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National Good

By Michael Lind
Whitehead Senior Fellow

PROSPECT
October 1, 2000

Pity the poor nation-state. It is mentioned only to be abused. The nation-state, we are told, is too small--too tiny to be competitive in the global economy, too feeble to deal on its own with "global issues" like climate change. At the same time, the nation-state is too big. Its centralised bureaucracies are too remote from the real centres of innovation, which are cities and neighbourhoods. National cultures cannot compete with global pop culture or with sub-national ethnic and regional cultures.

As if being the wrong size were not bad enough, the nation-state is often regarded as positively evil. The idea of a connection between government and an ethnocultural nation upon which the nation-state is based is xenophobic, nativist, even fascist. Nationalism leads to murder and ethnic expulsion in the Balkans; the only wonder is that all nation-states, everywhere, are not engaged in the genocide to which they are predisposed by their very nature.

Fortunately--or so the conventional wisdom goes--these political dinosaurs are on the way out. The nation-state is fading away under pressures from above, such as economic globalisation and transnational communication, and pressures from below, such as multiculturalism and regional reawakenings. Soon, maybe very soon, the division of the world into nation-states will be replaced by a new world order reminiscent of the middle ages--a miscellany of tribes and city-states, coexisting more or less harmoniously under a few loose global institutions, the equivalent of the medieval European papacy and empire.

In a lecture series delivered in 1985, the American historian William H McNeill argued that the era of nation-states, which began in 1789, came to an end in 1945. In the post-national future, as in the pre-national past, political identity and ethnic identity would be separated, as a result of mass immigration and multiculturalism. In 1990, Eric Hobsbawm echoed McNeill in his book Nations and Nationalism since 1780. According to Hobsbawm, nationalism "is no longer a global political programme, as it may be said to have been in the 19th and 20th centuries... Nation-states and nations will be seen as retreating before the new supranational restructuring of the globe. Nations and nationalism will be present in history, but in subordinate and rather minor roles."

But in the decade between the time these historians wrote and the present, nationalism has reshaped the map of the world and has been the main cause of conflict. More than 20 new sovereign states have appeared. Germany was reunited. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and, recently, Serbia have crumbled or lost territory, giving way to new, more ethnically-uniform nation-states. Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech and Slovak republics. The UK appears to be going the way of Czechoslovakia; Scotland has its first parliament in almost 300 years; Eritrea has won its independence from Ethiopia, East Timor from Indonesia; and a de facto Palestinian state is gaining its independence from Israel. The US and China have clashed repeatedly over the desire of Chinese nationalists to unite Taiwan with the mainland. Contrary to those who have predicted the imminent demise of the nation-state, nationalism is alive and well. Indeed, it is the most powerful political force in the world today.

For all the talk about the "Balkanisation" of the world, there are no signs that the nation-state is about to be replaced by something smaller. City-states like Singapore and Hong Kong are aberrations (and Hong Kong has just been absorbed by a nation-state). The break-up of multinational states like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into proper nation-states like Russia and Croatia is not a harbinger of the break-up of nation-states along sub-national lines. A few remaining multinational entities like the UK, Canada and Indonesia may crumble, but homogeneous countries like Denmark and Japan will not. And the US is a multiracial nation-state like Brazil or Mexico, not a multinational state like Canada or Switzerland.

Is there a trend for national sovereignty to give way to supra-national governance, as many claim? The EU has many of the trappings of a state--a common currency, a parliament, a flag, even an anthem. But on closer examination the EU looks like a customs union pretending to be a country. European nations are so jealous of one another that no drawings of real monuments or landscapes were permitted on the euro. Instead, artists invented imaginary landscapes and monuments--a stratagem which was entirely appropriate, inasmuch as European patriotism is imaginary. As Raymond Aron wrote in the 1960s, "the old nations will live in the hearts of men, and love of the European nation is not yet born--assuming that it ever will be."

This is not to say that Europeans have not attained some genuine achievements in international cooperation. It is simply to point out that the example of the EU cannot be used as evidence that nation-states are giving way to supra-national organisations. And if regional organisation is not superseding the nation-state in Europe, then it is not happening anywhere. Nafta is merely a trade treaty. The idea of a common north American parliament would horrify Americans, Mexicans and Canadians alike. In Asia, national sovereignty is jealously guarded. Apec and Asean are economic forums. There is no multinational Asian military alliance comparable to Nato, only a series of bilateral relationships with the US.

