August 24, 2011


Nationalism Rules: It's the most powerful political force in the world and ignoring it will come at a price. (STEPHEN M. WALT, JULY 15, 2011, Foreign Policy)

What's the most powerful political force in the world? Some of you might say it's the bond market. Others might nominate the resurgence of religion or the advance of democracy or human rights. Or maybe it's digital technology, as symbolized by the Internet and all that comes with it. Or perhaps you think it's nuclear weapons and the manifold effects they have had on how states think about security and the use of force.

Those are all worthy nominees (no doubt readers here will have their own favorites), but my personal choice for the Strongest Force in the World would be nationalism. The belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures -- i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths) -- and that those groups ought to have their own state has been an overwhelmingly powerful force in the world over the past two centuries.

It was nationalism that cemented most of the European powers in the modern era, turning them from dynastic states into nation-states, and it was the spread of nationalist ideology that helped destroy the British, French, Ottoman, Dutch, Portuguese, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian/Soviet empires. Nationalism is the main reason the United Nations had fifty-one members immediately after its founding in 1945 and has nearly 200 members today. It is why the Zionists wanted a state for the Jewish people and why Palestinians want a state of their own today. It is what enabled the Vietnamese to defeat both the French and the American armies during the Cold War. It is also why Kurds and Chechens still aspire to statehood; why Scots have pressed for greater autonomy within the United Kingdom, and it is why we now have a Republic of South Sudan.

Understanding the power of nationalism also tells you a lot about what is happening today in the European Union. During the Cold War, European integration flourished because it took place inside the hot-house bubble provided by American protection.

If it were nationalism itself that were the predominate force, we would expect to see some vast divergence among all these "new" nations, with internal systems of governance, etc. that tracked their indigenous "cultures." Instead, their very creation is part and parcel of a convergence along the lines of the End of History, which requires that peoples are entitled to govern themselves, but that they do so in a manner that safeguards the additional rights embodied in capitalism and protestantism. From a historical perspective it is less interesting that Mongolia, Scotland, Kurdistan, Palestine, South Sudan, etc. are nations than that they are going to be indistinguishable from one another.

Posted by at August 24, 2011 6:55 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus