Nationalism and ethnicity have become ever more important in the modern world. They have affected, quite profoundly, the international political system, having the power to alter state boundaries, leading to either peace or conflict. Together they have altered the perceptions of millions of people. An almost invisible overlap of nationalist sentiment and ethnic belonging has resulted in the symptomatic expression of nationalist fervour by all proud ethnies. Owing to the power of the nationalist ideology an obstacle course has emerged where failure to overcome or circumventing hurdles can lead to ethnic conflict of the most barbaric type.
Ethnonationalist conflict is nothing new, it has occurred since history was first able to record it (even if its description has varied). A problem seemingly facing the stability of the international political system, and even the international economic and financial systems is the apparent resurgence of ethnonational feeling and conflict. This follows a period of relative weakness for ethnonationalist feeling throughout the Cold War era. It is the case that nationalisms abounded in the post war era, particularly in Africa and Asia, accompanying the dawn of decolonisation. For the western world, however, particularly Europe it was virtually absent.
The shock of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the uncertainty accompanying the break-up of the Soviet Union has jolted many academics to the study of such phenomena, and spurred the U.N. to intervene with peace missions. The re-ignition of ethnonationalist tensions spread rapidly east to the former Soviet Republics of Asia. The sheer power and loyalty nationalist sentiment can evoke is indicative of the magnetism it holds for so many. In the modern world of global interdependence and hi-tech communications foreign influences are having more of an effect on the nationalist psyche. The world appears to be witnessing a resurgence of nationalist feeling. Globalisation may well be sparking an ethno-nationalistic tinderbox. However, we must look too, to the historical factors accompanying the contemporary for an analysis of ethnonationalist conflict.
The colonial period is of particular interest, as the injury caused to former colonies in the form of state borders (physical injury) and economically, thus socially (peripheral dependence) has fanned the flames of conflict. The already mentioned ‘freezing out’ of nationalism during the Cold War by the superpowers in their ideological battle is of interest to us. Neither the eastern bloc nor the west had any time for the ideology of nationalism outside of strategic and opportunistic meddling (since the end of WWII nationalism had become increasingly distrusted, especially after the horrors of Nazi occupation).
For the purposes of understanding ethnonational conflict it is first necessary to understand the ideology of nationalism and its history. Nationalism as an ideology had its inception during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Following the enlightenment in Europe an intellectual and social turbulence ensued involving the birth of many hitherto radical ideas and notions. Growing literacy, politicisation especially a growing awareness between the governor and the governed and increased secularisation occurred beneath the shadow of industrialisation. Industrialisation itself led to much social turmoil, with the movement of rural populations to towns and cities to feed the growing industrial base. The spasms caused by all of this ploughed the ideological fields for the sowing and growth of nationalist ideology which expanded upon already existing ethnic bonds:
Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist – but it does need some pre-existing differentiating marks to work on…The power and attractiveness of the ideology of nationalism is a factor in the continuing persistence of ethnonational conflict. The primordialist approach of the German Romantics including Herder and Fichte, the Italian Mazzini through to J.S.Mill has currents of irresistibility. The nationalist doctrine creates a superiority complex among members, which lends itself to violent antagonism: The inherent ethnocentrism underlying ethnonationalism – the belief that ones nationality is special and superior and that others are secondary and inferior – breeds ethnic conflict.
In an increasingly secular world nationalism has come to replace many aspects of personal belief, especially concerning mortality, in the past an exclusive realm of religion. It is the case that the pre-nationalist sentiment of ethnic identity and of religion have, historically, been closely linked: “for the greater part of human history the twin circles of religious and then ethnic identity have been very close, if not identical.”
Many observers view nationalism as some form of surrogate family or extended kinship. This is perceived to be a central feature of its power to attract. In the notion of an unbroken national heritage, ranging back to time immorial and forward to a glorious future. Reproduction within the ethnonational group biologically perpetuates the group assuaging the finality of death. Thus: “So the promise of life immortal in our posterity seems genetically vindicated.”
This overwhelming power and attraction of nationalistic sentiment directly contributes to ethnic warfare. A.D. Smith goes on to argue that on a spiritual plane nationalism assuages the fears of personal extinction, by incorporating the individual into a seeming continuity of national existence, which perpetuates forever. He says nationalism is able to: …provide a satisfying answer to the personal oblivion. Identification with the ‘nation’ in a secular era is the surest way to surmount the finality of death and ensure a measure of personal immortality.
Mazzini, an Italian nationalist in pursuit of Italian unification believed that God had given all men duties incorporating nationalist sentiment: Mans duties, which are prescribed by God, are threefold: to Humanity, to his Country, and to his family. The duty to Humanity comes first. But, for Italians, given their political situation, the most pressing duty is to secure the freedom and unity of their country The revolutionary nationalism espoused by Mazzini challenged the legitimacy of imperial rule over ‘natural nations’ aswell as reinforcing the religious aspect via duties to God.
The power of ethnonationalism also derives from its ability to enable the ascendancy toward unification, statehood and betterment; “nationalism promises a ‘status reversal’, where the last shall be first and the world will recognise the chosen people and their sacred values. This is where ethno-history is vital”.8 In creating myths of common descent and often merging the edges between historical fact and myth/legend nationalism gains a potent hold over members of an ethnonational group. Mussolini said:
We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, it is a passion. It is not necessary that it be a reality. It is a reality by the fact that it is a good, a hope, a faith, that it is courage. Our myth is the Nation, our myth is the greatness of the Nation! And to this myth, to this grandeur, that we wish to translate into a complete reality, we subordinate all the rest The idea of self-determination emanated from nationalist ideology and was legitimised by the precedence of the revolutions in France and America.
In U.S president Wilson’s 14 points at Versailles self-determination was legitimised. From Versailles the right to self-determination was incorporated into the international political system and has become virtually universally recognised. It provides an established and internationally recognised doctrine which ethnonational groups can call upon to legitimise their claims to nationhood. What was originally intended as a means of enabling fluid interactions between sovereign states has led to secessionist desires among smaller, arguably economically unviable groups.