Are immigration and multiculturalism sapping national identity? Multiculturalism in the US is about race, not about culture or language, which black Americans share with white Americans. A high rate of immigration of Spanish-speakers is causing some tensions in border states, but it is less of a threat to national unity than was the proportionately larger immigration of Germans and other Europeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nor is immigration threatening national unity in Europe or Asia. Indeed, because of low fertility rates, Japan and western Europe could benefit from more immigrants, on condition that they assimilate to the cultures of their new homelands. If immigrants cannot or will not assimilate, then the countries can limit immigration. Elsewhere in the world, immigration is not a big factor, either because countries do not permit it, or because they are not attractive to immigrants.

The nation-state, then, is not in danger of extinction. But the multinational state is. For the past 200 years, the most significant trend in world history has been the replacement of a few large multinational empires by a growing number of mostly-small ethnically-homogeneous nation-states. The idea of the nation-state has spread across the world like a computer virus, erasing all rival forms of political organisation. This is a radical break with the past. For most of history, the two main political forms were the multinational empire and the city-state. The nation-state is an invention of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was made possible, although not inevitable, by communications technologies such as printing and the telegraph, which created mass reading publics with a sense of common identity, and by infrastructure technologies such as the steam engine, which permitted the political and commercial integration of large national territories.

The same industrial technologies which made nation-states possible also permitted imperial nations like the British, the French and the Russians, and later, briefly, the Germans and Japanese, to assemble large empires governing many different ethnic nations. Since both kinds of regimes used the same technology, why did multinational empires like the British empire and the Soviet Union fail in competition with nation-states? After all, in the military arena and the market place, technical economies of scale should have given the prize to the empires.

The answer is that the nation-state has prevailed because of psychological economies of scale. The ethnic nation can be broadly defined to include all people with a common language or culture, or limited narrowly to people sharing a common descent. But whether it is defined broadly, as in multiracial Brazil, Mexico or the US, or narrowly, as in monoracial Japan or Sweden, the ethnic nation is the largest community with which ordinary human beings can have an emotional attachment. Even universal religions like Christianity and Islam tend to inspire less devotion than their ethno-national divisions: a person is not merely a Catholic, but an Irish Catholic; not merely a Muslim but an Arab Muslim.

In many societies, loyalty to the nation has to compete with lesser loyalties to the province or the racial caste or the religious subculture. But nothing larger than the nation-state seems able to inspire mass loyalty. There may be some people who would give up their lives for the EU, but they are few compared to those who would sacrifice themselves for France. No one gets a lump in the throat on seeing the flag of the UN raised, or goes misty-eyed at the reading of the charter of the Organization of American States.

Nations and nationalism, then, will be the primary actors in world politics for generations, perhaps centuries, to come. Recognising this, some opponents of nationalism have sought to promote a distinction between bad "blood-and-soil" or "ethnic" nationalism, and good "civic" or "constitutional" or "territorial" patriotism. Ethnic nationalism, we are told, is backward because it is based on loyalty to an ethnic nation, not a state. Civic/constitutional/territorial patriotism is progressive because it is based on commitment to a political ideal. Like most Manichean dichotomies, the contrast between ethnic nationalism and civic patriotism rigs the debate in advance by defining the terms so that one side is identified with virtue and truth. The problem with civic patriotism is simple: it doesn't exist, and never has.

The countries held up as exemplary models of non-ethnic civic patriotism--Britain, France and the US--are nothing of the kind. What looks like civic ideology, from within these nations, looks from the outside suspiciously like national culture. The UK is a multinational state in theory, but inasmuch as almost nine out of ten Britons are English, Britain looks very much like an ethnic English nation-state with minorities of various kinds. France has a tradition of Enlightenment universalism--but that tradition has been propped up by an old-fashioned tribal nationalism with an ethnic pantheon which includes Joan of Arc and Vercingetorix the Gaul.

We Americans are fond of claiming that the US, unlike the wicked blood-and-soil nations of the old world, is a "universal nation" which is "founded on an idea." But this is propaganda which dates back only to the mid-20th century. From the time of the founding fathers until the worldwide discrediting of racism by the Holocaust, the US was a white-supremacist country. Only "free white persons" could become naturalised citizens in the US between the 1790s and the 1940s. Most American leaders and intellectuals took it for granted that there was an American ethnic nationality--variously described as Anglo-American, Anglo-Saxon, Saxon, Germanic or even "Aryan." While this conception left out black Americans and Irish-Americans, it was not altogether inaccurate: as late as the early 20th century, a majority of Americans were of English or Scots-Irish descent (today, more Americans cite German and Irish than English ancestry). Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were both advocates of a white-only America; they went to their graves hoping that freed black slaves and their descendants could be "colonised" abroad in Africa or Central America (Lincoln's term for this was "deportation").

