How did educated Westerners come to make enemies of an inspiration that has changed the lives of billions of people?” Robert H. Wiebe writes at the beginning of his eloquent and profound new study of the phenomenon of nationalism, Who We Are. During World War I, American progressives like Woodrow Wilson viewed national self-determination as one of the building blocks of a new, more humane global order. “But disillusionment after the First World War turned to revulsion after the Second, and at mid-century Western intellectuals dug in to battle the nationalist spirit.”
Following the Cold War, the conventional wisdom on any the North Atlantic democracies held that there was a new struggle between the enlightened, progressive forces of internationalism—symbolized by the global market and/or supranational regional blocs like the European Union—and nationalists, who were dismissed contemptuously as racists, xenophobes, and protectionists who failed to understand economics. Murderous Serb chauvinists intent on ethnic cleansing, not the peaceful, enlightened nationalists of the Baltic republics who initiated the overthrow of the Soviet empire, were treated as the archetypal representatives of nationalism. The bloodless divorce of the Czech and Slovak republics was ignored by statesmen and pundits who claimed that national secession invariably produced wars and spasms of ethnic cleansing such as those that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. Although scholars like Walker Connor and Anthony D. Smith insisted on the deep roots and persisting power of national sentiment, they tended to be drowned out by critics of nationalism like Orientalist Elie Kedourie and the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, who unwisely predicted in the 1980s that nationalism was about to fade away. In most elite circles, one who had anything favorable to say about nationalism met with suspicion or contempt.
September 11 ended the era of post-national liberal utopianism that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today, talk of a Manichaean struggle between the forces of enlightened globalization—represented, depending on your politics, by multinational corporations or nongovernmental organizations—and reactionary nationalism seems archaic. Now, the greatest threat to liberal civilization seems to come not from secular nationalism, but from transnational religious fundamentalism. International banking, instead of promoting western values, has been manipulated by anti-Western terrorists. The military and the police, those instrumentalities of the allegedly obsolete nation-state, suddenly seem more important to world order than footloose corporations, international investors, and transcontinental lobbies for human rights and the environment.
In this period of conceptual as well as geopolitical confusion, Wiebe’s study provides a helpful guide to the origins, nature, and future of nationalism. Wiebe, who died last year, was one of America’s most wide-ranging and creative scholars; his studies of American history and politics, The Search for Order (1967) and The Segmented Society (1975), are masterpieces of their kind, challenging the unexamined prejudices of many American academics while avoiding their often-ponderous style. Wiebe’s overview of the role of nationalism in world politics, like his earlier books, is learned, penetrating, frequently pungent, and always free of cant.
Anti-nationalist historians such as Hobsbawn like to portray nationalism as a kind of false consciousness. In their telling, the nationalist sentiments that arose among different ethnic groups in Europe in the 19th century, and later in the rest of the world, were not authentic popular uprisings but the result of clever propaganda. Elites bent on carving nation-states out of empires duped members of their own ethnic group into believing that they composed an historic “nation,” even though most had never thought of themselves as such before. Wiebe, by contrast, sees the rise of nationalism as practical human adaptation to modern life. As people migrated from villages to cities, they came to rely on networks of kin to relay news, job prospects, and remittances. These networks of trust and affection soon expanded to include people from one’s village, then those from one’s region, and eventually to all those who spoke the same language. From there, it was a short step to nationalism. “Ethnicity turned into nationalism when cultural consciousness acquired a political objective,” writes Wiebe—for example, the desire for self-government or to escape from oppression. “Ethnicity and nationalism, in other words, solved problems migration posed.”
The period between the first and second world wars was the heyday of European nationalism, for dozens of small nation-states had been created from the multinational Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Ottoman realms. Following World War II, however, the nations of Europe were divided between the spheres of influence of two superpowers. The Soviet Union’s Marxist-Leninist ideology had always been anti-nationalist on principle. During the Cold War the United States dropped its historic support for national self-determination, partly from a sense that German National Socialism, Italian fascism, and Japanese imperialism had discredited nationalism, but mainly out of a fear of instability that might be exploited by the communist bloc.
Much of the Cold War struggle took place in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where decolonization often left ethnic nations divided among artificial states whose borders had been drawn a few decades or generations earlier by European colonial administrators. But these imperial successor states, like Nigeria, could be held together only by brute force. This remains the case even after the Cold War. The division of two colonial relics, Iraq and Afghanistan, into new states in which ethnic heterogeneity would be less likely to produce tyranny or anarchy is not even considered an option in Washington or other capitals.
What Wiebe calls the “reification” of post-colonial state borders is supported by most of the members of the United Nations (which really should be called the United Regimes) because it serves the interests of the military gangs, mafias, and royal families that inherited sovereignty from the European and Soviet empires. The barracks-bred kleptocracies of Africa are particularly committed to the permanence and inviolability of state borders.
