Commentary Magazine

The Age of Balkanization

Today a fundamental change is under way in the character of global political life. A new era is in the making. Gone or fading are the great bipolar conflicts—between democracy and fascism, between democracy and Communism, and even perhaps between Left and Right—that shaped war and peace in the 20th century. In their place a new political struggle is emerging—more complex, more diffuse, but nonetheless global in character.

On every continent, in almost every major nation, and in almost every walk of life the overriding political reality today is that of increasing social separatism and fragmentation—a sometimes violent splintering of humanity by ethnic group, race, religion, and even (to a less dramatic extent) such characteristics as gender or sexual orientation. While the causes of this phenomenon are as yet imperfectly understood, its implications could hardly be more far-reaching.

The most dramatic manifestation of the change is found, of course, in the countries that used to be known as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and it is also showing itself in other parts of the defunct Soviet empire, not to mention the old Soviet Union itself. But the phenomenon is not merely one of Communism giving way to nationalism, nor is it confined to the old Communist world.

Indeed, everywhere one sees well-established nation-states threatened with disunion, and even in countries without explicit separatist movements, the unifying themes of political life are increasingly under attack. Canada copes with Quebec’s secessionism, the United Kingdom with Scottish separatists, Italy with increasing tensions between its north and its south. In Germany, as well as in France and Britain, ethnically motivated violence has become a major factor in politics, and rebellious youths are inflamed by a puzzling new ideology of ethnic hatred.

Even in America—the proverbial melting pot—racial, ethnic, and other varieties of separatism are distinctly on the rise. Blacks assert their identity as “African-Americans”; homosexuals discover in their sexual orientation a basis for political action; Christian fundamentalists exert more and more influence as an organized political force.

Nor is this phenomenon merely political. It also finds its reflection in the highest reaches of contemporary culture and intellectual life. The controversial doctrine of “multiculturalist education” and the “postmodernist” philosophy now so current in American universities are both essentially codifications of the new experience of fragmentation.

Side by side with this splintering, paradoxically, has gone a fresh drive for unity. As the cold war was ending, George Bush, then still in the White House, hailed the advent of a Europe “whole and free,” and in the lead-up to the Gulf war he spoke hopefully of a “new world order.” Since then, European Community leaders have worked to forge a unitary Europe, while Germany’s leadership has sought to make one nation out of two. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin fights a parallel battle, desperately trying to hold Russia together while moving toward democracy in the face of radical nationalism and mounting pressures for regional secession.

But these efforts at unification—including the effort to posit a new world order based on common democratic values—have thus far proved unable to stem the powerful counter-currents rooted in separatist identities. For this new cultural struggle is taking place not only within nations, but among them. Attempts to expand the postwar liberal trading order have been frustrated by intensified cultural conflict between America and Japan and, to a lesser extent, between America and Western Europe. Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat to moderate Arab regimes and increases the likelihood of eventual armed conflict between the West and radical Arab states.

Slowly this clash between, on the one hand, ethnic (and other types of) particularism and, on the other hand, what might be called democratic universalism seems to be replacing the old Left-Right and class polarities that have governed political life for nearly a century. It has every appearance of becoming the new bipolarity of global politics, the new dialectic of a new age.



What are the reasons for this great shift? The most obvious cause would seem to lie in the collapse of Soviet Communism. Communism repressed national differences; indeed, Marxist-Leninist ideology, rooted as it was in Enlightenment economic thinking, defined national and ethnic differences as epiphenomenal, stressing instead the primacy of class. Under Communism, nationalism was either disguised or stifled.

What we have seen since the breakdown of Communism—whether in the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, or the rest of Eastern Europe—is, to borrow a phrase from Sigmund Freud, a “return of the repressed,” a resurgence of powerful national and ethnic feelings which had been simmering angrily beneath the surface.

But if Communist regimes ruthlessly imposed unity on their own peoples, they also evoked a more or less united response from the outside world they threatened. The unitary nature of the Communist threat inspired an unprecedented degree of cooperation—under American leadership—among heretofore uncooperative states. European adversaries laid aside age-old grudges to join NATO. New security relationships were forged among the United States and major Asian nations, including Japan.

