Geopolitical struggles surrounding the competing ideologies of communism, capitalism, fascism, and democracy heavily influenced the course of events in twentieth century international relations. However, focusing on great powers, great wars, and great ideologies lends itself to the neglect of what has been the one consistent source of conflict throughout the century – the influence and destabilizing implications associated with the pursuit of nationalist objectives . . .
Those were the first sentences of my first book, Nationalism in International Relations, which I wrote roughly a decade ago. One of my main points was that the Cold War did not represent as much as a break in history as people often thought – that the same types of ethnic and religious rivalries that had existed before the Cold War also largely defined conflict during the Cold War and would likely continue to do so throughout this century.
Oftentimes people ask me what my next book will be about. If I were to write another book, I think I would want to explore perspectives on national self-determination in the modern world. Just like labeling earlier decades the Cold War and the age we live in something like the Age of Terrorism, big picture labels hide the underlying dynamics of nationalism that drive much of the conflict that exists today at the local and regional level.
Let’s look at the three groups that probably made the headlines the most over the past year – Ukrainian separatists, Boko Haram, and ISIS.
In the case of Ukrainian separatists the goal is fairly clear – less association with Kiev and closer ties with Moscow, perhaps even a desire among some to be incorporated into Russia (as most Crimeans have supported). The problem, of course, is that the Ukrainian government, and most in the West, want to maintain the territorial status quo and see the Russian government’s support for the separatists as motivated as a desire for power and influence more than ethnic affinity.
Historical memory, however, plays an important role in informing the nationalism underlying the conflict. The name of Ukraine itself comes from an old Slavic root for “border” or “edge” – as in the edge of the Russian empire. Historians often trace the Russian people back to the old Viking settlement of Kiev-Rus where the capital of Ukraine now sits. Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Crimean peninsula was made official in 1783, the same year that the American Revolution ended and as much a part of Russian historical narrative as the Revolution is to ours.
If the role of nationalism and historical identity has often been downplayed or misunderstood in the case of Ukraine, it has gotten even less attention in respect to the motivations of Boko Haram and ISIS.
Boko Haram and ISIS members themselves may think their movements are fundamentally about Islam – but their vision of Islam is filtered through a highly nationalistic lens. Boko Haram draws mainly from the Kanuri ethnic group which populates northeastern Nigeria and neighboring states like Niger and Chad. Just as Ukranian separatists and many Russians draw upon cultural and historical narratives, Boko Haram imagines fighting for the return of a modern Bornu/Kanem-Bornu empire, an entity that dominated the region for centuries only to decline and eventual fall to outside domination. Boko Haram plays to a similar set of affective associations as Chinese or Serbian nationalists when calling for the righting of historical wrongs that led to the humiliation of their people by outside forces.
The narrative is similar for many of those attracted to ISIS, except the timeline stretches even further back. It has become fashionable among ISIS sympathizers to refer to Westerners, or, more specifically, the idea of the West, simply as “Rome” – presumably in reference to the Vatican’s role in inciting and organizing the Crusades. The familiar narrative is one in which the golden age of Arab-Muslim rulers slowly declined and was eventually humiliated by the collective efforts of outsiders.
Nationalism is a tricky thing, however, and people can rally around a variety of identities. In the case of ISIS, it’s not just an Islamic identity, but a Sunni Islamic identity – and primarily an Arab one at that. That Arab part of the identity and different cultural ties and historical memory will prevent ISIS from ever really developing close contact with groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram, but it does appeal to those in the Arab world who may not like the fundamentalist rhetoric and violence, but nevertheless feel that Arabs should be allowed to turn back the clock on old colonial borders and govern themselves free of the oppression of the Shiite majority in Iraq or the Alawite/Shiite minority in Syria.
(All of this is not to say that I think ISIS or Boko Haram are simply poor oppressed souls trying to right historical wrongs. As I’ve written in the past, I think these groups are as close to evil as we can define it. I have a lot more sympathy for Ukrainian separatists not so much because of what they want, which is in many ways similar, but how they go about fighting for it, which is very different).
What is important is that we try to understand the nationalist aspirations driving these conflicts. From Vietnam to Iraq (with many points in between), the US, its government and its media in particular, has simply never really gotten nationalism. Fundamentalist Islam, in some ways, represents the new Communism. The rhetoric might appeal to many, but it’s the underlying ethnic affinity and dreams of restoring national glory that drives much of the violence.
Our instinct in dealing with nationalist groups should first and foremost be prudent and realize they are often driven by motivations that are complex and, perhaps, in some ways justified. In terms of the broader picture, insisting that the world’s borders are to remain eternally and perpetually fixed as they are in 2015, without any regard to the aspirations of minority groups, creates the conditions for radicalism in the future.