Only in recent generations has a post-racist American intelligentsia struggled to define American identity in terms of political ideology or civic patriotism. And that non-ethnic definition of American identity has consistently lost its battles with multiculturalism, which sees the US as a multinational state based on five racially-defined ethnic nations--white, black, Latino, Asian, and Native American. The conflicts over racial quotas, race-based legislative districts and the contents of the curriculum refute the claim that the US is somehow a universal "civic" nation.

But isn't America's "territorial" conception of citizenship enlightened, compared to the "racist" conceptions of European and Asian countries? We Americans make much of the moral superiority of our system of jus solis, or birthplace citizenship, over the system of jus sanguinis, or family-based citizenship, used in most of the world. But in the words of the actress Tallulah Bankhead on leaving an avant-garde play: "There is less to this than meets the eye." The US had no national law of citizenship before the civil war; to be a US citizen, you had to be a citizen of one of the states, which were free to set their own standards. Following the abolition of slavery after the civil war, it was necessary to make several million black Americans US citizens in a hurry; this was done by the 14th Amendment, which provided that everyone born on American soil was a US citizen. Adopted to deal with a particular, unique, situation, the American system of jus solis was never intended to be a model of enlightened policy for the world. Indeed, it is rather unenlightened, as it permits the children of illegal aliens to be citizens if they happen to be born on US soil. Children born to American citizens on holiday in France are not French (at least not automatically), and there is no reason why they should be. Outside the US, many of the countries with jus solis citizenship are in Latin America, a region which, to say the least, has not been associated with flourishing liberal democracy. Finally, even today, at one of a few historic peaks of immigration to the US, nine out of ten Americans became American citizens in the sinister old world way: they were born to American parents.

The claim that nationalism is intolerant is a half-truth. Every kind of political community, no matter how tolerant, tends to react harshly to threats to its legitimating principle. Dynastic empires which tolerated cultural diversity did not tolerate threats to monarchical rule; Leninist states may abandon socialism for the market but they will repress challenges to one-party dictatorship. National identity is the legitimating principle of most modern states. Where the existence of an ethnic nation or its nation-state is most under threat--as in Yugoslavia--nationalism tends to take on its most vicious form. By the same token, in countries with settled borders and an accepted national culture, nationalism tends to be benign. But as the recent history of western Europe shows, the dormant nationalism of even "sated" nations can be roused if the foundations of the nation-state itself seem threatened, whether by the EU or by Muslim immigration.

The fact that nationalism is exclusive by definition does not mean that it is inherently vicious. It is true that atrocities like ethnic cleansing and genocide have been committed in the name of nationalism. But it is also the case that ethnic cleansing and genocide have been committed by internationalists in the name of cosmopolitan ideologies. The worst record of political murder in human history, far outweighing the death toll in all the wars of national independence, was compiled by the Soviet and Chinese communists in the name of international socialism. From the middle ages to the present, Christian and Muslim crusaders and terrorists have been willing to murder and torture and plunder in the name of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It is really not fair to hold up Hitler as a typical nationalist and Albert Schweitzer as a typical internationalist. It would be just as absurd to treat Gandhi as a typical nationalist and Stalin as a typical internationalist.

Imperial nationalism is bad because it is imperial, not because it is nationalist. It is worth recalling that most empires have been constructed on behalf of dynasties, religions, or secular ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism. Cultural nationalism, as a rule, is too inward-looking to serve as the basis of an imperial ideology. Nazi Germany is often held up as an example of the evils of nationalism, but Hitler's ideology was a kind of racist transnationalism, which held that all true "Aryans" were kin, whether they shared a common language and culture or not. Anyway, imperial nationalisms are greatly outnumbered by anti-imperial nationalisms, for the simple reason that small ethnic nations have enough trouble holding their own without trying to conquer their regions, much less the world. The purpose of most nationalists is nothing more sinister than trying to preserve the identity of a relatively small ethnic and linguistic community by achieving and maintaining independence as a sovereign political community.

This is why it is so absurd to blame the world wars of the 20th century on the nationalist movements in the Balkans. Nationalism in the decaying Habsburg empire was the trigger of the first world war, not the cause. The cause of the first world war was Germany's ambition to become the dominant world power by becoming the dominant European power--an ambition which threatened the interests of Russia, France, Britain, and the US--empires all.