To be sure, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had earlier sought on their own initiative to structure a more or less unified world order, to export America’s stated principles of ethnic tolerance, and to bring the many nations of the world together on the basis of common interests and goals. But it is far from clear that, absent the Soviet threat, so many disparate nations would have been so successful in achieving collaboration, not just on trade but on a host of diplomatic and security matters, as they were during the cold war. Long ago the sociologist Georg Simmel posited that human societies were cemented together by the need to cope with outside threats. This was clearly true of what we used to call the “free world.”

Even within American politics, the anti-Communist imperative had a powerful unifying effect. It produced, albeit intermittently, bipartisanship in foreign policy. It also, at various times, unified each of the two major parties. In the early years of the cold war, the Democrats, and in the later years, the Republicans, found a basis for party solidarity in the anti-Communist cause. So much was this the case that when the Democrats and then the Republicans experienced ruinous internal division, it was owing in part to a perceived or real diminution of the Soviet threat—for the Democrats during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when many believed the cold war to have become obsolete, and for the Republicans in recent years, when it became plain that the cold war was in fact over.

The Republican case is especially interesting, for what else but fear of the Soviet threat could finally have held together the diverse elements of Ronald Reagan’s winning electoral coalition: Christian fundamentalists, Jewish neoconservative intellectuals, free-market libertarians, blue-collar Democrats, and traditional Republican voters? Should it surprise us that with the subsidence of the Soviet threat, old party alignments would weaken? Is it illogical that with external dangers reduced we would turn inward as a society and discover social and political differences among one another that we had previously been willing to overlook?

Yet while the collapse of Soviet Communism remains the signal event of our age, many of the trends we are discussing were apparent before the Berlin Wall came down. Ethnic, national, and racial awareness was already growing, on both sides of the iron curtain. Here in America, for example, the multiculturalist movement—now so famous and controversial for its advocacy of heightened ethnic and racial consciousness in schools—was already making inroads into secondary and higher education. On both sides of the iron curtain, faith in central authority was declining and had been declining for some time. Even before the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, Western Sovietologists debated whether Communist leaders still actually believed their ideology. Ironically, a weakening in the influence of received values—society’s traditional unifying ideas—was apparent in our own culture as well, observed by intellectuals and documented by opinion polls.



In Other words, it is hard to say whether the demise of Soviet Communism is the ultimate cause of the change we are witnessing, or whether Soviet Communism itself fell victim to some vaster trend, some grand Hegelian shift in human consciousness.

Certainly the contemporary experience of social and political fragmentation was foreshadowed by new directions in intellectual life, long before the social consequences were apparent. One of the major proponents of “postmodernist” thinking, Fredric Jameson of Duke University, has written of the postmodern idiom in contemporary literature:

Perhaps the immense fragmentation and privatization of modern literature—its explosion into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms—foreshadow deeper and more general trends in social life as a whole. Supposing that modern art and modernism—far from being a kind of specialized aesthetic curiosity—actually anticipated social developments along these lines; supposing that in the decades since the emergence of the great modern styles society has itself begun to fragment in this way, each group coming to speak a curious private language of its own, each profession developing its own private code or idiolect, and finally each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island, separated from everyone else?

Behind this new experience of cultural and intellectual fragmentation lies a loss of faith in general truths, and even, at its most radical, a loss of faith in the very possibility of general truths. Notably, the most sophisticated humanities instructors in our major universities today will no longer venture to assert that a proposition is “true,” merely that it is “productive” or “intriguing,” i.e., a basis for reflection or intellectual play. This premise lends a notable arbitrariness to “postmodern” modes of expression, robbing contemporary literature, criticism, and even philosophy of a certain weight, authority, or seriousness.

The same mixture of posturing and pastiche has become evident in our political discourse (think back to Bush’s Gulf war speeches). However glorious the phrases—“freedom,” “tyranny,” “new world order”—they are uttered today with a certain self-conscious nostalgia.

