PERSPECTIVE ON NATIONALISM : Cast Off Chains, but Then What? : The forces of national identity can't be stopped, but just as surely they must be tempered by realities of trade.

Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, is the author of a forthcoming book, "The Democracy Trap: Pitfalls of the Post-Cold War World" (Dutton)

The world comes apart before our eyes. Waves of nationalism sweep through ex-Soviet Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans; there are murmurings of long quiescent local nationalisms in Western Europe itself. The Chinese Empire cannot long resist these forces, while Africa has not yet even begun to sort out its continent-wide mismatch between borders and ethnicity. Even the United States is re-examining the character of ethnicity and politics. How many countries can remain untouched?

In fact, two simultaneous processes are at work today--both fission and fusion--changing the face of local and global relationships.

On the one hand is a new and relentless quest for identity. People want to know who they are and where they belong. But that is ever harder to do in a world bent on technical and cultural homogenization. More and more, from New York to Beijing, Reykjavik to Rio, we watch the same news on CNN, are entertained by MTV and eat Big Macs.

International mass culture, with a largely American accent, is threatening nearly every people's sense of cultural uniqueness, eroding the comforting and reassuring character of local cultures, languages and tastes.

Some nationalities and cultures are simply upset and threatened by the dubious downsides of the new global village. Islamic culture in particular is especially resistant to the sweep of those Western-inspired cultural norms that come free with the Kentucky Fried chicken and the VCR. Other nationalities find themselves locked into marriages dominated by powerful, smothering big cultures, much as the Russians overwhelm the Kazakhs.

People will fight to be themselves, and if the bonds of an imperial or even federal relationship are too tight, they will be thrust off. Kirgiz or Macedonians, Kurds or Palestinians seek a clear-cut entity for themselves, and cold economic reason against separatism cuts very little ice. These forces for national identity have always been there. They were partly frozen in the ideological icefields of communism in much of the world, discouraged elsewhere by superpowers concerned about upset of the delicate geostrategic balances of the Cold War. Today, the specter of political and cultural autonomy, even local independence, is stalking the world. No peoples seem unaffected. The new flush of international democratization further liberates the process.

But in the end, any state will swiftly drown in the vast international sea if it sets unreal conditions to its external relations that isolate it from a global economy and global political standards of behavior. An independent Georgia? Fine, but how will you trade, and how will you be seen to be treating your people? Who will want relations with you, and how will you protect yourself internationally? In short, we will witness a process of both separatism and reintegration on a new and more egalitarian form of voluntary federalism or confederalism--perhaps in quite new combinations. And with a lot of help from a new United Nations.

But divorce must precede remarriage in any new federal relationship. And those new relationships must be utterly voluntary, perceived to be struck on a basis of rough equality and respect.

The Soviets ignored Marx's dictum that you have to pass through a stage of capitalism on the way from feudalism to communism; whatever the merits of that insight may be, you also have to pass through a stage of some kind of full and independent nationalist self-expression before freely subordinating yourself into someone's grand union. The era of free national choice is here; and you pay the price for choosing wrong.

Today we cannot stop, Canute-like, the raging centrifugal forces of nationalism. Let the new entities rejoice in the expression of their individual character. Very soon thereafter, these new states will have to look around and reach agreement with neighbors on how they will live and trade with each other. "Lite" national borders are the wave of the future.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°