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Global Nationalism: An Analytical Challenge for International Relations

In 2014 the Scottish Referendum once again brought to light questions surrounding the logic of devolution of power and nature of federal relations; variations in voting behaviour across local, national and supranational elections; lessons for other secessionist movements; the nature of empire and anti-imperialist movements across space and time. But above all, Kalyani Unkule believes this democratic exercise is an opportunity to re-examine certain long-standing assumptions about the motivations that drive political behavior, chiefly nationalism and its discontents.

Nation as a Container Category

Around the world, the writing of history has served the cause of construction and consolidation of national identities. This trend has been true across space as well as time as post-colonial histories of the mid-late twentieth century demonstrate, inspiring a body of literature that discusses the idea of nation itself as an imagined community.  But the main motivation behind projection of a unified identity is to buttress allegiance to the sovereign. Thus history has been widely mobilised to entrench the idea of sovereignty which constitutes a key pillar of the Westphalian order of nation-states.

Treaty of Westphalia (1648) Source:
Treaty of Westphalia (1648)

The notion of competing nation states – based on the understanding of external sovereignty – in an anarchic world system is precisely what the Realist school of International Relations theory is based on. Indeed, the dominance of Realism in the discipline is owed to the analytical preponderance of the Westphalian schema. For much of the twentieth century, the nation state has been firmly in the driver’s seat in peace as in conflict and hence the seductive appeal of the Realist framework of self-interested states operating in a setting akin to the Hobbesian state of nature. Incidentally, the same nationalistic discourse turned inward also mobilizes support around the realist policy prescription of accumulation of hard power.

But it is this very dependence on state as the sole significant actor and the international of “system” as the only relevant level of analysis that has exposed the inadequacies of the existing theoretical toolkit towards explaining a shifting transnational landscape of conflict.  Present-day conflict is marked increasingly by sub-national hostilities, many of them a result of localised issues but aggregated at the supranational level through trans-boundary movement of information, weapons and people. One of the most transformative outcomes of globalisation has indeed been the revival of the local and the contestation of the national both, bottom-up and top-down.

Admittedly, the Liberal school of international relations theory has long preached study of the sub-national level, departing from the notion that only systemic factors are significant. Focusing on the sub-national level has yielded two sets of results: one theoretical, the other with real-world policy implications. Theoretically, the liberal school has tasked itself with identifying how national characteristics and regime features can be a predictor of external actions. The policy lesson propagated by Liberal IR scholars has been that in an age of globalisation, the interdependence fostered through trade raises the opportunity cost of inter-state conflict and resets the normative paradigm at the systemic level in favour of cooperation. But this outlook too is premised on absolute, undiminished internal sovereignty, limiting its applicability in an era where the greatest challenge to the sovereign stems from within the territorial boundaries.

Eurocentric Narratives

International Relations scholars have wavered between the extremes of accepting templates of periodization evolved by historians as given and identifying patterns and drivers that deeply problematize them. It is on the issue of periodization that the Euro-centric bias in the mainstream of both disciplinary traditions is most evident. Textbooks in particular have long used milestone events in Europe as pegs for localised narratives, however “independent” or nationalistic. History taught in schools throughout much of the post-colonial world is a tale of colonisation, anti-colonial resistance and finally self-determination. From this point on, history serves the same purpose – of upholding States’ sovereign claims and preserving the bureaucratic apparatus as it did in the Western world a century prior. The impact of this method of teaching history should not be underestimated since for most people it is the only contact with the discipline. Extending the point to the academic realm it could be argued that the very existence of the debate on whether certain Eastern communities (Hindus for example) are people without history is a figment of the Orientalist discourse and ultimately a European understanding of what legitimately constitutes historical record.

The dominance of Eurocentrism and Nationalism in both disciplines is in fact related. The Braudelian longue view on history has been a stark reminder that nation states have been just one way of organising territory and social and political life and one of very recent vintage at that. This insight has freed students of IR from a straitjacket of sorts allowing them to consider the relationship between national and other competing forms of identity and conflict, instead of treating nation states as an endogenous variable. Add to that the contributions of global historians such as Janet Abu Lughod and Kenneth Pomeranz which have recast periodization as a factor to be debated and variously demarcated rather than a given.

Buzan and Little sum up this development as follows:

“The idea of international systems is historically robust. It is valid both as a way of looking at history and as a way of connecting theoretical analysis of the present to the data base of the past.”[i]

In addition to specifying features of what could be termed an international system however, historians have driven home the argument that international systems existed in the pre-Westphalian order. Also, debates among global historians have yielded overlapping international systems discernable across geography and time, depending on reading of archival data. Thus we have the much needed shift in analytical paradigm away from understanding sovereign units as the only relevant actor in the international system – whether as the black-box of the realist or the bundle of regime characteristics as in the liberal school.

The need to grapple intellectually with the beast that is globalisation has required contending with forms of territorial organisation other than the nation-state. The approach of setting aside the nation as the disciplinary container category was embraced by historians who gradually retrained their sights on pre-modern forms of organising territory and constituting polities. Some of them arrived at the startling result that globalisation is no recent phenomenon but closely resembles patterns in medieval and early-modern history. This finding is significant to the most pressing present-day dilemmas: Why is the appeal of primordial/tribal identities gaining ground in an increasingly interconnected world? Even as we witness democratisation in many parts of the world, why do new democracies not conform to the ideal type of ‘liberal democracy’? Why is the conventional Weberian monopoly over the use of force wielded by the State proving woefully inadequate in dealing with non-state actors who challenge the legitimacy of the current order?

The likes of Mahmood Mamdani have argued in favour of understanding fundamentalism as a reaction to the pre-eminence of state and the Western liberal order that it symbiotically functions within rather than as emanating from a stagnant, essentialist understating of culture. Olivier Roy’s succinct formulation that “neo-fundamentalisms embody the crisis of the nation state”[ii]is a reminder that the Westphalian order, far from being the end of history, is more likely a blip.

Appeal of Divergent Identities

The Scottish referendum is a reminder that members of the same political community can find divergent identities appealing at any given time or the same identity variously relatable across time. In many other parts of the world one observes that variations in the reach of state institutions (e.g. weak rule of law) and efficacy of delivery of public services across the territorial jurisdiction of a state creates room for alternative forms of socio-economic organisation. Globalisation and the attendant loss of control over their fortunes experienced by individuals and communities has weakened allegiance to certain long-standing identities and galvanised certain others. A wedge of sorts has been driven between nations and the states that contain and encompass them and it is during periods of crisis that the strength and viability of existing state structures is truly tested. A study of International Relations that is global in outlook and grounded in the evolving landscape of historiography will enable us to better adapt to the effects of globalisation and constructively manage conflict.

Kalyani Unkule is the Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean for Research and International Collaborations, at Jindal Global Law School, Jindal Global University

[i]Buzan, B and R Little (2000), International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations, (Oxford University Press)

[ii]Mahmud Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, American Anthropologist 104 (3), pg. 772

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