Instead of blaming nationalism for 20th-century wars which were really caused by imperial rivalries, we should give some credit to the stubborn and defiant particularism of anti-fascist and anti-communist nationalists in Europe and Asia for defeating the transnational tyrannies of National Socialism and communism. Nationalists from France to Poland to Greece battled heroically to stop their countries from being melted down into Hitler's New Order; and nationalists from central Asia to the Baltic republics brought down the Soviet empire when the Soviet elite no longer had the nerve to hold it together by terror. Some of those anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet nationalists were democrats; some were not. But even the partisans and the dissidents who did have democratic values did not want democracy in the abstract. They wanted democracy for their people--the Danes, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, the Poles. Thanks in part to their battles for "narrow" and "ethnocentric" national self-determination, the world was saved from domination by supra-national totalitarianism. Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote in 1791: "How wonderfully has Nature separated nations, not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates, but most particularly by languages, inclinations and characters, [so] that the work of subjugating despotism might be rendered more difficult..."

Critics of nationalism often assume that national sentiment is somehow incompatible with democracy. In fact, the relationship tends to be the other way around. Almost all stable democracies are nation-states, while multinational states tend to be dictatorships. The reason is simple. In a mono-ethnic society, ethnic power is not an issue; whichever party wins in Sweden will be made up of Swedes. That means that there can be political coalitions based on various other aspects of identity--class, or religion, or political ideology. But in a multi-ethnic society, political parties usually coalesce around the main ethnic groups. Each ethnic group is afraid that the others will seize control of the machinery of government. In Belgium, the Flemings worry that the Walloons will be too powerful; in Canada, the Anglo-Canadians and Quebecois eye one another with distrust. At worst, as in Yugoslavia and Lebanon, the competition between ethnic parties escalates into war.

Only Tito's dictatorship held the Yugoslav federation together. The Soviet Union broke up along national lines the moment that a degree of democracy was permitted. There are very few stable multi-ethnic democracies. The ones that do exist--such as Switzerland--tend to be based on intricate constitutional arrangements such as elaborate systems of federalism and equally elaborate systems of power-sharing. Political philosophers and Op-Ed columnists can have fun devising intricate power-sharing schemes for a multi-ethnic Bosnia or a multi-ethnic Kosovo. But realistic policymakers have to face the fact that power-sharing systems seldom work.

Where a state like Yugoslavia has crumbled because its constituent ethnic nations do not want to live together, it is folly for outsiders to try to force them together in a shotgun marriage--or rather a shotgun remarriage. In such circumstances, it is in the interest of all concerned that the outside powers act as divorce counsellors, seeing to it that the divorce takes place with as little bloodshed as possible. The wisest course may be to turn temporary division into permanent partition, and to recognise formally the existence of new nation-states. The results will not always be fair: some individuals will not be able to return to their homes; some groups will find themselves minorities trapped behind new borders. But in diplomacy as in the rest of life, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The rough justice of partition may be acceptable if it prevents endless warfare or endless peacekeeping.

The Balkans is not the only place where there may never be lasting peace or prosperity until borders are redrawn, at least roughly, along national lines. In sub-Saharan Africa, most of the states are artificial creations of British and French colonial administrators. The map of African governments cuts across the map of African ethnic nations. There is no Nigerian or South African nation, any more than there was a Yugoslav or Soviet nation. One reason why so many African states are dictatorships is that force is required to prevent these artificial contraptions from breaking down in civil war among the rival ethnic nations, like the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi. (Incidentally, one of the unfortunate residues of western racism and imperialism is the tendency to describe the nations of western Europe as nations, the nations of eastern Europe as ethnic groups, and the nations of Africa as tribes.) Any attempt to make political borders correspond with ethnic nations in Africa, as in the Balkans, would be messy and imperfect. But the alternative--preserving the political relics of European colonialism forever at the cost of endless authoritarianism and internecine conflict and the poverty which comes in their wake--is much worse than redrawing a border here and a border there.

Needless to say, most of the several thousand ethnic groups in the world are too small to have states of their own--although the example of the Slovenes proves that statehood is possible for very tiny nations. The Sorbs and Wends of Germany will never have their own nation-states, any more than the German-speaking Amish in the US will have theirs. But the fact that every tiny ethnic group does not qualify for statehood does not discredit the desire for independence of substantial ethnic nations like the Kurds.

At what point would there be too many countries? Between 1945 and today, the number of UN member states increased from 51 to 188. The addition of a dozen or two dozen more nation-states would not create chaos. At any given time, there are only a few great military and economic powers, and it is on their relations among themselves, not the number of small states, that international order depends.

Most nation-states are relatively small, but this need not be a handicap. A small nation-state can take advantage of commercial economies of scale by joining the global market or a trading bloc like the EU or Asean; and it can take advantage of military economies of scale by joining a military alliance like Nato. Because of its political sovereignty, a nation-state, even a small, weak, nation-state, can negotiate the nature of its relations with its trading partners and its military allies. This is something no ethnic minority in a multinational state can ever do.

