I currently live and work in Qatar, a country that is making tremendous efforts to turn itself from a dynastic territory into a nation. An important part of this effort has involved using the media, the education system and popular culture to encourage nationalism in Qataris. Why is Qatar doing this? For two very traditional reasons, as well as one that is particular to the Gulf but also has growing relevance for the West. The traditional reasons are fear of neighbors and fear of internal divisions—or fear that the two might combine to destroy the state. The other reason is that one day the oil and gas will run out or become worthless, and Qatar will then need something other than guaranteed employment and other generous state benefits to hold itself together.
Coming from mixed German and Russian origins on my father’s side, and with a German-speaking father who volunteered for the British army in World War II to fight against the Nazis, I was raised with a hostility to nationalism that was only strengthened when I studied the European catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century.
After many years of living and working in countries with weak states and state traditions, however, I have come to realize how much we in the West take for granted the existence of strong nation-states and the essential benefits they provide us in terms of honest and effective policing, education, sanitation, social welfare, public transportation and other services.
The tradition of Western state strength has also encouraged Westerners to see states as the chief sources of oppression in the world; and of course the totalitarian dictatorships of twentieth-century Europe and East Asia greatly encouraged that view. My experience as a journalist and researcher in South Asia in particular over the past four decades has, however, taught me that monstrous sexual, class and communal oppression can also stem from social forces and traditions that flourish precisely because the state is too weak to control or change them. Afghanistan is an example of how the collapse of a weak state into civil war can produce horrors as great as those stemming from all but the most dreadful totalitarian governments. This background has helped me understand the dictum of the German-American philosopher and adviser to Abraham Lincoln, Franz Lieber, that “a weak government is a negation of liberty.”
In the Middle East, ruling establishments are all too aware of the possibility of state failure. In consequence, observing state-building attempts in this region has been a bit like watching a hugely sped-up version of European history. In Europe, it took about seven hundred years for what in 1000 CE might just as well have called itself Capetian Europe to become the French nation, with a strong sense of collective French identity as opposed to a weak one of dynastic loyalty. With the dreadful examples of the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia before them, all the surviving Arab states know that they have to move a lot quicker than that.
The Qatari impulse to do so has been greatly heightened since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates imposed a boycott on Qatar three years ago in an effort to end its independent foreign policy and, in effect, reduce it to a client state. It was generally recognized (though in an extremely closed society, very little talked about) that the Saudis’ best chance of success was to play upon old divisions in Qatari society by threatening the economic interests of the tribal elites.
Now, I am not a Qatari nationalist—an impossible and ludicrous idea, and one certainly not encouraged by Qatar, which has among the most severe restrictions on naturalization of any country in the world—but I also do not wish to see Qatar crushed, least of all by someone like Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; and if a growth of Qatari nationalism has deterred Saudi Arabia and potential Qatari rebels, then I am all for it.
As for Qatar’s need for something other than state patronage to hold itself together, this also applies to the West. Since World War II, Western democracies have been held together in part by growing prosperity for the majority of the population, which in turn allowed the creation of generous welfare states in Europe and to a lesser degree in the U.S. That mass prosperity was never going to last forever. It took a bad blow from the economic crisis of 2008, and is likely to take an even worse one from the coronavirus pandemic. In the longer run, climate change is also likely to make existing levels of consumption impossible. Absent material prosperity, the West, too, is going to have to think hard about what else holds our societies together.
Four countries I know well have demonstrated the good and bad sides of nationalism and its absence. Over the more than thirty years I have spent visiting and studying Pakistan since I first went there as a British journalist in the 1980s, every attempt to develop the country has failed, and every democratic episode has ended in paralysis. The fundamental reason for this is that both the elites and the population put loyalty to family, clan, religious group or ethnicity far above any commitment to Pakistan and Pakistani society. As a Pakistani friend told me, “We Pakistanis can’t unite behind a [Salafist] revolution because we can’t unite behind anything.”
In the Caucasus, on the other hand, which I covered as a correspondent for the Times during and after the Soviet collapse, rampant ethnic nationalism led to a series of disastrous wars. In particular, Georgia, which had the chance to develop a civic nationalism that might perhaps have reconciled its minorities to living in an independent state, instead produced a virulent and violent ethnic nationalism that drove the Abkhaz and Ossetes into the arms of Moscow and tore the country apart.
