The Price of Nations…

Dear readers, the posts by both Blaise and Burt have put me into a contemplative mood. The mention of the Romanovs and Massoud put that germinated into a thought: What does it cost to make a nation. And by nation, let us understand I mean the IR definition of nation. A people, an identity with shared language, culture and religion. It may or may not express itself as a state. States can exist without a nation, and vice versa. The kurds are a nation but not (technically) a state. Great Britain is a state, but is actually a composite of 4 nations. What is the process for creating a nation? How do people go from tribal, cultural or ethnic identities into something larger?

The case of the Romanovs is instructive. The great project of the Romanov Tsars was to turn a disparate, sprawling empire into something at least resembling a nation. It tried through religion. Russian Orthodox Christianity was a major force in the nurturing of Russian identity. It tried language. It tried encouraging culture, works of authors and the creation of great modern cities like St. Petersburg. But all of that was not enough. In the end it took one man’s mad ambition to craft the Russian national identity. It took Napoleon.

The defining question of the 19th century, as the Enlightenment waned and romanticism waxed was that of nationalism. The French Revolutionary War and Napoleon would take the genie out of the bottle. The Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Habsburgs fought for their very survival. They mobilized their own people, with various levels of success toward a “people’s war”.

The results were mixed. The costs were horrific.

The “First War of the Fatherland” may have cost Napoleon his empire, but it was paid with a terrible price by the people of Russia. Aside from losing about 1% of its population simply in the service of arms against the invader, several hundred thousand more died from either direct abuses or from the “requisitions” taken by the French Army.

Yet for all these horrible costs, they became the foundation of national myths. Popular history, great orchestral pieces, epic literature all came out of the horrific “Patriotic War” or “War of the Fatherland.”

Afghanistan is not doing well. But let’s not pretend “western enlightened civilization” happened without bloodshed, or without horrific abuses. Or that the lesson from all these wars was that white people should stop fighting eachother and invade/civilize the rest of the world.

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38 thoughts on “The Price of Nations…

  1. Geek moment–as soon as I saw the title of your post I wondered if you meant nation or really meant state.  I’m ridiculously gratified that you made that explicit right at the beginning.

    More substantively, I’m deeply in agreement with you.  The concept of a nation is just one more place we find to draw a line between “us” and “them,” with all the attendant violence toward them that this entails.

    Consider Iraq.  Prior to our invasion, there was near unanimity among those who understood the region that Iraq was not a proper nation-state, and that releasing the top-down control (as ugly as Hussein’s regime was), would lead to an explosion of violence.  Consider Hitler’s hyper-nationalistic drive and what it cost.  Consider the problems in Africa caused by drawing state lines without regard for national lines–and that’s how it’s always phrased, that the state-drawing was the problem, but that’s true only because the national sentiment is damned near ineradicable.

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          • Blaise,

            A nation is a group of people, not a particular political structure. Language is in fact one of the most important defining features of a nation, along with other shared cultural traditions and, most often, a sense of common ethnic identity.

            It’s an amorphous concept, to be sure, as the boundaries of the group identity can evolve over time, but no less socially meaningful at any given time, whatever the particular boundaries of that time, for all that.

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            • It’s all a load of precious old bunk.   If the world were properly organized, we should see it organized by cantons and confederations.

              Africa is a nightmare of Procrustean borders established by the colonial powers, their national languages remain those of the colonialists faut de mieux.  No lasting democracies have emerged:  leaders emerge from the barracks, not the ballot box.

              Nelson Mandela once envisioned a United States of Africa, organized along such lines.

              The Middle East would benefit from such an arrangement.   Let these tribes establish some homeland city they could call a capital, that’s all fine and good as far as it goes.  The Czech Republic and Slovakia split up in the Velvet Divorce, only to find they got along substantially better than they did as a single country.   They’ve formed a working alliance with Hungary and Poland, the Visegrad Group.

              But let the entire second half of the 20th century serve as the cautionary example of what happens when a colony attempts to become a nation without at least some intermediate phase of independent states.   Balkanization is not an entirely bad thing if it creates enough limited sovereignty to engage in meaningful diplomacy.

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  2. I suspect that at least part of what had a “civilsing” influence on the darker aspects of religion in the west was the fact that all the religious extremists killed each other, leaving the more domesticated versions to pick up the pieces.

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    • Not exactly.  Pius IX is the last pope with a working army but he still maintains a scrap of land and his Swiss Guards as a token of the forces he once commanded.   The religious extremists didn’t kill each other off, they politically castrated the Pope and put an end to his wars, starting with the Treaty of Westphalia, where the rise of the nation state trumped religious allegiance.

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      • It’s later than Westphalia, it’s the Napoleonic era.  Great Brittan would still tear itself apart along religious lines for another half century.  Then it would be not so much nation states, but a declining Spain, a rising France, and a re-emergent England (and the Dutch temporarily fighting above its weight, Portugal fighting below it) that would fight for the continent and, moreover, for world wide empire until the Peace of Vienna created the lasting roots of modern nation states (which would eventually generate Germany and Italy, making the gameboard of Western Europe complete)

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  3. Yet for all these horrible costs, they became the foundation of national myths.

    This is the key. Language, culture, religion, etc. have to be woven together into a national grand narrative or national myth, but something exterior has to do the weaving.

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  4. Switzerland has maintained a nation with four working languages.  They make it work with a strong cantonal system and a weak central government, entirely appropriate to Afghanistan at present.

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        • Blaise,

          Perhaps among the general public, but not in the social sciences or the State Department it isn’t. it’s still a crucial term that stands in careful distinction to a state, and the general public is the loser for not understanding the distinction.

