the wrath of nations


The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism by William Pfaff Publisher: Touchstone (1994) ISBN: 0671892487

This was a very challenging book for me to read. The writing is dense, often obtuse. It covers a great deal of history and culture, and presents, on the whole, a fairly sober, balanced view of the progression of politics and political thought. Pfaff’s comments about nationalism are thought-provoking. He draws together historical events and highlights the long-term effects of a system of interconnected causes.

I highlighted a great many passages, some of which are presented here for your consumption. These should give a feel for the material, and should hopefully be thought-provoking enough to encourage others to read this book.

Chapter One: Nationalism

Nationalism is a phenomenom of the European nineteen century. It is a political consequence of the literary-intellectual movement called Romantacism, a Central European reaction to the universalizing, and therefor disorienting, ideas of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment.

...nationalism occupies the moral and emotional ground otherwise held by political ideology.
Only a Serb can appreciate why Serbia is worth dying for, since Serbia otherwise represents nothing of more value or moment to the detached observer than does Croatia, or Guatemala, or Tibet.
Nationalism, of course, is intrinsically absurd. Why should the accident - fortune or misfortune - of birth as an American, Albanian, Scot or Fiji Islander impose loyalties that dominate an individual life and structure a society so as to place it in formal conflict with others?
The modern western nation is a practical affair. It provides defense, civil order, a system of justice, an economic structure, a framework for industry and for commercial transactions, systems of transportation and communications, and so on. It demands solidarity among its citizens, whichs means their willingness to accept the moral and legal norms of the collectivity, to pay taxes and otherwise support the government apparatus from which all benefit, and to come to the common defense.
The twentieth century has belonged to nationalism. Nationalism destroyed western imperialism and the colonial system, and also destroyed the ideological internationalisms which have been the distinctive political phenomena of the twentieth century, Leninism and Marxism.
The modern idea of political freedom is the product of Enlightenment philosophy itself, given practical form and an ideology in a revolution meant to free people from arbitrary power and to empower them as individuals.
The nineteenth century belonged to internationalism: the internationalism of imperialism.

Chapter Two: Nations and Nationalism

The development of nationalism in the nineteenth century was connected with the traumas of modernization, which perturbed the social order in parts of the essentially feudal and largely preindustrial Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Old communities and political attachments were undermined by secularization, urbanization, and the influence of liberal thought, together with the scientists’ attack upon religion.

Nation is a deceptively difficult term to define, applicable to peoples as well as to states. Language is frequently held to be the essential element in a nation's existence. ... Yet quadralingual Switzerland is a nation, and so is modern China with all its languages, and probably India is today a nation, and the United States still would be a nation even if it became bilingual and "multicultural" - although it certainly would not be the same nation. On the other hand, Serbs and Croats are the same people and speak the same language, although one writes it in the Cyrillic alphabet and the othe rin the Roman, and they certainly are today not one nation but two.
Contemporary academic discussions of nationalism have treated it as a force in the development and modernization of a political society, or they have tried - without success, in my view - to fit it into a progressive or Marxist conception of historical evolution, in order to demonstrate that it is transitional or non-essential.
the late Hugh Seton-Watson ... wrote that after a lifetime of study he was "driven to the conclusion that no 'scientific definition' of a nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists. All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one. It is not necessary that the whole of the population should so feel, or so behave, and it is not possible to lay down dogmatically a minimum proportion of a population which must be so affected. When a significant group holds this belief, it possess 'national consciousness.'

Chapter Three: Internationalism

The peasant of premodern Europe thought of himself as a Christian - as opposed to a Moor or Turk or Jew - but politically he was simply a sdubject of this or that prince or local magnate, or of a distant emperor; he surely was not conscious of himself as a member of a nation in the modern sense. The internationalism of the twentieth century, with its UN, its League of Nations, even its European Community, provides an impoverished comparison to the pervasive internaionalism of medieval society.

