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World Went to Hell When We Threw Out the Habsburgs…

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Barry Stentiford has a brief but strongly argued article at SWJ on the problems of the ethnically based nation state:

Despite it faulty assumptions and deadly affects, the idea will not die. In briefings, conference panels, informational lectures, and classrooms, it has become the default argument. The border between India and Pakistan was arbitrarily drawn by the British when they partitioned India; the Baluchs are divided by the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Kurds are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yes they are. And that is simply the way most nation-states are. For Americans to push for the ethnically based nation-state is truly bizarre, for in such a world, Boston’s North End would be part of Italy, and sections of Los Angeles would belong to Laos. National borders drawn for whatever reasons are national borders. The problems that plague so many nations in post-colonial areas stem from the inability of some governments to extend control over all areas nominally under their sovereignty, not from the thwarting of some idealized alignment of borders with ethnic divisions. Yet the non-alignment of national borders with tribal, ethic, or linguistic groups remains part of the introduction for a host of issues and problems. It sounds sophisticated but in practice its implantation has been destructive. It is an idea that needs to be added to the scrap heap of history.

 

There’s nothing particularly new for people familiar with the theory and arguments, but it nevertheless is a nice corrective to a zombie idea run amok.  I especially like the discussion of how the ethnicity based state was originally understood as a liberal concept, designed to detach ethnic communities from hereditary monarchies such as the Habsburgs and create an logic of the state in which authority implicitly manifested from the people.  Turns out, of course, that ethnic nationalism was probably the single most illiberal force of the twentieth century, and that defining an ethnic community in terms of the nation-state is inherently violent.

Caveat is this; with the genie of ethnic nationalism released and combined with the power of modern media, the statemaking project of early modern Europe is no longer possible, at least in terms that we’re willing to accept.  Focus should indeed be on developing the capability of states to accept and govern ethnically heterogeneous populations, and we shouldn’t buy the argument that changing borders will solve all problems.  However, it is possible that some ethnic identities have become so salient, and some relationships between identity communities so poisoned, that reconciliation is effectively impossible on any reasonable timeframe.  But this probably constitutes a distinct minority of the cases under discussion.

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  • “with the genie of ethnic nationalism released and combined with the power of modern media, the statemaking project of early modern Europe is no longer possible, at least in terms that we’re willing to accept.”

    What about civic nationalism?

    • There ain’t no such creature. It’s almost always a sleight of hand to hide the ethnocultural character of the “nation,” and often to layer a hostility to political dissent on top of it.

      • John

        That may be so, but French nationalism is nonetheless a very different beast from German nationalism.

        • dave

          Really? Tell that to the Algerians.

          On another tack, there is a persistent myth that French define ‘nationality’ civically, and the nasty Germans do so with reference to blood ancestry. It has some traction in the later C20, but as a matter of established fact, in the C19 it was the French who first introduced the concept of ancestrally-determined nationality, and persisted with it for over 100 years.

          • Really? Tell that to the Algerians.

            What does this even mean? Because France fought colonial wars, there are no differences in the character of its nationalism?

          • LeeEsq

            Why tell it to the Algerians when you could tell it to the Jews and the Roman. The various European nationalities still have problems incorporating Jewish and Roma identity into their identity and Jews and Roma have been in Europe for much longer than the Algerians.

      • In Europe this is largely true. It is also true in much of Asia. But, there are some civic nations. Ghana is one. It is not a defacto Akan ethnic state. This came about largely as a result of the policies of Kwame Nkrumah in 1957-1966. Chief among them making English the official language. But, also an emphasis on Ghanaian identity being more important than Fante, Asante, Ga, or Ewe. These ethnic identities unlike ethnic identities in Russia and Central Asia have far less political importance than a shared Ghanaian citizenship and identity.

      • Scott Lemieux

        There ain’t no such creature. It’s almost always a sleight of hand to hide the ethnocultural character of the “nation,” and often to layer a hostility to political dissent on top of it.

        Your current province of residence, of course, providing a class example.

      • Awfully big claim there – you’re really going to deny the entirety of the French Revolutionary conception of the state? Or the civic republican vision of the cosmopolitan city-states of Italy and the lowlands during the Renaissance? Etc.

        • The French Revolutionary conception is the core example. It was question-begging from the beginning: who is this “the nation” of whom you speak, once you’ve denied the legitimacy of your inherited political institutions? Either it’s “the people whose ancestors happen to have been conquered by the West Franks and their various thuggish descendants, from the Basque Country to Brittany to Alsace,” which is not a category with moral agency, or it’s Le Peuple Francais, who don’t yet know they’re French but will be made to think so by the Jacobin-to-Third-Republican enterprise of stamping out all their primitive non-French identities and languages and explaining to them forcefully that leurs ancestres were les gaulois and that their moral identity comes through their identification with the language of Paris.

