The big military parade in Beijing Thursday [September 3] arouses thoughts of two wars – of one that ended 70 years ago and one that hopefully will never be waged. The parade commemorates the end of World War II. The war in Asia was a campaign of conquest by imperial Japan, in alliance with Hitler’s Germany, against China and other countries of the region. But today, no one can see the soldiers and weapons in Beijing without thinking of China and its neighbors, the disputes over groups of islands and sovereign territory, the distrust between the former adversaries of the world war that have never reconciled in Asia as they did in Europe….
War in the old-fashioned sense…resulting in incalculable destruction is by no means inconceivable in the 21st century. This nightmarish fear was shooting through Europeans’ minds at the peak of the Ukraine crisis.
More is behind this than the interests of presidents and generals, more than a board game of cold strategy and geopolitics. The deeper wellspring of danger isn’t particularly cold but hot; it is a mainstream and emotional force that governments (even authoritarian ones like in China) can only partially control. It’s a force that reeks of history books and the 19th century, of a world long since been left behind, at least in Europe with its War Graves Commission and Erasmus exchange programs, but which is disturbingly alive and not only in Asia. Quite possibly it represents the future’s most menacing source of trouble. This force is nationalism….
It would seem nothing could be more anachronistic and less relevant in the age of globalization than some vaguely defined border on land maps or nautical charts, areas sometimes hundreds of miles away from where anybody lives. But average Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese citizens have been getting worked up furiously on the Internet in recent years about the respective territorial claims of their countries, and citizens have been marching through the streets shouting slogans and throwing stones at the hated neighboring country’s embassies or businesses based in the reviled nation.
Even democratic, pluralistic India, where normally everyone is free to pursue their own happiness, shows a completely different face as soon as national interests or national pride are at issue. Those who doubt the wisdom of nuclear armament or argue in favor of the rebellious inhabitants of Kashmir holding a referendum about whether they want to remain a part of India are as good as placing themselves outside decent society….
The killer argument against an unpopular political position is that it is “anti-national….”
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is steering a spookily popular patriotic course of isolation and confrontation against the West….
In the United States, a blatant patriotism combines real-estate-tycoon Donald Trump’s astonishingly successful election campaign with an open animosity toward Latin American immigrants….
In Europe, right- and left-wing movements are revolting against the loss of sovereignty through the euro crisis and migration, against the “austerity dictates” imposed by Brussels or the increasingly dwindling control of the state over the composition of its own population. The leftists have little in common with radical right-wingers like the French post-neo-fascist Marine Le Pen – but both movements are on the same political pole against a world of open borders that are allow refugees to enter European countries as well as global capitalism’s frigid air of competition….
The reason for the curious neglect of nationalism might lie in its intellectual vacuity. There is little in it to interpret, discuss or refute; it is an intellectual wasteland. Islamism is, like socialism, an ideology, a political doctrine. It makes the claim of formulating general truths and addresses itself to all of mankind.
That doesn’t apply to nationalism. It can dress itself up with programs and ascribe all manner of excellent attributes to its own people. But basically nationalism does not champion itself because it is good, but simply for its own sake. That is why all political groupings, even the most enlightened, are susceptible to nationalism. If necessary, each can eventually come to a firm conviction of its own excellence.
Nationalism is hollow. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful and, when it gets out of control, dangerous. Looking at the tanks and missiles as they rolled across the square of Heavenly Peace, it seemed worth taking a moment to think about.