Nazism was an internationalist ideology, based on racial categorization and racial myth. Italian Fascism was a doctrine of will and mastery which made a great appeal to radical nationalist circles elsewhere in interwar Europe, but was essentially an expression of Italian national affirmation and expansionism, ambitious to re-create an Italian empire on the model of Rome.
While Nazism exploited national sentiment and the resentments of the "national movement" in Weimar Germany, making drastic use of a theater and rhetoric of nationalism, it was fundamentally an internationalist ideology based on racialist theory. It conceived of itself as the vehicle of Aryan "Nordin" (not specifically German) supremacy over inferior races, of which Jews were merely one - if, in Nazi eyes, the most powerful and dangerous.
The willingness of a significant part of an avowedly atheistic twentieth-century intelligentsia to commit itself to Communism, an ostensibly scientific yet transparently naive simulacrum of messianic religion, merits sober attention as an example of a recurrent factor in political existence.
Nationalism destroyed both these novel and totalitarian forms of despotic internationalism, Nazism and Communism. They were resisted because they were evil, certainly .... But the fundamental political force mobilizing resistance to Hitler was nationalism, and this was true long before even Germany's enemies had grasped the real nature of Nazism and its genocidal aims.

Chapter Four: Hapsburg and Ottoman Internationalism

The peace settlements which followed the First World War, the treaties of Saint-Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, and Sevres, legitimated these claims, following the argument, promoted by the American government, that peoples must themselves be allowed to the sovereignties under which they are to live.

Chapter Five: The Ottoman Aftermath

Empires are not nations. They incorporate nations and have expanding (or shrinking) frontiers. They include rather than exclude, as nations do. They are suitable political vehicles for religious civilizations. However, the modern world demands nations.

Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are the dominant religions of mankind today because they are intellectually alive in ways Hinduism and Buddhism are not. All are combatative, confident, historically inteolerant systems of values and ways of life.
The uneasiness within Islamic society about the Islamic way of lide in the twentieth century derives from two related problems. The first is Islam's failure to formulate a modern conception of politics and government capable of dealing with a non-Islamic world much more powerful in material means, organization, and science. The second problem is the practical consequence tof that discrepancy of power, the colonial legacy: that resentment and sense of powerlessness engendered within Islam by its domination by the West since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - since Britain's conquest of Moghul India and assertion of effective domination over Persia and Egypt, France's conquest of North Africa, and the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Added to that have been Isreal's repeated military humiliations of the Arabs since the 1948 war, and the 1991 defeat of Iraq, the strongest of the Arab states, by a coalition of the United States and the European powers, supported by the Soviet Union, with allies even inside the Arab world itself. The politico-psychological impact of that crisis was intensified by the fact that the Arab states themselves were divided by this conflict, which was produced by one Arab state's act of aggression against another.
A sense of victimization and impotence lies behind the phenomenon of revolutionary Islamic integrism or fundamentalism, which looks for a remedy for Islam's powerlessness in religious orthodoxy and the theocratic state. Islamic fundamentalism responds to a crisis of Islamic political and historical consciousness begun even before the Ottoman collapse at the beginning of this century, which the military and political confrontations of recent years with Isreal and the other western powers have merely intensified.
...the real reason for the West's successful defense, and subsequent victory over Islam, was not western military capacity. It was the ability of Europe in the Renaissance, and subsequently the Enlightenment, to reexamine the fundamentals of its own religions and civilization in the light of the thought of padan antiquity and a philosophical and scientific rationalism.
The Jewish and Christian Bible begins with God's commission to Adam, in Genesis, to rule over the earth adn its creatures; and wesyern civilization has since been distinguished by an exploratory and exploitative approach to the animal kingdom and the material universe. The western belief that the world and history itself are to be mastered to man's advantage has its origin here.
The identification of religion with civilization in Islamic society blocks a solution to its contemporary problems. Christianity from the beginning distinguished between religion and the political, secular order. There were "things that are Caesar's" - legitimately due to Caesar, ruler of an autonomous political and social order. Because of this distinction, it was possible for Europe to develop secular knowledge, a secular culture, and, eventually, even largely to cast off the influence of religion. ... Islam is a priestless religion, unhierarchical, largely without a modern speculative theology. The absence of this has inhibited intellectual and scientific reflection, which might have introduced doubts about the religious interpretation of natural phenomena, as happened in the West, but which woul dalso have made possible a more vigorous response to the intellectual challenge of the West.
There is irony in the fact that Arab scholars preserved Greek philosophy from the ninth to the twelfth centuries and transmitted it to medieval Europe, making it possible for Aquinas to develop a rationlist theological and philosophical system that reconciled pagan Greek thought with Christian though, the very thing Islam failed to accomplish.
The capacity for historical reference of the American political class, not to speak of the American public, risks exhaustion once unich, Hitler, Holocaust, Cuban missle crisis, and Vietnam are cited.
Islamic fundamentalism is a form of "national" resistance, an assertion of political autonomy and independence vis-a-vis the western powers, and an attempt to reclaim a jeopardized cultural independence and wholeness, in which statehood or nationhood is merely means to an end.
Throughout the Islamic world, the fundamentalist movement is a product of the failure of a secular nationalism.
As the golden age cannot be reclaimed, and the cultural crisis deepens under the assault of westernized consumerism and popular communications, with existing governments incapable of a positive response to the western challenge, it is necessary to assume that the Middle Eastern crisis will grow worse. The fundamentalist movement is virtually the only available recourse or consolation, at least for the masses of Islamic society.
It is the essential characteristic of fundamentalism that it is defensive, isolationist, preoccupied with protecting Islam against the West.

