Monday, May 19, 2014

The Return of Nationalism

It turns out that Francis Fukuyama, widely mocked post-9/11 for his proclamation that history has "ended," was right after all – but not in the way his journalistic interpreters imagined. Fukuyama’s thesis was that the ideological struggle over the forms of governance had been decisively won by the forces of liberal democracy: this, he averred, was the lesson of the Soviet implosion, and the earlier destruction of the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yet he did not say, as widely believed, that the passing of history would mean the end of international conflicts:

"There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out, even in parts of the post-historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. This implies that terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda. But large-scale conflict must involve large states still caught in the grip of history, and they are what appear to be passing from the scene."

Nationalism, ensconced in the religious and ethnic identities that would replace the ideologies of the twentieth century, would still retain its hypnotic power, and perhaps even get a fillip from the "boredom" ensuing from a world reduced to economic calculation and the care-taking of "the museum of human history," as he put it. In this sense, Fukuyama has been proven right: the conflicts that are tearing apart the Middle East, for example, fit his scenario to a tee. What I fear he got wrong is the idea that these conflicts will not involve large states, and that the scale of potential tragedy is much bigger than he dared imagine.

Nationalism has indeed returned with a vengeance, and it is rearing its head on a global scale, from eastern Europe to Eastasia. The dangers it poses are equal in scope to anything that confronted us during the cold war era, if not more so.

Where Fukuyama was wrong – very wrong – was his overoptimistic take on the evolution of large states which were supposedly not "caught in the grip of history." Recent events tell a different story.

Take India, where Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just won an overwhelming victory which has propelled that nation of 1.269 million square miles and 1.237 billion inhabitants to the right – the far right – for the first time in modern history. Modi is a charismatic demagogue whose tenure as governor of Gujarat was marked by a pogrom of Muslims carried out by Hindu fanatics who murdered thousands as Modi’s police looked on. As a result Washington denied Modi a visa and he was barred from entering US territory.