Although the end of the Cold War reduced the global stakes of regional instability, it did not inspire American leaders to reconsider their reflexive opposition to the idea of redrawing borders to bring them more closely into line with the realities of cultural nationalism. On the contrary, successive American presidents opposed both the breakup of the Soviet Union and the secession of Croatia and Slovenia from Serb- dominated Yugoslavia. The first President Bush, in his infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech, warned the Ukrainians against pursuing separate statehood. (They wisely ignored his advice.) Rather than support the formal partition of Bosnia, the United States to this day endorses a multi-ethnic federal government that exists only on paper and would collapse if peacekeepers withdrew. President Taft, before World War I, invited Canada to join the United States; but today officials in every American administration denounce Quebec separatism, warning of the allegedly dire consequences of even a peaceful dissolution of the jerryrigged Canadian federation.
Wiebe concludes his rapid tour through the history of the nation-state by predicting that “nationalism, which still rolls off almost every western tongue as the most formidable enemy of peace and order, continues its decline, with no prospects of reversing the trend… [I]t has watched one variation after another of religious fundamentalism mobilize people who in another dispensation might well have been nationalists. In each late 20th-century rerun, it seems, the fundamentalist assassin again kills Gandhi.”
This is a half-truth, at best. Wiebe’s generalization applies best within the Arab Muslim world, “especially where,” as he says, “shallow-rooted, kleptocratic states presided over impoverished Moslem populations.” The appeal of Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islam owes a great deal to the failure of the secular Pan-Arabism of Nasser. Elsewhere in the world, however, religion is not more powerful than nationalism. American Christian fundamentalists are right-wing patriots who want a Christian America, not a transnational Christendom, though they have sympathy for persecuted Christians elsewhere. Nor can the Iranian revolution or the rise in Hindu militancy in India be cited as evidence of a trend away from nationalism to theocracy. As Wiebe concedes, the unique Iranian version of Shia Islam is as interwoven with Persian culture as Hinduism is with the culture of the Indian majority. Bin Laden may dream of a global Muslim Umma, but Iranian and Indian religion have yet to prove themselves capable of being successfully exported, any more than Tibetan Buddhism.
The relationship between religion and nationalism is more complicated than Wiebe allows. Most nationalist movements, in Europe and around the world, from the 18th century until the present, have come in two versions: a secular version, which appeals to intellectuals, professionals, and officials, and a populist, religious version. For example, Greek nationalism for the last two centuries has been divided between the neo-Hellenism of the secular elite and the Orthodox, religious nationalism of much of the population. Often the attempts by elite secular nationalists to revive symbols or traditions from a pre-Christian or pre-Muslim past antagonize religious nationalists. The attempt, for instance, by William Butler Yeats and others to popularize the myths of the pagan Celtic past was rejected by the Irish Catholic majority, who prefer St. Patrick to Cuchulainn.
Instead of seeing a shift from nationalism to non-nationalist religion, then, we are witnessing, in much of the world (including the United States) the displacement of secular nationalism by religious nationalism. If religious nationalism is considered, as it should be, a form of nationalism, then Wiebe’s obituary for nationalism may prove to be as premature as Hobsbawm’s. Of course, nationalism in one form or another has fueled atrocious political regimes, not least of all the Third Reich. But nationalism also helped motivate the English and Russians to fight the Third Reich. If nationalism has a dark side, so do other human urges, from sex to private ownership of property. We’ve learned from painful experience how crazy it is to “oppose” these things. So too nationalism.
In fact, Wiebe argues that the problem is not nationalism per se but the appropriation of national sentiments by a militaristic state. His solution to the horrors perpetrated in nationalism’s name is to downgrade the power of states and encourage a “diversity of loyalties.” What exactly he had in mind is not clear. He seems to envision something like the small-scale communities of the earlier United States, which he described in The Segmented Society (1975). Indeed, he sounds like a 19th-century anarchist, of the more peaceful variety, in preferring the autonomy of small communities to the rule of a remote and coercive state: “The primary enemies of a healthy, adaptive society are not competing small groups, but the state itself.”
While most of Who We Are is more relevant than ever after September 11, this passage seems dated. In America these days, even liberal anti-nationalists are flying flags on their front porches. Indeed, the problem with the American nation-state, it can be argued, is not that it is too strong but that it is too feeble. Our government admits that there are around eight million illegal aliens on its territory, but it is not sure who or where they are. Cells of al Qaeda terrorists, over a decade, managed to organize on American soil, transfer money, undergo flight training, and hijack commercial jet liners for suicide missions, without being stopped or even noticed by local, state, or federal law-enforcement officials—who, by the way, still have no idea who poisoned government and media offices by mailing letters filled with anthrax. As if this were not bad enough, the government has recently admitted that Soviet agents during the Cold War accumulated small arsenals on American soil; at one point, they even had nuclear “suitcase” bombs. It is not the power of the American state which should frighten its citizens, but its weakness and incompetence in controlling crime and entry to its territory.
But one need not agree with Wiebe’s predictions about the future or his suspicion of the large-scale nation-state in order to profit from his erudite and insightful book. “My hope is not that you will come to like nationalism—I am not its advocate—but that you will come to see it as so thoroughly human that no simple judgment does it justice,” Wiebe writes. In an era when the conventional wisdom about world politics is shaped by superficial tracts like Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Wiebe’s Who We Are is a stimulating and valuable corrective. Let us hope that the makers of public policy, as well as the shapers of public opinion, read it and absorb its timely lessons.