Chapter Six: Asian and African Nationalism

China was a civilization ruled by a centralized bureaucracy. It may from our anachronistic viewpoint be considered either an empire or a nation; but surely the Chinese were not conscious of being other than the inevitable order of things?

The notion of the moral superiority of the West was finished in Asia after that, survivng only with respect to the United States, which between the wars and for a brief period after World War II continued to enjoy the reputation of a liberating powe, and itself continued, until its defeat in Vietnam, to believe that it was capable of conveying political enlightenment to backwards people.
The social ideal in such a society was therefore the administrator, selected through meritocratic examination, hence the scholar-administrator, and beyond that the scholar-gentleman. Merchants and soldiers had low prestige. The entrepeneurial and innovative merchant middle classes which modernized the West thus never became a decisive force in China.* * A contemporary western counterpart, on a minor scale, is England, where the dominant social ideal remains aristocratic and agricultural, that of the gentleman landowner.
Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as modern nations, are the products of a militant resistance to the cultural as well as political and military power of China. Because they were apart from the imperial civilization and politically endangered by it, they were from the start forced into a certain "national" mobilzation to assert and defend their particularity.
The West's Christian missionaries went to Asia determined to demonstrate that Asian philosophies were wrong, that Asian religions were blasphemous, and that Asian must worship the unique and omnipotent God known to the Europeans. These missionaries' twentieth-century secular conterparts, whether agents of the World Bank or the Internation Monetary Fund, or American soldiers fighting to impose an Amercian political solution upon Vietnam (or Cambodia), have been equally convinced of the superiority of western political and economic ideas, and equally determined that they be adoped by Asians.
The dominant European ideology of the 1930s and 1940s was Facism, that of the 1950s and 1960s Marxism. African leaders now profess democracy. No other solution remains. But that too is going to fail, in most places at least, because the civil society, civil culture, and enlightened middle class essential to democracy are not there.

Chapter Seven: American Nationalism

The American nation is not like the others. Its nationalism is that of an ideological nation. Its history is seperate. It accepts no comparison with others, and so it has been the most nationalistic of all the major nations. Not only politicians and public men but the people themselves constantly assert its superiority over all the others, as if the virtue of its Constitution were proof of permanent national success.