In the Baltic, where I was also based as a correspondent, ethnic nationalism was no less strong, but with very different results. The Baltic Popular Fronts were well aware that in 1989-91 the Kremlin and the KGB were working hard to produce ethnic conflict between Balts and the Russian-speaking minorities so as to block Baltic independence, and they were determined not to fall into this trap. Strong instructions were given that there was to be no ethnic violence, and even the most radical Baltic nationalists obeyed: nationalism as self-discipline. Equally impressive was the dedication with which the new political elites committed themselves to programs of reform after independence; in Estonia, at least, this program was also carried out with remarkable honesty.
This, alas, most certainly could not have been said of the new Russian elites at that time. My experience of Russia and Ukraine as a journalist in the 1990s left me with a considerable distrust of globalization, and of the ways in which benign-sounding liberal phrases can be used to cover realities of monstrous theft of public property (known to the Economist and the Wall Street Journal as “privatization”), corruption (“light regulation”), money-laundering through Western banks (“capital flight”), political-economic oligarchy (“electoral democracy”), the criminal neglect of social welfare and social institutions (“laissez-faire”) and the contempt of the new ruling classes (“progressive elites”) for the mass of the population, their interests and even their physical survival.
The national legitimacy of the Putin regime rests on two pillars: his partial restoration of Russian strength in the world, and the fact that he restored a measure of order, prosperity and state responsibility after the chaos of the 1990s. This has included forcing the Russian economic elites to concentrate their wealth within Russia, where they can be made to pay taxes and support the economy during periods of crisis, as after 2008 and at present. Cynical, ruthless and corrupt though he is, Putin seems to me to exemplify something John Maynard Keynes once said about Georges Clemenceau, the leader of France during World War I:
He felt about France what Pericles felt of Athens—unique value in her, nothing else mattering; but his theory of politics was Bismarck’s. He had one illusion—France; and one disillusion—mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least.
One could hardly call Putin a civic nationalist, but he is not an ethnic nationalist either. He is a Russian state nationalist—a very important distinction that has escaped many Western commentators. The criterion for membership of the Russian power elites is not ethnic origin but loyalty to the Russian state, as presently embodied in Putin.
My abhorrence of the form of globalization experienced by Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s has become even stronger over time, as I have seen how some of the same patterns have begun to corrupt and undermine Western democracy as well. It is nice to be a “citizen of the world” when the profits you have wrung from particular societies are safely stowed away in the Cayman Islands and you can buy every kind of service and protection on international markets. As has been made even more clear in the midst of this pandemic, however, the rest of us depend on the services, rights and protections derived from being citizens of particular states.
In his latest book, Upheaval, on how nations respond to crises, Jared Diamond borrows a term therapists use in relation to individuals, “ego strength,” to suggest “a related concept important for nations, namely ‘national identity.’” To measure a nation’s “ego strength” is to measure how able it is to frame its response to crises through national agreement—as opposed to allowing pressure to break the country into conflicting groups—and then to stick to the decisions that have been reached for as long as it takes to overcome the crises.
As with individuals, so with nations, “ego strength” can take good or bad forms and be used to support good or bad causes. Without it, however, it is difficult to achieve anything at all. The task of nations therefore is to cultivate forms of national identity that are sufficiently strong and unitary but also inclusive and reasonably tolerant of difference, and are specific to the nation concerned without being directed against other nations. Such a balance is extremely difficult to achieve and will always be flawed; nonetheless, there seems to me to be enough in the democratic traditions of the U.S. and European nations to give us hope that something of the sort can be achieved.
Among liberals and on the left, a strong prejudice has grown over the past two generations against any kind of nationalism, even of the least ethnic and most civic kind. I have become convinced, however, that every social-democratic project in which I believe, including the Green New Deal, depends on national states that are strong enough to resist the bad byproducts of globalization and to mobilize resources behind reform; and experience has taught me that this in turn depends on there being in their populations a sufficient ego strength—a sufficient sense, that is, of national identity, cohesion and mutual responsibility. The New Deal in the U.S., like the creation of welfare states in Europe after 1945, was based on a broad and enduring national consensus that included many conservative voters. This is the kind of consensus we will need if a Green New Deal is ever to be implemented and survive over decades—as it must be if climate change is to be mitigated.
Of course, it is vitally important that national cohesion not be sought on ethnic or racial grounds; given the heterogeneous nature of Western societies today, such a nationalism would inevitably tend toward fascism. Fortunately, the United States also has a strong tradition of civic nationalism, with a successful history of integrating and assimilating immigrants. And it is this tradition that provides both the strongest basis for progressive programs and the strongest barrier against ethnic chauvinism.
As for the greatest classical objection to nationalism—that it fosters militarism and therefore war—this argument has become much weaker in recent decades. Both the existence of nuclear weapons and the memory of the catastrophes of the twentieth century have meant that a deliberate decision to start a war between great powers has become far less likely. Moreover, there has been a cultural demilitarization in most affluent societies in Asia as well as in the West. Trump’s supporters certainly have aggressive instincts, but they have learned something from the awful examples of the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump was elected in part thanks to a promise not to get the U.S. involved in more ground wars. (It should also be noted that all the Western military campaigns of the past generation have been strongly supported by liberals and justified in terms of liberal internationalist values.)
There are therefore, in my view, strong pragmatic reasons for the redevelopment of civic nationalisms. There is also, in addition, a philosophical argument for supporting this development, which relates to the issue of responsibility. In his lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber famously contrasted two different personal ethics: an ethic of conviction (Gesinnungsethik), focused on the moral virtue of one’s actions, and an ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik), focused on an assessment of their likely consequences for others. Although he recognized that all politics involves some negotiation between these two ethics, he held the latter to be the ethic appropriate to statesmen, politicians and public servants.
Over the past generation and more, the progressive intelligentsia has spoken chiefly in terms of an ethic of conviction, of a commitment to moral principles rather than a duty to examine and take moral and political responsibility for possible consequences. This is to be seen most clearly in their support for what amounts to an unlimited right to migration, regardless of the results for Western democracies. Where these thinkers have spoken of responsibilities, they have generally meant responsibilities to humanity in general, not to the countries of which the writers concerned are citizens.
But while a feeling of responsibility to humanity may be morally sound in itself, is it actually responsible? Not just Burke with his little platoon but a long line of liberal philosophers stretching back to David Hume have argued that, in practice, the great majority of human beings feel the strongest real commitment to those closest to them, and this sense weakens the further it is extended. It has been miserably apparent for a long time now that most citizens of Western democracies do not in fact feel a strong sense of responsibility for people in other societies. Nor do the examples of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere suggest that even most Western aid workers, human rights activists and advisers on democracy are ready to act on their feeling of responsibility, if it is going to involve serious risks and hardships.
As for progressive statements about the need for nation-states to surrender key powers to global institutions, this is simply not going to happen outside Europe, beyond very limited areas. States may agree to cooperate, but such cooperation can always be withdrawn. International agreements are indeed highly valuable, but it is individual states that have to implement their terms and be strong enough to do so. Thus it is extremely desirable that the United States reenter the Paris Agreement to address climate change, but the domestic actions necessary to fulfill America’s commitments will have to be taken by the state; and for that to happen, as the current situation starkly demonstrates, a national consensus will need to be built behind politicians who favor the agreement and have the power to enforce it.
The pandemic offers another glaring example of this truth. Regardless of what is decided by international institutions like the World Health Organization, there will be no way to limit the global spread of the virus if nation-states are not strong enough to enforce lockdowns, close borders and, in the future, conduct mass vaccinations. In this sense, the pandemic may be a kind of test run for the effort to limit climate change, which likewise conjoins commitment to humanity with commitment to the interests and perhaps the future survival of one’s own country. Greenhouse gases from developed countries cause climate change across the globe, and in the short to medium term poorer countries will be the worst victims. Therefore an ethic of responsibility to humanity requires that we limit our national emissions. But in the longer run, unchecked climate change will mortally threaten Western nations too. Therefore an ethic of national responsibility requires that we reduce our national emissions.
To limit our national emissions will mean fighting against entrenched financial and political interests and therefore creating a consensus powerful enough to defeat those interests. Practically speaking, in order to mobilize the public support that will be necessary, we cannot be afraid to appeal to national belonging, national interest and fears for national survival, and to insist much more strictly on the duties as well as the rights of national citizenship. Yet we should not be ashamed to do so, either. The alternative to forging a successful civic nationalism is, as I have learned, not a better and more humane state but a failed one.
Art credit: Ethan Murrow
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