          As long as the Kurds give a shit about being split up between multiple states, the term nation will still matter. As long as we still wonder what are the causes of disfunction in African states, the term will still matter.  And when you have Chinese intellectuals pondering the fact that China has never–yet, at least–had a nationalist moment, it sure as hell still matters.

          Reducing it to xenophobia is just wrong on multiple levels, although I wish we were at a point in history where that was true, and I hope that day comes.

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            • The borders of the world were not drawn by the people within them.

              Too simplistic.  Many parties played a role in drawing the borders, not just conquerors and colonizers, but also the people within.  Consider South Sudan.  Consider the United States. Consider Estonia.

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              • The people within America are long dead, and oft forgotten.

                The borders of the world were drawn with wind, and fire, and ice. Holdfasts and keeps, oasises and solid ground. Once things were built with Reasons. Now, some say the world has gone mad. Like an ill-tutored child, we shall find our way. The green time is coming after all, isn’t it?

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                • The people within America are long dead, and oft forgotten.

                  You and I are still here, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Along with about 330 million other people.  And the great majority of those people are intent on drawing the boundaries between the U.S. and Mexico with increasingly big markers.

                  Yes, I know to whom you refer. They also drew their own lines around themselves; they just couldn’t defend them in the long run, and a new people drawing a new line won.  It’s ugly, but it’s reality, and it supports, rather than abrogates, my argument.

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                  • The lines are still there, the paths renamed, but still we walk (or drive) where they once walked. There’s an Indian trail 100 feet from my house. The creek which it used to follow now flows under the road.

                    Laziness is one of the fundamental truths of mankind.

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              • I am afraid it is just that simple.   The model of the nation-state is defunct.   There are just too many of us.   The wars we see today will be viewed in future times as a vast, painful molting process, erasing the pencil marks on the maps put there by the colonialists armed with nothing but four glasses and a bottle of port in some drawing room in Berlin.

                Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were specifically created to divide up the Kurds, the Alawi and the Shiites, in the cynical expectation it would reduce their influence.   Similarly, the Durand Line was created to divide the Pashtun.

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                • The model of the nation-state is defunct.

                  I’m not defending the model of the nation-state.  I find it rather pernicious (just one more reason to despise Woody Wilson), and I am fascinated with the on-going European experiment at multi-nation-state state-building.  But that doesn’t mean none of the borders in the world was drawn, or at the very least ferociously defended, by those within them.  And it doesn’t mean that the concept of the nation has yet lost the excessively important social resonance that both you and I dislike.

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                  • If there are un-simplistic wrinkles, and you’re right, those wrinkles are undeniable, we must distinguish between the borders drawn by a millenium of ongoing warfare in Europe and those borders drawn by the colonialists.

                    I have become acquainted with a certain species of effete sophists, often seen at university, the privileged scions of Africa’s elite.    These folks are much-exercised on the topic of Colonialism and Missionaries and their lasting pernicious influences.   I launch into them, firing both barrels, informing them their own grandparents rose to power on the strength of their associations with and educations at the hands of those missionaries and colonialists and the only reason they’re here in the States is because their parents retain enough influence with their sorry little countries to fund their educational expeditions.   In fact, their entire raison d’être is to perpetuate their overlordship of their fellow citizens and to become  the New Colonial Overlords who will loot their countries and oppress their own linguistic minorities within the borders established by those Colonialists.

                     

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                    • Agreed. Wholly.

                      But an important part of what enables them to do so is nationalism.  When African colonies became independent states, political entrepreneurs found that basing their political claims on their ethnicity worked better for achieving power than basing them on a state-wide cross-ethnic platform.

                      Saddam Hussein did this as well.  I always laughed at people who claimed he gassed his own people–those swamp Arabs were definitely not his people.

                       

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                    • The Ba’athist political philosophy was based on a doctrine of pan-Arabism.   The Americans could have made the tribal model work to their benefit when they invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, leveraging a more realistic model of political identity, recreating the old Ottoman vilayet and sanjak / qadiluk system.

                      It would have been as simple as calling a meeting at the edge of town, under a tent, summoning all the worthies of the city to a conference.   Each person would be asked who he looked to for justice, that second tier of persons would be identified and they would nominate a qadi, a judge.   He would be given a military radio, an American military attaché from the ranks of the S2 who would then coordinate with the qadi to ensure the pointy end pointed forward and the greasy side stayed down.

                      Local government, by and for the people.   Immediate, binding and workable, the basis for all subsequent diplomacy.

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                    • Such a methodology would create a network of interlocking hierarchies, trivial to implement as a tree structure.    Where disagreements arose, they’re identified as political considerations worthy of diplomatic efforts and intervention.   Ancient feuds become obvious in such a topology, conflicted loyalties pop out of the data immediately, tiers of intermediaries can be put to the task of reconciling the parties, the data available to everyone.

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    • Switzerland is also an artificial creation that was helped along by the Vienna system. Remember that the pre-“Helevetic” confederacy was effectively a collection of independent, sovereign cantons that banded together for mutual defense. Then they had to fight the Sonderbundskrieg during the great year of revolution, and it’s likely that if not for the Vienna Congress choosing to make Switzerland an eternally “neutral” entity, there would have been outside intervention and partition between the French and the German states.

      Nationalism and self-determination are alive and well. From Scottish home rule being a distinct possibility, to the autonomy movements in Spain, there’s still a good bit of life in those old bones, for better or for worse. Arguably it was the horrific experience of the peninsular war that kept Spain from fragmenting.

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