Nothing that has followed has been thought really to augment or alter the order created by the ratification of the United States Constitution. The Constitution itself has had only to be defended and interpreted, the nation it governs defended against internal division and external threat. Thus a prfound and increasingly immobilizing political conservatism has coexisted with enormous change in society and economy.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president, was unsure that the new nation could survive as a single nation, nor was he fully convinced that it should. ... He held that the legal basis of the association of the states was their power to withdraw at will.
Only if governing power were restricted to the properied classes was there the possibility of containing popular emotionalism, ignorance, and criminality - or so it was held.
The South was broken by the war of 1861-1865, an experience leaving it with a consciousness of failure and of tragedy the rest of the country never possessed.
Woodrow Wilson's liberal internationalism provided an expression of that form of American nationalism more exactly described as national exceptionalism. This holds that American virtues are unparalleled elsewhere and represent a form of more perfect society which the rest of the world strives to attain.
In 1991-1992, the U.S. government's policy towards the disintegrating Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was damagingly influenced by this conviction that for countries to break into their component parts was not only wrong but doomed to failure, since the "natural" and progressive tendency of political entities is to federate, evolving towards larger units - as the United States has done.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations it was commonly argued that the wish of all the rest of the world to emulate the United States was demonstrated by the fact that there was a vast demand to emigrate to the United States. This did not acknowledge that the principal motive for emigration is poverty and political oppression in the country of emigration, and that the choice of where to go is usually decided by where people can get to, and who will take them in.
Both the League of Nations and the UN have been programs for reorganizing international society according to the values of the United States.
There had always been a streak of straightforward nativism and exclusionism in the United States, on the part of those who were already Americans against those who were the latest to come.
What in another time was patriotism became exclusionary and thetorically aggrerssive.
The nativist nationalism of the earlier period flourished among working class Anglo-Saxon / Celtic Protestants, the original stock of the country, who believed themselves threatened by Catholic and Jewish South and East European immigration. McCarthyism was a phenomenon of recently assimilated immigrants, more often than not Catholics, intent on demonstrating that the purity of their "Americanism" was superior to that of the old-established but liberal and cosmopolitan Anglophile Protestants.
The ideological nature of American citizenship was again evident in the contention that these people and groups practiced "un-American" activities. Un-French or un-Swedish activities are inconceivable, since Frenchness and Swedishness are conditions, not political commitments.
The period of defensive nationalism ot the United States ended with the Second World War. What followed was a different phenomenon, neither isolationist nor xenophobic, but liberal and internationalist, and also, increasingly, ideological. Some saw the new totalitarian challenge in metaphysical terms.
A metaphysical challenge suited Americans of the 1940s and afterwards right down to the ground. It was Freedom against Evil. The metaphysical language lasted in presidential speeches certainly through the terms of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
The modern United States was inaugurated by the war in Vietnam, a product of liberal optimism and belief in the universal relevance of American democratic values.
The national self-doubt which marked the United States from the Vietname crisis forward was a fear of wasted substance that betrayed moral inheritance, which a seeming loss of that capacity, or willingness (no doubt the same thing), to work and sacrifice in common which had been the American people's best quality in the past. The Reagan presidency was an interlude of falsified renewal, in which the country's nationalism became almost frenzied, as a real threat to the United States precipitously declined. ... The United States nonetheless treated the Soviet Union with exaggerated alarm, and pursued surrogate "victories" over Grenada, Libya, and Panama, which were accompanied by celebrations of American might so hypertrophic in their triumphalism as to bear blatant evidence to the nation's inner doubt. The reality was that American militrary leadership no longer wanted any challenge without a guaranteed outcome, while the American people knew that the common life was getting worse, not better.
The old, expansive nationalism of the United States from 1898 to the zenith of the cold war rested on a belief in, and the accomplishment of, One from Many: the nation which was not a people, but a realized idea. ... But the nation in the 1990s was a different and more divided place than before, with its narcissism, its obsession with material gratifications and its falling educational standards, its new immigrations, and the still unresolvedlegacy of slavery evident in the vlack ghettos and the rhetoric and reality of racial hatred.