In this connection, it is useful to distinguish internationalism from transnationalism. Internationalism presupposes the existence of distinct nations which interact with one another on a voluntary basis. Transnationalism posits the disappearance of nation-states and their replacement by something else--sub-national tribes, supra-national blocs.

While the supposed trend toward transnationalism is a mirage, the growth of internationalism is real. It is more a consequence of the end of the cold war and the division of the countries of the world into rival camps than of the internet or trade treaties. There is no contradiction between the multiplication of nation-states and increasing international integration. Slovenia escaped from its involuntary membership in Yugoslavia, and immediately applied for admission to Nato and the EU. It is an abuse of language to say that when a country joins a military alliance or a trading bloc it is "surrendering its sovereignty." On the contrary, it is exercising its sovereignty, so long as it retains the option to quit the alliance or trading bloc if it so chooses.

The globalisation of commerce is an example of internationalism, not transnationalism. A Norwegian may order a product from Thailand over the internet. But he is still a Norwegian; the Norwegian government can tax and conscript him, the Thai government cannot; and it is the Norwegian government, not the Thai government, which provides for his health care and his state pension out of taxes levied on his fellow Norwegians. Globalisation is reshaping nations--but it is not replacing them.

All of this raises an interesting question. If the nation-state is alive and well, and if nationalism is by no means the evil that it is made out to be, then why is there so much loathing of nationalism and propaganda in favour of various kinds of supra-national systems of world order? One reason is obvious: most of the states in Africa, and the middle east, and much of Asia, are non-national entities whose borders are threatened by nationalist movements. The UN should really be called the United Regimes, inasmuch as many of the members of the general assembly are multinational states held together by repression. For obvious reasons, many of these governments would prefer that self-determination be sacrificed to the sanctity of inherited borders, no matter how absurd and anachronistic the borders are. But this doesn't explain the intense hostility to nationalism in the western media, and all of the addled talk about the nation-state withering away.

Every segment of the political spectrum in the west--left, centre and right--has its own fantasy version of cosmopolis. The socialist left, for almost two centuries, has hoped, in the face of all evidence, that international class loyalties will eventually prevail over inter-class national loyalties. Libertarians hope to reduce countries to nothing more than postcodes in the free global market. The influence of Protestant millenarianism and evangelism can be seen on British liberal internationalism and American Wilsonian liberalism. There is even a kind of conservative internationalism--although it is that of reactionary traditionalists such as John Lukacs, nostalgic for a pre-national, aristocratic European Christendom, rather than of the populists and nationalists who dominate the right in most western countries. (Given that most of literate, civilised humanity lived for most of history under non-national empires--some, like China and Rome, of long duration and lasting cultural importance--it is surprising that there is not more of this kind of conservative nostalgia for imperial civilisations.)

Whether the chattering classes like it or not, a century from now there will be more nation-states in the world, and fewer multinational states. Nation-states like Japan and Russia and China and the US and Germany and India and Brazil, in some form, will still be here. But many if not most of today's multinational states will have vanished from the map. The UK may give way to a federation of the nation-states of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Australia and New Zealand will be sovereign republics. Canada is unlikely to survive the 21st century; the only question is whether the English-speaking provinces join the US or straggle along on their own, when the federation dissolves. Indonesia and Malaysia may be replaced on the map by a number of new, smaller countries. Not all of the nationalism of the century ahead will be disintegrative. A Greater Albania and a Kurdistan might be cobbled together. The inevitable overthrow of the remaining monarchies in the middle east may produce the amalgamation of portions of the Arab world, a region where the present borders were drawn up generations ago by the colonial bureaucrats of Britain and France. Not every nation will obtain its state: China is unlikely to free Tibet; and India is unlikely to consent to a Sikh nation-state. Whether Africa progresses or continues to decay depends in large part on whether the international community permits genuine nation-states to be formed from the wreckage of the post-colonial regimes. In some cases, such as the break-up of the UK, these changes might occur without bloodshed; in other cases they may be accompanied by immense suffering, and may even trigger conflicts among rival great powers.

A case can be made that, on the whole, the good which has come with replacing multinational dynastic empires and dictatorships with nation-states which at least have a chance to become stable liberal democracies, has outweighed the bad which often accompanies the break-up of non-national states. In any event, the future seems clear. The 19th century was a century of nationalism. The 20th century was also a century of nationalism. In all likelihood, the 21st century will be a century of nationalism as well.

Copyright: 2000 PROSPECT

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