          The city-states were a different enterprise– and they weren’t nation-states, and couldn’t long survive the rise of the nation-state. If you like, you could think of the claim I deny as being that any nation-states are relevantly like the city-states.

  • DrDick

    There is also the problem that the theory of ethnic nationalism has also been seized on by various minority groups to advance their own agendas, as well as by majority groups to impose their own cultural identity on the nation (Tom Tancredo anyone?).

  • wengler

    Ethnicity is a poor basis for a state structure, even if it is a strong one. People don’t necessarily consider their ethnic identity of primary importance, especially when they are within an organization that doesn’t emphasize its importance.

    The Ottoman Turks, for example, tried to keep their crumbling empire together by appealing to Islamic religiosity among their subjects. This, in turn, led to Christian Arabs to emphasize an Arab identity which was very popular in the 20th century. Islamic identity and political solidarity then came back with the failure of Arab unity.

    States are inherently violent. I agree with your premise but I don’t know if there is any evidence to show that multiethnic states are less violent.

  • That’s why pre-WW I Austro-Marxists opposed breaking up Austria-Hungary and wanted national minorities to have cultural self-determination rather than their own nation states:
    http://benjamins.com/cgi-bin/t_articles.cgi?bookid=JLP%204%3A2&artid=135059580

    • LeeEsq

      Caveat: They wanted all national minorities except the Jews to have cultural self-determination, Jews were to explicitly forcibly integrated into the various other groups rather than allowed to have a culture of their own.

  • mpowell


    Caveat is this; with the genie of ethnic nationalism released and combined with the power of modern media, the statemaking project of early modern Europe is no longer possible, at least in terms that we’re willing to accept.

    I think certain features of modern warfare and insurgency also play a role here, but this is a very interesting point.

  • Tybalt

    In addition to those twin forces of culture and language (which I see as sort of an extension of Robert’s invocation of ethnic nationalism and “the media”) there’s another important way in which statemaking is now not possible in Europe – law. With the structure of public international law being consensual in nature, and with only state actors being recognized agents in international law, you have a situation where ethnic communities are protected by the self-determination doctrine and doubly so by the consent doctrine. Makes it hard – though not impossible – to tear down states (in places like Europe).

  • bobbyp

    Caveat is this; with the genie of ethnic nationalism released and combined with the power of modern media, the statemaking project of early modern Europe is no longer possible, at least in terms that we’re willing to accept.

    Israel?

    • Uncle Kvetch

      Israel?

      That’s different, because shut up.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Or Palestine?

        With the exception of a handful of supporters of a truly multiethnic single state, such as the late Tony Judd, almost everyone who rejects the Israeli national project enthusiastically supports the Palestinian national project (and vice versa).

        The most popular answer to the problem of Israel/Palestine — the “two-state solution” — attempts to affirm both national projects.

        • John F

          “However, it is possible that some ethnic identities have become so salient, and some relationships between identity communities so poisoned, that reconciliation is effectively impossible on any reasonable timeframe. But this probably constitutes a distinct minority of the cases under discussion.”

    • Israel?

      Israel snuck in under the wire. Its foundation in an ethnic identity was already an anachronism, but the – er – recent unpleasantness caused the world to treat it as a special case.

      • LeeEsq

        Israel no more snuck under the wire than the various other ethnic and/or religious states that formed after WWII snuck under the wire. Even in Europe, Yugoslavia, Czechslovakia, and the U.S.S.R broke up into various ethnic states after Communism could keep them together. There is no evidence that Israel/Palestine could have been kept together as one country where the various identities of the people could exist in relative harmony. The Jews would have insisted on emphasizing the Jewish connection to the land. The Arabs with unity with other Arabs and this would be detrimental to the Jews. The Islamists on a pan-Islamic identity and this would be detrimental to the Jews and Christians.

  • dave

    The power of this particular bad idea is demonstrated every year in the minds of students, who cannot grasp that the formation of ‘modern’ European borders and identities was in any way a contingent consequence of power-politics. For them, the historically-determined emergence to self-determination of the ethnic-national group is as much a natural fact as the passing of the seasons.

    • Maybe a discussion of Frisian, Ruthenian or Ukrainian states would help? Or indeed a series of maps of the changing borders of Polish states.

      • dave

        Oh, they see all that, but their brains seem to interpret it the same way a naive understanding of evolution interprets the inevitable demise of Neanderthal Man in the face of ‘advanced’ us…

        • Things that make you go Hm.

        • Yep. It’s a very, very hard habit to break them of.

    • DrDick

      Hobsbawm has some great examples of the artificial constrution of national cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • “Focus should indeed be on developing the capability of states to accept and govern ethnically heterogeneous populations, and we shouldn’t buy the argument that changing borders will solve all problems.”