Chapter Eight: Liberal Internationalism

… what is called nationalism is an expression of the primoedial attachments of an individual to a group, possessing both positive and destructive powers, and this is a phenomenon which existed long before the group to which such passionate loyalty was attached became the modern nation-state. … It may be understood as a form of love of self. It is also an expression of hope, a form of utopian expectation. It will certainly survive the replacement of the nation-state by any other form of political association - if that should occur.

[The United Nations] seems scarcely the agency for establishing world democracy and international respect for human rights. But then one must doubt that world democracy or international respect for human rights will be established.
The European Community is the most complex, interesting, realistic, and successful modern effort to establish an international system in which there is a cession of sovereignty to a supranational authority. ... It was a practical economic and technical agreement devoted to a high political purpose, the intermingling of European warmaking resources in order to make another war among the West European powers impossible.
Monnet's genius was to pursue political objectives by means of practical steps in economic and industrial cooperation, of self-evident utlitiy. "Euopre" was not to made according to an overall design, but by beginning at the beginning: through cooperation on tangible and useful projects of common advantage.
There is another successful case of liberal internationalism today, whose existence tends often to be overlooked. This is the immense, complex, yet informal web of practical associations which has developed among the contemporary deomcracies.
In the years leading up to 1989 it was the magnetism of the democracies' cooperative success which irrestibly drew Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union towards western political values. ... The war in what had been Yugoslavia, and the failure of the liberal democracies to do anything serious to halt it, dealt a brutal blow to the idea that the democracies possessed the capacity, or the will, to enlarge the zone of pacification and cooperation created inside the western political community. ... It was possible to interpet the Yugoslav War as a blow to liberal internationalism equivalent to the failure of the League of Nations in the 1930s to deal with Fascist and Nazi aggression.
The existence of the European Community and of the United Nations actually proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.
The failure of the European powers, the United States, and the United Nations to deal with the crisis provided a devastating demonstration of the limits of contemporary liberal internationalism. It revealed the inability of groups or commitees of democratic governments to employ force and assume risk, or, in the case of economic sanctions, even to accept serious inconvenience to one or another of the group, when the danger of non-action is not direct and urgent for each.
The efficacy of UN operations had always depended upon the assumption (or the myth) that a limited deployment of UN soldiers represented the will of an overwhelm part of the international community, hence that the UN forces had to be respected for the practical reason that if they were no, large-scal reinforcements or powerful retaliations would follow. ... The UN's commitments were not credible because they wer enot backed up by the national commitment of the countries supplying the forces. Australia's minister of defense said at the moment his troops left for Cambodia in April 1992 that if a single soldier were killed by the Khmer Rouge, all the Australians would be withdrawn.
Recent events have again demonstrated a general incapacity of governments responsible to public opnion to deal with problems whose consequences lie in the future. There has been little willingness in the western countries as a whole to enforce an elevated standard of international conduct when the perception of immediate political cost or risk has outweighed the perceived long-term gain.
... the fact that democracies do not like sacrifices, do not listen to bad news nor wish to think about bad possibilities in the future, do not want their comfort or profits interfered with, should be accepted with apprehension, not complacence. Why is it evident that democracy and liberal values will prevail? The evidence is very limited, the historical experience with modern democracy brief, of little more than two centuries. We do not know the future of democracy.

Chapter Nine: Progress

Non-ideological politics and war today seem to us retrograde. We have become accustomed to ideology … We have great difficulty with something like the Yugoslav War because this sort of thing should have been done away with by progress. We see it as an irruption from the past unreasonably imposing itself upon the present.

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