Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

By Fox, Robin W. | The National Interest, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern


Fox, Robin W., The National Interest


IN WESTERN EUROPE, the unity of the EC seems to be unraveling. The Balkans are being rebalkanized. In the Middle East, "national" identity compounded by sectarian Islam asserts itself in wars that drag in the whole world. In Africa, the "nations" that were the legacy of arbitrary colonial boundaries are riven with tribal strife, and the constantly ingenuous West is shocked to find the Zulus killing their fellow black South Africans to retain their own distinct "national" status. India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia are repressing local nationalisms, and the "unity" of China is one of the last engineered by centralized totalitarian force, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component nations. And so the sorry tale--from the Western progressive liberal point of view--continues. Why can't the world seem to settle down into nice well-ordered democratic nation-states on the Western model?

This is not the first time these questions have been raised. My own interest in nationalism was sparked early by the internationalism with which I grew up from the thirties through the fifties. Its two forms--of international socialism, and the idealistic hope in the League of Nations or United Nations--both seemed, from the start, doomed. The workers of the world just flat did not unite. On the contrary, they seemed very happy to get a chance to dish it out to the workers of other nations. And again, the sorry history of the UN (following on the League) showed that governments of the nations of the world would not unite either. The UN always seemed to me to be killed by its own premise: that world peace and good governance could come about by the cooperation of independent nation-states.

United Nations was almost an oxymoron. Nations existed to be disunited from each other, only coming together in temporary alliances out of self interest. Here it seemed that the utopian internationalists had the better idea, in that they wanted to abolish nations and achieve a "brotherhood of man" that refused to recognize artificial national boundaries. Theoretically, that made more sense, except that the boundaries just were not artificial; they were very real. And the UN by adding to its councils ever more self-declared "nations" (even if they were islands smaller than most small towns) constantly compounded its problems.

Internationalism of all varieties then seemed to be an idealistic failure. People at large just didn't think globally. But nationalism itself had major problems, not least that many "nations" and especially (but not exclusively) "new nations" were indeed artificial entities: the creations of colonial map makers (Kuwait is a nation?) or the Versailles Treaty carvers-up of eastern Europe. Many of these "nations" cut across more ancient racial, religious, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries, especially in Africa where whole tribes were split in this way, or forcibly incorporated with traditional enemies. This raised the issue of the relation of "nation states" to these other units. For what seemed to be required of nation states was that they behave like homogeneous tribes, even if this was plainly a fiction. The problem continues to plague modern "new nationalisms." The Scottish nationalists, for example, have to plaster over the tremendous differences between the lowland (Presbyterian, mercantile, urban) Scots, and the highlanders: Gaelic, Catholic, of Irish origin and only recently emerged from territorial and kinship dominated tribalism. (There were more Scots fighting against Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden than for him.) And the Republican Irish embarrassment over their northern Protestant brethren needs no elaboration.

Back To Fundamentals

INSTEAD OF endlessly multiplying examples, we need to get back to the fundamental questions about nationalism: When has a "nation" reached the limits of its integration? What are the sure signs that its various ethnic, racial, territorial, religious, linguistic, and interest groups no longer feel a common bond or purpose?

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