the pitfalls of the nation-state



Beirut, June 25, 2003


It is no secret that the Europeans have been wholeheartedly calling for a Palestinian “state” for a long time, and that those same Europeans perceive the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq as a pure exercise of imperialistic hegemony. In the first case, the “right” of the Palestinians for a “state” is generally argued as a combination of moral rights and universal law—the so-called right of self-determination. Thus, those humanitarian Europeans (and their few cohorts in the U.S.) do not even question the feasibility of a nation-state in that part of the world, and do not seem to be bothered by a lack of awareness among Palestinians of the dangers of their endless internal feuds and divisions. In the Iraqi case, besides that every nation should be self-governed, the nation-state as a political model—what the Anglo-Americans refer to as nation-building—would not fit for that part of the world—at least not for tribal societies that went from empire to nation-state through the coerciveness of European colonialism. The European notion of a Palestinian “state”—and for every other “state” in the region—must therefore be one of Realpolitik: a brutal rule based on kin alliances, and paramilitary death squads to maintain a sense of “order” and subservience to the leader, and with the likes of Hans Blix for an occasional monitoring of chemical and biological arsenals. Needless to say, that European vision is rooted within the failure of the nation-state at “home” since the interwar period, and the preponderant role that the U.S. took since World War II, beginning with the liberation of Europe from fascism and totalitarianism. Another parallel issue is that of the “Jewish question,” which in nineteenth-century Europe of the Enlightenment implied tolerance of the Jews and their assimilation within the broader European linguistic and nationalistic cultures. Obviously, assimilation is not anymore the preponderant issue for the twenty-first century, as it has been taken over by the very existence of Israel as the quintessential nation-state, whose premises have been crafted along the Euro-American model, and implemented in a region alien to it.


Everyone would agree that the nation-state is a nineteenth-century European idea, one that emerged in light of the death of the absolutist states, the divine right of kings, and empire-formations. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that ensued formulated the political and territorial framework for the new Europe of the nineteenth century (“old Europe” in Rumsfeld’s terminology), which grosso modo implied the sovereignty of each one of the European nation-states and their rights of self-defense; the acceptance of the diversity of the European linguistic cultures, which in turn are based on the legally and politically protected individual citizens; and a secular public sphere whose modus vivendi is rooted in the principles of the Enlightenment. Such an arrangement paved the way for colonial Europe and the civilizing missions abroad. But while the notion of the nation-state worked well at home, the colonies would not fit within such a concept, and instead the colonized were perceived as a combination of tribes and races to be governed bureaucratically. They were thus unfit for the nation-state model. The failure of European colonialism was already inherent in the inability to universalize the nation-state model and to provide it with an impetus beyond the narrowness of the European cultural and linguistic divisions. Thus, in spite of the heroic attitude of the British and the immense sacrifices they had to undergo in the First World War, their attempts to reform and modernize their colonies were muted and partial.


There was, however, an even more serious shortcoming along the road of the nation-state. The advance of liberalism and capitalism in the interwar period created a burden for the states whose “unification” proved problematic since the nineteenth century. Thus, both Italy and Germany soon verged into fascism, while Spain went through a civil war that showed that various militants and intellectuals from all over Europe were more concerned with broad humanistic ideals—as exemplified in Marxism and communism—than with the actualities of the national territories and their political underpinnings. In the wake of Europe’s liberation from fascism and totalitarianism by the Anglo-Americans, and the beginnings of the cold war, the main cultural trends were depoliticized and treated their subject matters in an essentialist longue durée perspective. Thus, structuralism, Marxism, semiotics, and the Annales historiography, had all evacuated the political and quotidian from their horizon, while replacing them with universalistic approaches that became the trademark of French intellectuals. The evacuation of the political from a Braudelian Annalist perspective, on the basis that the “histoire événementielle” is pure nonsense, reflected a deep malaise in both politics and the nation-state in the aftermath of World War II. With their withdrawal from Indochina and the humiliating political defeat in the 1956 Suez war, the French were back to their proscribed nation-state, but with no political ambition that would keep them active either in Europe or on the world scene. In effect, colonialism was considered long over, and a tragic mistake to some. (A multi-authored thousand-page book, Le livre noir du colonialisme, has just been published: now both communism and colonialism have their “black book” of atrocities.) And even though the “unification” of Europe has become since the 1950s a goal to be fulfilled, the major outcome was no more than the euro and the financial regulations attached to the single currency, which, again, leaves off the possibility for a political project for Europe.