We have lived through an era when people attached themselves to grand ideas—whether for good or for evil—and fought and sometimes died for them. But for some reason these ideas collectively seem to be losing their force. Such is the defining tendency of our age.

The resulting fragmentation is far from being a propitious development. At stake, one could argue, is the future of civilization itself. The struggle for civilization has always been a struggle for unity, universality, ecumenism. The great ages of civilization have been periods of concord and commonality, when large tracts of the globe were more or less united by common values, and sometimes even by a common language and common laws—the Roman empire, the era of Charlemagne, the Renaissance, the 19th-century Concert of Europe. These periods have been succeeded in turn by periods of fragmentation, factional strife, and relative barbarism: the Dark Ages, the feudal era, the Reformation with its religious wars, and of course the long “civil war” that wrenched Europe between 1914 and 1945. Looking back, one can see that Western history has been marked by a cyclical pattern in which unifying ideas triumph, only gradually to lose their hold on the imagination and to be replaced by factional struggle and particularism.

It is possible that we are on the threshold of a new such cyclical turn.



At the root of the problem lies the very large and very deep question of human identity. In a sense, the master-idea of Western civilization is the view that the identifying feature of the human being qua human being is the faculty of reason. When the Greek philosophers hit upon this notion of man as the rational animal, they made possible the creation of large political orders on a basis other than that of pure despotism.

Furthermore, as Socrates and his students saw, this conception transcended differences of nationality and race: rational man could not be defined as Athenian or Spartan or even Greek or barbarian. And with this insight, the philosophers ceased to be good citizens of their cities, their poleis, at least in the terms of those cities: they became citizens of the rational universe—to use a somewhat later term, cosmopolitans—and they challenged the laws and gods of their fellow citizens.

It was this cosmopolitan vision, as Hans Jonas pointed out in his famous study of the gnostic religion, that helped define the ambitions of Alexander the Great. Alexander, a student of Aristotle, created the first great Western empire—the Hellenic empire—based on universalist principles. He was the first leader to unify the “West.”

The Romans, having imbibed Greek learning, revived and reinstitutionalized Greek rationalism as they gradually transformed themselves from a republic into an empire. By the time of the early empire, to be a Roman citizen—a civis Romanus—no longer meant to belong to the tribes of the Romans. Now it meant to fulfill certain formal and legal requirements of citizenship, often through military service. Thus Paul, an ethnic Jew who became a Christian, could also be a Roman citizen. By the 3rd century, Roman citizenship was extended to all freemen of the empire.

This unifying idea allowed for the organization of a vast political system that granted a measure of freedom to individuals while protecting the general peace: the pax Romana. Systematically, step by step, the Romans replaced local laws rooted in local cults and customs with Roman law, which was rational, universal, and said to be derived from the law of nature, rationally understood. It is from civis that our word “civilization” comes.

For more than 1,000 years after the disintegration of the empire, tumultuous Europe looked back on imperial Rome as the lamented Golden Age. Hence the ambition of the greatest statesmen of Europe was to recreate the unity of Rome on whatever scale they could. That was the signal achievement of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, who unified a large region of Europe stretching from south of the Pyrenees to the Elbe, placed it under more rational administration, and was crowned emperor of the West in his time.

Charlemagne, however, was unable to secure his legacy, and slowly Europe descended into feudalism and the wars of the barons. Yet over time the Church—which had been touched by classical culture from the beginning, and which explicitly assimilated the Greco-Roman idea through the work of Aquinas and others—became a more rational and more catholic institution, providing a measure of unity to European life. This in turn prepared the stage for the full recovery in the Renaissance of the classical idea of rational man.

Periods when this idea of man is in the ascendancy have been the great periods of civilization as we in the West know it. It is during such periods that peace reigns, learning spreads and advances, and the arts flourish. Yet experience shows that this idea does not hold indefinitely.