    Isn’t that where both governance and peacekeeping/peacemaking initiatives are right now? And have been for going on 20 years? There’s also the question of social acceptance of increasingly heterogeneous populations; pre- and post-Schröder Germany offer a good case study.

    I’m also thinking there are thresholds at which public opinion has been observed to change, and that structures and policies to keep in mind. Something along the lines of minorities under 5% are practically invisible; minorities in the 10% range (Turks in Germany, for example) are disproportionately visible and present in public discourse, while minorities in the 30% range (Albanians in Macedonia) are a structural issue for the titular nationality and the state. There’s probably also a literature on situations in which the titular nation has just a plurality, but I’m not familiar with it.

    “However, it is possible that some ethnic identities have become so salient, and some relationships between identity communities so poisoned, that reconciliation is effectively impossible on any reasonable timeframe. But this probably constitutes a distinct minority of the cases under discussion.”

    But this minority is likely to consume a disproportionate share of policy makers’ time and attention, just because they are such a pain. Abkhazia, for example.

    • ajay

      There’s probably also a literature on situations in which the titular nation has just a plurality, but I’m not familiar with it.

      There are certainly situations where the titular nation has a minority: Jordan is 65% Palestinian, IIRC.

      • John F

        Other examples were Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, Iraq, Lebanon

        Lebanon seems to have evolved into a complex power sharing arrangement.

        Current additional examples include Syria, but you have to wonder how long the Alawites will hold on.

        Most of Central and South America in recent (last few centuries) involved rule by a minority ethnic group…

        Of course Syria is not a racist nation in the sense that South Africa was- Syria seems to have been run more on a Habsurg model- with the ruling clan acting as something of a referee vis a vis the various ethnic groups – I think think the Government in Syria could have had chance at forging a common national identity… but its general thuggishness and odiousness in other areas is probably going to prevent that.

    • There are a lot of republics in the Russian Federation where the titular nationality does not have a majority. This was also true of some independent states that were part of the USSR such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They achieved a titular majority in the post-Soviet era through massive outmigration of Russians, Germans, and other non-native nationalities. This complicated by the fact a number of Caucasian republics such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and during Soviet times the Chechen-Ingush ASSR have two titular nationalities. Daghestan has I believe ten titular nationalities. None of them a majority.

    • LeeEsq

      Jews usually were around one to five percent of the population of the countries where they lived. They were never really practically invisible and the states where they lived usually thought it necessary to exert baneful pressure on them.

  • Bruce Webb

    Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    But did the Bush Administration insistence on the integrity of the totally cobbled together post WWI Yugoslavia really serve anyone well? Who exactly out there now insists that independent Czech and Slovak Rebublics are a bad thing or that Latvia and Lithuaniania would still be better off as provinces of Mother Russia?

    Not that you can draw hard and fast lines. Should France have been separated on clear linguistic kinds between Langue d’oc and Langue d’oil? And what would you do with Brittany and Alsace in that formulation? But pining for the days when ‘national’ borders were set by the extent to which imperial houses were able to set their military footprints is jut crazy. Do we really want to return to the day when their was such a thing as the Spanish Netherlands or where British interests were subordinated to the territorial ambitions of the Electors of Hanover, aka George I and II of England?

    I get snark. But get a grip. Yes nationalism is mesy, tell it to the ETA. Which made news this weekby giving up an anti-imperialist armed revolt that in some respect dates back doer than a millennium.

    • dave

      Nationalism is a fetid stream flowing from the poison swamp of human capacity for self-aggrandisement and xenophobia. Messy doesn’t begin to cover it. There were many good reasons for getting shot of monarchical imperialism, and many nationalist reasons. But none of the nationalist reasons were good ones.

  • Josh G.

    Forget about ethnic nationalism and instead focus on the classical liberal idea that government is based on the consent of the governed. In many parts of the world, these amount to the same thing in practice, since tribal identity is so strong that people will not consent to be governed by those to whom they hold no ethnic affinity.

    You say that “Focus should indeed be on developing the capability of states to accept and govern ethnically heterogeneous populations.” But with the Kurdish situation (mentioned in the article you quote), isn’t the problem precisely that the artificial states containing this ethnic group are all too willing to “govern” them in a disproportionately harsh and cruel manner?

    Keep in mind that even after 235 years of being one nation, the USA still has serious problems with accepting ethnic minorities as full members of the body politic. How much more difficult will it be for countries that have no indigenous tradition of self-government and inalienable rights?

  • BrianB

    I find it interesting, and shocking, and confusing, that there is no discussion here of the necessity of addressing economic factors in defining nation states. The military footprint referred to above was a tool for economic expansion. Perhaps in the post-industrial world, this no longer applies, but isn’t that a point worthy of discussion?

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