Nationalism on the rise?

NATIONALISM ON THE RISE?….I’ve been chewing this over for some time, but this past week’s uproar in China over a controversial Japanese textbook that glosses the Rape of Nanking has forced me to try to put my thoughts in order.

It’s hard for me to prove this, but I have a weak gut feeling that a major and potentially dangerous trend in the world today is rising nationalism. Plenty of people have talked about this already in the real world, but I haven’t see much discussion about it on the political blogs I read. All I have are anecdotes, but as I am not a creative person I can think of no other way to test whether nationalism is, in fact, broadly on the rise.

So what is nationalism? Well, it’s complicated. I tend to go with the “I know it when I see it” test myself, but I realize that’s not very helpful for others. This Wikipedia entry is decent enough and defines nationalism thusly:

Nationalism is an ideology that creates and sustains a nation as a concept of a common identity for groups of humans. According to some theories of nationalism, the preservation of identity features, the independence in all subjects, the wellbeing, and the glory of one’s own nation are fundamental values.

Nationalism can be based on an ethnicity, religion or sect, citizenship within a state, language, etc. “Civic nationalism” or patriotism, based not on identification with a group but rather on citizenship within a legitimate state, is generally benign. Nationalism doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as it doesn’t get out of control. But history shows that it often does, as any of nationalism’s many victims will attest. Nationalism by definition necessitates that there be an “other” (i.e. someone who is not a member of the Nation) who can easily morph into a specific enemy that gets blamed for any number of real or imagined problems and/or historical grievances. The most obvious and grotesque manifestation of nationalism gone amuck is Nazi Germany and the Jews, which should need no elaboration here. Osama Bin Laden can be fairly described as an extreme religious nationalist.

Here’s what George Orwell had to say about nationalism, writing amid the smoking ruins of post-WWII Europe:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean 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 interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseperable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

China’s alarming nationalism is the latest example, though as Stygius suggests, Chinese nationalism may actually present the United States with an opportunity to shore up its diplomatic position in Asia by saying essentially, ?Hey, do you want to hang out with those crazy guys??

Everyone who follows foreign affairs knows about the ethno-religious conflicts of the Balkans and the Caucuses, which always have the potential to spiral out of control. What about Turkish nationalism? Karl Vick of the Washington Post, among others, claims that Turkey is going through some kind of nationalist revival–expressed primarily as anti-Americanism–even as it enacts hundreds of political and economic reforms as part of its quest to join the European Union. But Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst and author of The Future of Political Islam, thinks that Turkey will be fine, and moderate conservative realist Robert Kaplan agrees with him.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering Kurds–a goodly portion of whom live in Turkey and have been fighting an intermittent guerilla war there for years–have one foot inside Iraq and one in what they call “South Kurdistan.” Many Kurds believe that their nationalist dreams are now within reach, and are willing to do whatever it takes to avenge past ethnic cleansing and bring Kirkuk into the Kurdish orbit once and for all. In Jordan, Sunni Arab King Abdullah is making ominous warnings about a “Shi?ite Crescent,” though there is little evidence that there is such a thing as “Shi?ite nationalism” and there are of course important differences between, say, the Arab Shi?ites in Iraq and those in Iran, to say nothing of the Syrian Alawis.

As for Europe, which seems to have conquered for now the more dangerous aspects of nationalism and embarked upon an era of boundless Kantian peace, the European Union is not even a sure thing these days–just at the moment of ascension, it could fall apart as the CIA predicts and various Francophobes on the American right are all too eager to trumpet. In An End to Evil, Richard Perle and David Frum even urge America to actively drive a wedge between France and everybody else, a game that the Bush administration played in its first term but has since abandoned (for now). Within some European states, nationalist parties like Vlaams Bok and Jean-Marie Le Pen?s National Front are drawing succor from both justified and unjustified fears about immigrants and European immigration, but have yet to seize power. None of these trends are necessarily real or dominant, and there are strong and encouraging countervailing forces at work such as ever-growing global economic integration (which certainly could provoke broad nationalist backlashes), expanding political freedoms, tentative peace agreements between warring nations, and the astonishing success of Esperanto.

So is nationalism on the march again, or is something more subtle going on? In what forms will nationalistic conflict take: economic, military, diplomatic? Is Osama Bin Laden the 21st-Century Gavrilo Princip, as my coblogger Nadezhda worries? Should we fear a “Weimar Russia?” Must nationalism be met with nationalism or is it best met with, as Martin Wolf and Thomases Barnett and Friedman would have it, more connectivity? Are elections the answer everywhere, or do they tend to exacerbate and harden ethnic and religious faultlines when first instituted? Am I making too much of nothing and seeing a pattern that doesn’t exist? How rational are foreign worries and reactions to our own perceived or real civic nationalism?

Discuss.