Perhaps the reason simply has to do with the inherent restlessness of human beings. When it first appears on the scene, the idea of rational man has a demythologizing force; it is an exploder of myth. Socrates’ notion of rational man was subversive of the laws, customs, and gods of Athens—which is why he was condemned to death by his fellow citizens. Roman law, too, was subversive of local traditions and local religions; it was the “modern” idea of its era. The Renaissance was anti-traditional in the same sense—introducing ideas from the classics that raised questions about Christian beliefs.

Perhaps human beings have an overriding need for myth, or perhaps the act of demythologization always contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. At any rate, periods of demythologization tend to be followed by periods of remythologization. Secular, rationalistic Hellenic culture was eventually challenged by the religious intensities and excesses of gnosticism. Roman imperial rationality gradually gave way to Christianity. The rationality of the Renaissance gave way to the religious wars of the Reformation.

Remythologization and reversion to ethnic particularism have tended to go hand in hand. People cease to find satisfactory selfhood in large unities, become alienated from the larger whole, and begin to seek identity in smaller units. Such periods are characterized by diminished will on the part of those who stand for reason to defend reason, by a diminished appeal of reason to the human imagination. Civilization is destroyed by those whose attachment to religious or ethnic identity gives them the zeal which the defenders of reason come to lack. Civilization falls victim to barbarians from without and zealots from within. In such periods, as Yeats famously wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”



There are hints of all this in the emerging mood of our own time. The ferocious war in the Balkans is but one manifestation of a reemergent barbarism apparent in many corners of the earth. In the Balkans, the voices of the rational and the tolerant—for example, officials of the secular-minded Bosnian government—have been drowned out by the guns of ethnic fanatics. Efforts to secure democracy on the basis of rational Western principles have been crushed by the bloodthirsty exponents of “ethnic cleansing.”

The new barbarians differ fundamentally from the old enemies of liberal democracy in feeling no need to justify themselves before the court of reason. The Communists, too, practiced barbarism, but they harbored a powerful imperative to vindicate themselves on the basis of some general truth: hence their elaborate ideology. Paradoxically, it was to prove they had the truth that they fashioned huge tissues of lies. Much the same was true of the Nazis, who invented the technique of the Big Lie.

The new tyrants—such characters as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, or for that matter Saddam Hussein—feel no such pressures. They offer as justification for their actions the thinnest pretexts. Their explanations are less an appeal to reason than a pure gesture of defiance.

Precisely because these tyrants lack intellectual seriousness, we are likely to discount them. But we forget that the great ideological struggle that characterized most of our century was the exception rather than the rule in history. Usually the enemies of civilization have not been so intellectually well-armed as the Communists (and even, in their way, the Nazis) were; but despite this they have often succeeded in prevailing. The once-mighty Romans, after all, were finally defeated by forces culturally, intellectually, and technologically inferior to them.

Like the Romans, we have been slow to understand the nature of the incipient threat. Indeed, only now are we beginning to see the gravity of the issues at stake when tyrants motivated by nothing more complicated than primitive ethnic fanaticism are allowed to get away with mass murder.

Nor is this problem merely one of foreign policy or regional conflict. The very idea of rational man—the cardinal concept of our civilization—is, as we have already seen, under explicit attack in our own universities. Our students are today being taught that such categories as “African-American,” “female,” or “person of color” are in effect more fundamental than the category of American, let alone of rational man, the human being qua human being.

While the motives and consequences may be vastly different in the two cases, the multiculturalist doctrine that is fragmenting our universities as well as our intellectual life, and the “ethnic cleansing” of the Serbs, belong to the same troubling cultural and historical moment.

It is especially disturbing that this should be happening here, for America has always been the most rationally constituted of nations. It is the heir and perfecter of the great Roman idea of the civis, a country where nationality has nothing to do with ethnicity, a nation which has fought, through civil war and great domestic turmoil, to realize, however imperfectly, the principle of universality and tolerance.

We are now in an age that will move either toward ever greater fragmentation and violence or toward the ever wider spread of the tolerance and rationality by which we in the West have learned to live and prosper. As was true for most of this century, it is American leadership that will determine the path that history finally takes.

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