Needless to say, Europe neither has a political project for itself nor for the world at large. Worse still, the nations whose “unification” has proved hard to materialize—Italy, Germany, and Spain—and whose various brands of fascisms created havoc on the continent, are still struggling with their north-south and east-west divisions. Are the Europeans therefore caught in a model of the nation-state that has become passé? In the absence of a political project of its own, Europe has withdrawn from the world at large into a Kantian perpetual peace: nations become part of the peaceful core of the league of nations only when they’ve matured enough to do so. Hence that stern resistance to the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq. Isn’t it, however, that Europe lacks the political will precisely because it lacks the military might? The Balkan wars in the 1990s, which led to the massive American intervention in Kosovo to put an end to the European debacle and divisions over a multi-ethnic territory, have pointed to Europe’s impotence even within Europe itself. To be sure, a common political and military outlook is no easy matter, in particular that not much brings the Europeans together besides an assumed Habermasian Aufklärung. As The Economist has aptly proposed on its front-cover story (June 21st-27th), the right place for Europe’s new muddled and confusing constitution is the trashcan. Even a coherently drafted constitutional text for the United States of Europe seems out of reach at the moment. But for how long?


The question has become even more embarrassing in light of 9/11, the resurgence of what is perceived as an Islamic fundamentalism, and the enormous tragedies on the African continent. If the Bush administration has taken in charge the so-called Islamic threat, Europe, led by the French, is attempting a second “pacification” of Africa. But such a noble mission is being pursued with such a rudimentary apparatus that one wonders whether it’s worth the effort at all. Consider first the enormity of the tragedy. The African massacres of the last decade, and which the French euphemistically describe as “unstructured conflicts” (“conflits déstructurés”), did already cost the lives of over three million civilians in the Congo-Kinshasa, 300,000 in the Burundi, 200,000 in the Sierra Leone, not to mention Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the north of Uganda, Somalia, Angola (500,000 died in the civil war), and the Sudanese civil war between north and south (two million dead). To compare, the civilian casualties in the three-week Iraqi war was less than 5,000. The combination of the Palestinian and Iraqi conflicts therefore look miniscule when compared to the totality of the African civil wars. One would have therefore expected a massive politics of interventionism in Africa, and even if that continent neither possesses the resources nor wealth to induce outside help, the sheer magnitude of its civil wars and the fact that it is already serving as the backyard for terrorism should be enough all by itself.


As the Americans are busy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Korea, the pacification of Africa is therefore left—at least for the moment—in the noble hands of the Europeans. But it’s difficult to perceive the deployment of scattered Anglo-French special contingents as anything but an exercise of good will: they’re so small that they could be hardly seen. For instance, a contingent of 1,500 French soldiers were dispatched to Bunia in the east of the ex-Congo “to secure the city and its airport.” What for? Are the French stuck for ever in an era of symbolic politics led by the U.N.?


For well known reasons the U.S. has been spared the European divisions and their pitfalls. When Tocqueville concluded his American visit back in the 1830s, his impression was that federalism was democratic because it manifested the general will of the people, and hence might at some point fail precisely because of this soft and common sense democracy of the average layman. Such fears, however, have been superseded by the civil war and Lincoln’s bloody federalism. Since then the U.S. has been divided along rival ideologies either calling for broad interventionism abroad so that the U.S. does not isolate itself from the rest of the world, or else for alternative isolationist ideologies identifying expansionism with an evil empire. Now that Europe lacks the political will and is wary of its own heritage, will the U.S. be patient enough to pull its war efforts abroad into a coherent political project? And are there alternatives to the nation-state?


Which brings us back to our starting point: while Europe is into a Realpolitik of the nation-state, the U.S. is at present into a Lincolnesque federalism. The latter implies that Iraq must be redone from scratch, and that the Jewish state is the quintessential nation-state rather than its aberration. It is up to the Palestinians therefore to modernize their institutions and absorb their internal civil wars. In that perspective, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington) rather than solely a right over disputed territories, and hence is no different from the one that the rest of the Arab world is going through to redefine its cultural identities.




copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal