Nationalism and the State – One More Look Back

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Depiction of the Peace of Westphalia, 1649

The ISN Editorial Plan marches on. This week we are looking at the struggles transnational organizations and institutions are experiencing as they try to adapt themselves to 21st century realities. This topic follows hard on the heels of the two weeks we spent looking at the concept of nationalism and the status of the modern state in today’s world. That ten days of analysis constitutes a mere touch-and-go on either subject goes without saying here. The brevity of the analysis also justifies that we look back at these two subjects one more time in today’s blog before moving on. So be it.

The other consideration, of course, is who’s voice to feature here. One’s ego might, while screaming “me, me” and pushing and jostling the “great unwashed” aside, demand such an authorial privilege all to itself. But there is no humility in that, especially when in this case the proper thing to do is popularize the wise words of seasoned, widely respected professionals. So, instead of blah blah’ing about what precious me thinks about nationalism and the state, I would like today to defer to my betters.

Consider, for example, John Mearsheimer’s paper, Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism, which he prepared for a 2011 Yale University Workshop on International Relations. This thoughtful and significant work grapples with a simple and direct question: Is there an affinity between nationalism (a concept) and political realism (an explanatory theoretical device), even if nationalism is not a key variable in realist theory? The aim of Mearsheimer’s effort, in other words, is to explore the relationship between these two particularistic, not universalistic, “isms”. In doing so, Mearsheimer parses his argument into three parts.

First, he shows that there are important similarities between nationalism and realism at the most fundamental level. Both theories are indeed particularistic and privilege two key concepts – the state and survival. (To emphasize these similarities, Mearsheimer contrasts them with the universalistic and therefore diffused approaches of liberalism and Marxism.)

Second, he tries to demonstrate that “nationalism and power politics are actually intertwined phenomena that affect each other in significant ways, and [that] this interaction has played a central role in creating the modern state system.”

Finally, Mearsheimer explains how “nationalism has had a profound effect on various aspects of international politics that are central to the realist enterprise.”  Specifically, he clarifies how “nationalism affects the balance of power, the conduct of war, the likelihood of war, and the probability that threatened states will balance against their adversaries, [and] not bandwagon with them.”

In pursuing the above three-part argument, Mearsheimer makes a significant contribution, or so I think, to linking a real-world concept to the world of political theory, or at least one of its primary schools of thought.

Another gray eminence still at work is 83 year-old Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose newest book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, will appear on January 24. It argues, among other things, that the stability of the Westphalian system is very much in doubt in an age of American decline. Indeed, active engagement with the “rising East” will be necessary if we hope to reverse this course. The January-February 2012 issue of Foreign Policy offers a foretaste of Brzezinski’s thoughts in two separate articles – “After America” and “8 Geopolitically Endangered Species.” In the first case, the author warns against a post-hegemonic world without substantive American influence – i.e., a Westphalian system that would lead to a “protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers.” This turbulent geopolitical era will feature Darwinian struggles among states and some of them will be vulnerable to losing or seriously compromising their sovereignty – i.e., Georgia, Taiwan, Belarus, etc.

As a final addition to this potpourri of musings on nationalism and the state of the state, I’d like to feature Yasmine El Rashidi’s recent piece, Egypt: The Mayhem.” If Professor Mearsheimer highlights the common roots of nationalism and political realism, and Dr. Brzezinski is busy anticipating the geopolitical realignments of a shifting Westphalian system over the next 15 years, then El Rashidi turns us inwards. Just what does the political disorientation we are now seeing within Egypt and other states illustrate? Does it represent the preservation of the nation-state, but now under more authoritarian guises rather than democratic ones? Does it represent the decoupling of nationalism and the state, particularly because of the rise of politically-minded religious parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other like-minded groups? Or are we seeing the consolidation (or is that the last gasp?) of “deep states” or “shadow states” within existing ones? (Consider Hezbollah’s shadow government role in Lebanon, which has not totally stepped into the political sunlight, or the deep state roles of the Turkish and Pakistani militaries, which in the Turkish case has not yet totally disappeared and which is alive and well in Pakistan.) The current troubles in Egypt raise these questions, but they may highlight something else entirely – i.e., the resiliency of the state (and implicitly nationalism, if we are to believe Mearsheimer) in a structurally realigning world. Well, enough said – happy reading.

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