or involve us in a war—say, a potential conflagration between Russia and Ukraine in the first instance, or an escalation of the challenge from nuclear-ambitious North Korea in the second—do not yield to clear-cut answers.

The Soviet Union may have posed a bigger problem than we face at present, but, as has occasionally been observed, it was an easier and more engaging one from an intellectual point of view. Nuclear deterrence during the cold war had about it a kind of rationality and comforting sophistication. One felt, perhaps not always accurately, that one was dealing with a rational, intelligent, serious, and self-interested opponent, who would respond fairly predictably to certain clearly defined gestures or acts (even though we may have disagreed sharply among ourselves in prescribing policies and predicting responses). Today, whether one is talking about Bosnia or North Korea, we seem to be dealing with a bunch of bloodthirsty lunatics, irrational actors who would not understand their real self-interest even if one painted pictures for them. International conflict today provides a kind of living gloss on Hannah Arendt’s famous observation about the “banality” of evil.

Still, there remains a desire, and perhaps a need, to make sense of the world beyond our shores and to find general concepts and policy guidelines—reminiscent of “Communism” and “containment”—that will help us to respond practically to the range of challenges posed by post-cold-war conflicts. Perhaps the clearest candidate for a general label to describe the new kinds of problems we face in the international sphere is “nationalism”—a catchall term to describe the various manifestations of national, ethnic, religious, and tribal conflict and violence we see surfacing in so many corners of the globe. In recent books, Michael Ignatieff and William Pfaff have tried to make the subject of contemporary “nationalism” interesting—no mean task. Gidon Gottlieb has gone them one further—daringly proposing concrete policy suggestions for dealing with the problem. While none of the books quite succeeds in achieving its ambitions, all offer insights into the messy nature of the conflicts we now see roiling in the international realm.1



The best of the three books—if only because it offers the most in the way of actual reportage—is Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging. Written as a companion volume for a BBC series of the same title recently shown on American public television, it recounts Ignatieff’s firsthand impressions of nationalist conflicts and movements in ex-Yugoslavia, Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. It reads as a kind of analytical travelogue, interweaving conversation and description with astute observations about both particular situations and the larger picture.

Ignatieff is a candid and fair reporter, and I am delighted to say that his impressions of the two situations I have seen firsthand—ex-Yugoslavia and Ukraine—pretty much accord with my own. He is a subtle writer and a good stylist, and for those who have a professional or personal interest in these matters, this is a book worth looking at—I would recommend especially the chapters on Quebec and Northern Ireland—even if the narrative can seem tedious at times, mostly, I suppose, because the subject itself—the “nationalists”—can by nature be a bit tedious.

And that, in a sense, is the paradox, the mystery, of the post-cold-war, post-modern era: the side-by-side existence of a new level of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment, on the one hand, with the most primitive, atavistic, and stupid kinds of ethnic separatist feeling, on the other. As Ignatieff rightly points out, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most of us expected, if not precisely “the end of history,” then at least a steady march of democratic institutions and cosmopolitan sentiments across the globe. And in reality, some of this occurred: witness, for example, the dramatic and daring internationalization of West European life embodied in the Maastricht treaty. Yet at the same time, we find ourselves today confronted with a curious assortment of fanatical Serbs and Croats, East and West European skinheads, and strange secessionist movements threatening, it sometimes seems, to transform the entire map of the globe into a crazy-quilt of weird separatist ministates.

Especially for those of us imbued with the inherently urbane sensibility of the modern democratic citizen, these fanatical nationalists and their violent propensities are not so easy to understand. Ignatieff stresses the cosmopolitan dimension of his own background and outlook. “Anyone,” he writes, “whose father was born in Russia, whose mother was born in England, whose education was in America, and whose working life has been spent in Canada, Great Britain, and France, cannot be expected to be much of an ethnic nationalist.” It is interesting to follow Ignatieff’s attempts to grasp, from his avowedly “cosmopolitan” perspective, the essentials of the ethnic fanatic’s more elemental outlook.

One key to the new ethnic violence, he points out—not so different, we might add, from the pervasive violence of our own urban neighborhoods—is the unruliness of young men freed from all civilized restraint. Ignatieff introduces us to the “new nationalism” by describing a close-run encounter with Serbian “irregulars,” a group of rude, bullying, drunk, gun-wielding, murderous, and plainly stupid young males. Everywhere throughout the world of ethnic and communal struggle, as he writes, one finds the pervasive figure of the “warlord” and his followers, young armed men, usually not terribly sophisticated or at all disciplined, men who have become, in the Hobbesian conditions of civil war, a law unto themselves.

