Hooray for Nationalism?

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles

Nationalism is once again getting a makeover. Associated with all manner of ills—Nazism, genocide, unsavory dictatorships—nationalism is being rebranded by the same political science community that largely ignored the phenomenon for so many years. The latest issues of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy feature articles that proclaim the virtues of nationalism. In both cases, the claims are overstated.

Take, for example, Gustavo de las Casas’ argument in Foreign Policy that nationalism reduces crime and corruption. “When citizens are nationalistic, those who might cheat will face an unpleasant trade-off: to help themselves at the expense of their brethren,” he writes in Is Nationalism Good for You? “Surely, nationalism will never stop all cheating. But in countries with a mature sense of nationalism, this trade-off will significantly discourage cheating and promote economic growth.”

The argument begins to falls apart when we look more closely at the word “brethren.” Who exactly belongs to this brethren? Nationalistic citizens might very well feel no pain about cheating immigrants. Or their fellow citizens with a different skin color. Or people with a slightly different accent. It all depends on how “brethren” is defined. Even in virtually homogenous South Korea, discrimination against people from South Cholla province has been an enduring part of the ethno-political landscape. This prejudice facilitated those from rival North Kyongsang province to help themselves at the expense of their putative Korean brethren. And North Korean defectors are routinely ripped off in South Korea, again by their ethnic compatriots.

Ah, but perhaps South Korea does not have a “mature sense of nationalism.” But then, who does?

Jerry Muller offers a more sophisticated and yet equally sophistic set of arguments in Us and Them. Europe, he argues in Foreign Affairs, represents the triumph of ethnonationalism: “One could argue that Europe has been so harmonious since World War II not because of the failure of ethnic nationalism but because of its success, which removed some of the greatest sources of conflict both within and between countries.”

One could argue that. But I think it would be a mistake. After all, there has been plenty of post-World War II conflict within Europe based on ethnic nationalism—in Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and so on. The major reason that European affairs were more-or-less harmonious was because the external threat of Soviet invasion—exaggerated by the West but a very real concern to the countries of Eastern Europe—provided a larger cohesive force that tamped down but did not eliminate internal ethnic conflict.

Such a misreading of European history leads to poor policy recommendations. If the creation of nation-states where borders correspond to presumed ethnic dividing lines creates greater harmony, then let the partitions begin! Muller recommends the partitioning of states and the inevitable population transfers that follow as “the most humane lasting solution” to intense communal conflict. But did partition really solve any of India’s communal conflicts? In addition to causing countless deaths, partition simply elevated an internal Muslim-Hindu conflict to an inter-state rivalry between India and Pakistan, a contest that now involves nuclear weapons.

Today, Europe faces a similar dilemma in its southeast corner. Nationalists in Kosovo have declared independence. Nationalists in Serbia continue to oppose any redrawing of the map. So, Gustavo de las Casas, which of the contending nationalisms is “good for us” in this standoff? And should we follow Jerry Muller’s advice and partition the new state of Kosovo, giving over the area with a large ethnic Serb population to Serbia? As with India, this would be a solution without a resolution.

This week, in a continuation of our strategic dialogue on Kosovo, FPIF contributor Tomaz Mastnak argues that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was a violation of international law. Moreover, both the United States and Slovenia worked behind the scenes to circumvent the European political process to facilitate that declaration. I’ve known Tomaz Mastnak for many years, and he contributed an essay to a book I co-edited on European nationalism. He is no anti-nationalist, and he was consistently critical of U.S. policy for not more resolutely backing the new states of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia in the 1990s.

But in Kosovo: A New Versailles, Mastnak describes how the Kosovo question has been woefully (and illegally) mismanaged. “The UN was conspicuously pushed aside and ignored,” he writes. “Also ignored were the interests of the neighbors and the countries of the broader Balkan region, most of whom oppose the independence of Kosovo. Ignored as well, and in a rather insulting way, was Russia, which for better or worse has played a role in the region for a considerable time. Finally, ignored were the Serbs. The unilateral decision to declare the independence of Kosovo was carried through in a way to ensure that Serbia will for the time being experience no catharsis, no facing and overcoming of the legacy of the criminal wars of the 1990s. Instead, this decision does the opposite by inflaming the very same pathology that drove Serbia and Serbs into those wars in the first place.”

Whether in Kosovo, Serbia, or the United States, the point is not that ethnonationalism is evil, though it has certainly been used to justify and support evil policies. Rather, in assessing the considerable role that nationalism has played in the construction of modern states, analysts like Muller and de las Casas exaggerate the virtues of their oft-maligned client. It not only makes for bad history but for bad policy as well.

The Elections

The U.S. election campaign is like an interminable movie that has a few good laughs, one or two interesting scenes, a handful of good lines, several credible actors, and way too much filler. Call in the editor, please. Our electoral directors could condense the production, cut down on the operating budget, and provide us with a punchier version for release in the fall.

