When the Cold War ended, many thought international relations had entered a new era. Now, resurgent nationalism is fanning old animosities.
By Ben Barber
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it was tempting to believe that friendly globalization would replace militant ideologies such as Communism and nationalism.
From Eastern Europe to Asia and Africa, citizens breathed a sigh of relief as the Cold War ended. We expected to inherit a world of peaceful competition and mutual benefits from global trade.
After all, young people around the world were now listening to the same pop tunes, eating the same hamburgers and wearing blue jeans. Why would anyone think of fighting new wars?
The academic Francis Fukuyama called this moment in time “the End of History” in his book of that name.
But loving thy neighbor did not last long before old hatreds resumed.
We are witnessing a rise of nationalism.
This week at the United Nations of all places, the U.S. president hammered a spike into the dream of cooperation and sharing world wealth and living standards.
“The future does not belong to globalists. It belongs to patriots,” Donald Trump said. By “patriots,” he meant nationalists who care primarily about their nation, ethnic group, race or religion.
Neither access to global information on the Internet nor the spread of industry through trade and education could numb that ancient, very human reflex that sees neighbors as competitors and as an “other” to be hated and feared.
Indeed, we are witnessing across the globe a rise of nationalism.
In Asia, we recently saw in Afghanistan and Kashmir the failure to turn neighbors into globalized friends.
In Afghanistan, fiercely independent ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras are proud that their ancestors — 1,000 years before the birth of Islam — expelled the mightiest conqueror on earth, Alexander the Great, in the third century BC. Then in the 18th century, the Afghan tribesmen kicked out the British. In the 1980s they repelled the Soviet Army, and most recently, the Americans have lost 2,400 dead in 19 years of fighting.
Letting Afghans fend for themselves
Trump has been trying to fulfill a campaign promise to bring home the last 14,000 U.S. troops and end America’s longest war. He does not seem to worry that violent Taliban fighters threaten to seize power and reverse the social gains of the U.S.-led coalition, reducing women to chattel, unable even to leave their house.
The rush to try and pull out without ensuring adequate security — and let the Afghans try to build their own nation — is yet another example of nationalism. This time it is by the United States, which wants to conserve U.S. troops and treasure and let Afghan allies fend for themselves.
Ironically, the United States poured gasoline on ancient Afghan nationalism by providing guns and missiles to help Afghan “mujahideen” militants defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
When the Soviets pulled out in 1990, emboldened Islamic militants, including al Qaeda and the Taliban, headed off to fight in Algeria, the Philippines, Thailand, Chechnya and Yugoslavia. And battle-tested militants left Afghanistan and crossed Pakistan to fight Indian troops in Kashmir.
For 70 years, India and Pakistan have feuded over Kashmir, coming to the brink of nuclear war. Pakistan claims all of the mainly Muslim Kashmir region. But India occupied the scenic Kashmir valley when British India was partitioned in 1947 into a mainly Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India.
Identity as concepts of exclusionary civilization, ethnicity, and religious primacy
On visits to both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the “line of control” running through Kashmir, I heard local people say they would prefer Kashmir to be an independent nation. But neither Pakistan nor India would risk putting such a choice to a vote.
In early August, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, cancelled Kashmir’s special legal status that prevents non-Muslims from buying land there. In anticipation of protests, Modi sent tens of thousands of Indian troops into the region, shut schools and closed the Internet and telephones.
Three decades ago, the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington wrote in his book “Clash of Civilizations” that ancient cultural values would eternally damn nation states to compete with and fight their neighbors, no matter what religion and language they practiced.
Pakistan is an example of this. It recruited and armed Islamist militants such as Osama bin Laden after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1990, urging them to attack any Afghan government that would not follow Pakistan directives.
Radicalization rooted in despair
However, not all of Afghanistan’s troubles stem from nationalism, said Michael O’Hanlon, foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“I do not think nationalism is the way to understand Afghanistan,” O’Hanlon said in an interview. Far from wanting to stir up anti-foreign nationalism, “the Afghan government desperately wants us to stay,” he said.
But nationalism remains a growing force used to manipulate people across Asia where “a host of Asian nations [are] led by men and women, who redefine identity as concepts of exclusionary civilization, ethnicity, and religious primacy rather than inclusive pluralism and multiculturalism,” wrote academic James M. Dorsey, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
This risks “sowing the seeds of radicalization rooted in the despair of population groups,” he wrote.
(For more News-Decoder stories on nationalism, click here.)
Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.