Which brings us to a second key element of ethnic violence: weakened states. The “cosmopolitan” viewpoint, Ignatieff notes, actually depends paradoxically on the existence of a strong state which affords enough security to the individual so that he is free to feel tolerant toward his neighbor. When the state breaks down, anything goes. This was part of the problem, as he rightly points out, in disintegrating Yugoslavia. “Never say ethnic cleansing is just racial hatred run wild, just Balkan madness,” he writes, and he continues:

For there is a deep logic to it. By 1990, this part of Yugoslavia [he is apparently speaking of the so-called “Krajina” area] was a Hobbesian world. No one in these villages could be sure who would protect them. If they were Serbs and someone attacked them and they went to the Croatian police, would the Croats protect them? If they were Croats, in a Serbian village, could they be protected against a nighttime attack from a Serbian paramilitary team, usually led by former policemen?

Incidentally, Ignatieff manages to provide an evenhanded account of the Serb-Croat dispute without descending into moral equivalence: he clearly recognizes the greater fanaticism of the Serbs.

It is in the atmosphere of the weakened state, Ignatieff explains, that “belonging” and “blood” become more, even, than a primal source of identity—they become the basis of security itself. “Without a nation’s protection,” he notes, “everything that an individual values can be rendered worthless. Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost protection from violence.” One links up with the clan militia as a simple matter of survival.

But, of course, the most basic attraction of nationalism would seem to be the “sentimental” feeling of belonging at its core. “The nationalist claim,” writes Ignatieff, “is that full belonging, the warm sensation that people understand not merely what you say but what you mean, can come only when you are among your own people in your native land.” In some cases (e.g., the Serbs), Ignatieff finds this distasteful. In others (e.g., Kurdistan), his sympathies tend to lie with the dispossessed population.



The main question for us, however, is how widespread and important this phenomenon ultimately is. Is fanatical nationalism the wave of the future, the new international reality, “the key narrative of the new world order,” as Ignatieff so often suggests? Or is it rather a temporary atavism, a symptom of a specific transitional era, a problem that will inevitably dissipate as modernization continues in ex-Communist states, as well as in the third world?

I have some sympathy for Ignatieff’s desire to stress the overriding danger of nationalism. Indeed, I myself offered similar warnings about the dangers of nationalism and ethnic fragmentation in these pages a year ago (“The Age of Balkanization,” July 1993). But on reflection, I am more and more persuaded that Yugoslavia and other such situations constitute not so much a foreshadowing of the future as an unpleasant echo of the ugly past.

Interestingly, Ignatieff, despite his fears of nationalism, offers a good deal of evidence to support this alternative interpretation. Toward the end of the book, for example, referring to the fanatics in Northern Ireland, he quotes the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno: “Nationalism no longer quite believes itself.” He goes on to note the “bewildering insincerity and inauthenticity” that he found in nationalist rhetoric “everywhere I went.” It was, he says, “as if the people who mouthed nationalist slogans were aware, somewhere inside, of the implausibility of their own words.” “Nationalism,” he continues, “is a form of speech which shouts, not merely so that it will be heard, but so that it will believe itself.”

I think this is the case. Serb nationalists, Irish Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries, and others like them are occupying a fantasy realm—living out a kind of protracted and collective psycho-drama—that can survive only so long. Interestingly, even in Northern Ireland things are looking better in 1994 than in 1993, when Ignatieff appears to have completed the research for this book.

Increasingly, it seems to me, the crazy nationalists find themselves bucking a global trend—whether as manifested in European integration, the South African elections, or in the Middle East. None of these latter processes of integration and reconciliation can be expected to be entirely smooth. But in the modern global environment, the benefits of peace are so overwhelming when contrasted to the costs of conflict and war—look at the state of Serbia’s economy today—and the outside pressures for reconciliation so powerful, that it seems merely a matter of time before recalcitrant groups and nations yield to these forces and make their reconciliation with the larger global trend.

I realize, of course, that such sanguine predictions have been made before—most notably in Norman Angell’s famous book, The Great Illusion, at the beginning of this century—only to be spectacularly refuted by events. But this time wealth and power are so overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of governments committed to democracy and tolerance—and the global information culture provides such strong economic and emotional encouragement to integration—that it would seem the democratic impulse has achieved critical mass. In other words, after resisting the idea for some years, I believe Francis Fukuyama and others like him are right. We are indeed living through the “end of history.” It is just that the process may take some time.



If you want to hear the other side of the argument, you need look no further than William Pfaff’s The Wrath of Nations. Pfaff’s book is at once an analysis of the new nationalism and an argument for historical pessimism. Indeed, one almost senses that Pfaff’s interest in the many problems posed by nationalism derives from his a-priori commitment to historical pessimism. But that is perhaps being unfair.

Pfaff’s is a different kind of book from Ignatieff’s—no reportage, just erudition. It is the product of a learned man, sitting in his study, paging through the history books (when he does not simply remember the historical examples), building a powerful case that if you wish to understand the future, it is necessary to know the past.

He makes some valuable points. For example, he stresses the degree to which nationalism caused the collapse of Communism, which is at least partly true. But the remarkable thing about the “final revolution” in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was its comparative peacefulness, which Pfaff notices but fails really to explain. What Eastern Europe’s “Velvet Revolution” showed was that it was possible to integrate powerful nationalist feeling with a liberal democratic outlook and nonviolent methods of conflict resolution, which is precisely the key to what we might call the modern (or post-modern?) way of doing things.

Indeed, one is tempted to ask whether “nationalism” is the best word for the phenomenon at issue—especially when Pfaff tries to force an academically precise definition on the term. Like the textbooks, he points out that “nationalism” proper was a 19th-century invention (originating in the Germanic reaction to Napoleon’s universalistic imperialism). Thus he concedes that the two great “internationalist” movements of our century—Communism and Nazism—perpetrated crimes “much worse” than those committed by nationalism per se. But when he turns to describe American “nationalism”—which is admittedly quite a strong force, especially for a “nation” with no basis of ethnic unity—one wonders whether the analysis is not being artificially driven by the semantics. That is, does not the “nationalism” of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic have a good deal more in common with the so-called “internationalism” of a Stalin or a Hitler than with the “nationalism” of American crowds waving the star-spangled banner at the Olympic games?

The problem we are concerned with here is not textbook “nationalism” in all its myriad (and many benign) manifestations. The problem is, rather, the kind of irrational group-identity combined with group-hatred—call it “tribalism”—that results in arson, beatings, or all-out ethnic civil war. In a 1945 essay, George Orwell defined nationalism as, first, “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocs of millions or tens of millions of people can confidently be labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” and, second, “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interest.” Orwell’s definition of nationalism—which included such movements as Communism, Nazism, and even political Catholicism—seems more adequate.

In his time, Orwell believed that nationalism represented “a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on every subject.” That hardly seems to be true today, which is why one is inclined to believe that there has indeed been progress and to reject Pfaff’s doctrine of “tragic pessimism.” Whether, as Pfaff asserts, “the balance of good and evil in the world—of highmindedness and low-mindedness—is today much what it was in Neolithic times,” we cannot know. But things do look quite a bit better than they did in 1945, which is saying something.

We need to keep problems such as Yugoslavia in perspective—and I say this as one who has devoted a lot of time to advocating some kind of action in Yugoslavia. The war in ex-Yugoslavia is horrible, but it is not quite, as Pfaff suggests, “a contradiction of Europe’s progress and new order.” Despite the refugee flows, it has not really affected life very much in the rest of Europe. Nor is the present squabbling between the French and the Germans over such things as their shared TV station—will the arguing ever stop?—in any way comparable to the mutual grievances that drove Europe into war after war in which millions, cumulatively, perished.



This is not to say that the answers to the Yugoslavias, or for that matter the Kurdistans, are easy in any practical sense. Gidon Gottlieb makes a valiant attempt in Nation Against State to outline policies that might be applied to these messy conflicts. His major proposal is for new institutional mechanisms or, as he puts it, “additional concepts and a new vocabulary,” to give international legal status to “nations,” or ethnic and religious groupings, alongside states.

While I agree with Gottlieb’s general call for “new thinking” on these matters, it is not clear to me how, or how well, such jerry-rigged institutional arrangements would work. One is reminded of Ignatieff’s point that the key to cosmopolitan tolerance lies in a strong, legitimate state structure. Will not competing “national” structures tend to undermine this legitimacy? On the other hand, anything that has promise may be worth trying if it has a chance of stopping war and prodding people to live with one another in peace.

Gottlieb, indeed, offers a range of suggestions, few of which seem likely to be followed. Most depend on far more activism than is likely to be mustered by what is commonly called the “international community.” Yugoslavia has shown clearly enough that there are severe limits to what the outside world—including the United States—is willing to do to bring peace to regions where no great power’s vital interest is at stake.

Does this amount to moral complacency? Perhaps. But the fact is that for the citizens of developed liberal democracies such wars—perhaps war itself—have become uninteresting, not to say abhorrent. The causes that motivate the Serbs—and, more recently, the Croats and the Muslims—to engage in “ethnic cleansing” seem alien to the modern democratic sensibility. And yet the consequences of violence in places like ex-Yugoslavia are so obviously counterproductive in an economic and in every other sense that, with time, the uselessness of this internecine conflict must become evident even to the parties themselves. Eventually, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims will have to live together again. The outside world will prod, but it will not solve their problem.

We live in an age, in a sense, when the only wars that remain to be fought are senseless wars. The time is long since past when one gained anything economically by capturing territory (with the possible single exception of oil fields) or certainly by enslaving another people. At one time, conquerors like Napoleon were lionized. No more. The kind of passions which motivate violent Serbs and Croats are reviled in the developed world. Today a state can gain far more by lowering its tariff barriers and improving its telecommunications than many previous states have obtained through conquest.

By now, the most powerful and advanced countries—even, by and large, the Russians and the Chinese—understand or are coming to understand this. It is merely a matter of time before the rest of the world gets the news. Foreign policy, the study of the great jostlings of the great powers, the conflicts of nations and states, is becoming more and more uninteresting. And that, gentle reader, is progress.


1 Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 263 pp., $21.00; William Pfaff, The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Future of Nationalism, Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $22.00; Gidon Gottlieb, Nation Against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 148 pp., $22.95.

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