A longer election season in theory provides the candidates an opportunity to go deeper into the issues. But in reality, it just allows them to go deeper into our pockets.

So, for instance, there has been very little talk in the campaigns about Darfur. FPIF contributors Steve Fake and Kevin Funk find this odd. “Despite the sheer size of the ‘Save Darfur’ movement—which claims to be carrying out the ‘biggest such activism’ since the struggle against the war on Vietnam—as well as the candidates’ previous attempts to gain its support, the conflict in Sudan has warranted little airtime in recent Democratic debates,” they write in Candidates on Darfur. “The word ‘Darfur’ has been mentioned in just three, and even these references were made only in passing. Notwithstanding this relative silence, the presidential contenders have indeed gone on the record with their proposals for Darfur. Their policies, however, would exacerbate rather than improve the humanitarian crisis in the region.”

Russia has come up a little bit more often in the campaign. “The presidential candidates have all been tempted to embrace a new cold war with Russia,” FPIF contributors Erik Christensen and William Partlett write. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton have looked into the eyes of Russian leaders and seen future conflict. In contrast, as Christensen and Partlett write in The Candidates and Russia, Barack Obama has pointed out “that Bush’s failure was not in looking into Mr. Putin’s soul but in refusing to do the diplomatic legwork to establish a meaningful dialogue.”

What about China?

The quadrennial China-bashing that takes place in U.S. presidential elections usually doesn’t show up until the Democrats and Republicans square off against one another after the party conventions. But that hasn’t prevented the “China threat” from cropping up elsewhere.

The Pentagon, for instance, has just released its annual review of China’s military power. Combine that with President’s elevated military budget request and U.S. foreign policy comes into focus. As FPIF columnist Michael Klare argues in The China Syndrome, “a close examination of the FY 2009 request indicates that the principal sources of future budget growth are not the Global War on Terror or other such low-intensity contingencies but rather preparation for all-out combat with a future superpower. Probe a little deeper into Pentagon thinking, and only one potential superpower emerges to justify all this vast spending: the People’s Republic of China.”

Meanwhile, sentiment against U.S. bases is rising in Latin America, as FPIF contributor John Lindsay-Poland describes in a new essay in our strategic focus on the U.S. global military footprint. “While visiting Italy last October, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa made a modest proposal,” he writes in Yankees Head Home. “If the United States allows his country to set up a military base in Miami, his government would renew the lease for a U.S. base in the coast city of Manta. Otherwise, U.S. troops and operations will have to leave the when the base lease ends next year.” By the way, one country is definitely interested in taking over the lease in Manta: China.

Iraq Quagmire

The fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches. Since 2004, we’ve been tracking the mounting costs of the war. This week, in The Iraq Quagmire, FPIF’s Erik Leaver and Jenny Shin run the numbers again: the dead, the wounded, the displaced, the unemployment, and the bill so far: $526 billion. That’s $4,100 per household. Compare that to tax refund you get this year from Uncle Sam.

This week, Iraq War vets will come together in Washington, DC to give testimony about their experiences. “The event is inspired by the Winter Solider tribunal held in 1971 by Vietnam War vets, including John Kerry,” writes FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz in Winter Soldier Hearings. “The name comes from a quote from Thomas Paine, the revolutionary who rallied George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, saying: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.’ Paine was trying to keep Washington’s army from deserting in the face of a bitter winter and mounting defeats at the hands of the British. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War say the same type of courage is needed to confront the evils unleashed by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Also timed to coincide with the anniversary is the Split This Rock poetry festival. Here’s another poem from one of the featured poets, Christi Kramer. In Sublime, Kramer compares the lives of one who leaves and one who stays behind.

What Next for Cuba?

Fidel has stepped down. His brother Raul is stepping in. And, according to FPIF contributor James Early, the pace of change is stepping up. “Changes among political representatives elected by local communities,” he writes in Cuba’s Post-Castro Revolutionary Transition, “open verbal and written criticisms about past errors in governance, over-reliance on the Soviet Communist experience, criticism of transportation woes, food shortages, low salaries, racial discrimination, homophobia, and even criticism of aspects of the vaunted health care system are easily found among the 60-plus on-line magazines, parastatal publications, and official speeches from leading government and Communist Party officials inside Cuba.”

So, Cuba is changing. U.S. policy toward Cuba, however, is not (yet). U.S. hardliners want to continue to embargo the country despite all evidence that such a tactic does little to push Cuba anywhere but downhill.

“These hardliners know U.S. ultimatums will never work to bring change to Cuba; they don’t expect them to,” writes FPIF contributor Lissa Weinmann in Getting Smart about Cuba. “The hardliners’ goal is to punish the perpetrators of the Cuban revolution and create the chaos and institutional breakdown in Cuba that might allow them to regain a foothold on the lost island of their fantasies.”

FPIF, March 10, 2008

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